Active fighting in Gaza has subsided, but the war is not over yet, officials say

The withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Gaza over the weekend has plunged the devastated region into a state of tension, with active fighting on the ground receding on Monday, the lowest level of calm since a brief ceasefire with Hamas in November.

But while some observers had hoped that Israel’s withdrawal from the region might herald a new ceasefire, both Hamas and Israeli officials say the war is far from over. suggested.

Analysts say the withdrawal of Israeli troops only signals a new phase of the war, in which Israel will continue small-scale operations across Gaza to prevent a Hamas resurgence. He said it would be. The strategy is a midway point between signing a permanent ceasefire with Hamas and ordering a major ground assault on Rafah, Hamas’ last stronghold in southern Gaza, where more than 1 million Palestinians have fled. points, they said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Monday that while Israel is pursuing a deal to secure the release of the hostages in Gaza, it also seeks “a complete victory over Hamas.”

“This victory requires entering Rafah and eliminating the terrorist battalions there,” Netanyahu said. “This is going to happen. I have a date.” He did not specify a date.

By withdrawing now, without fulfilling its stated mission of eliminating Hamas and without empowering an alternative Palestinian leadership, Israel has left a power vacuum in Gaza in which Hamas could regroup. and could re-emerge as a military force in large parts of its territory.

The Israeli army announced on Sunday that the 98th Division had departed from Khan Yunis in southern Gaza to “recover and prepare for future operations.” As a result, there are no Israeli forces actively operating in southern Gaza, according to two officials briefed on the matter who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Israeli leaders claimed the withdrawal was a sign of Israel’s progress on the battlefield, something Israel had long anticipated. Instead of carrying out large-scale, widespread ground maneuvers, Israeli officials have said they plan to eventually move most of their forces back to the Strip border and attack specific targets for short periods of time.

The reduction continues a process that began in January, leaving fewer than 5,000 troops across Gaza, the equivalent of one brigade, or about 50,000 at the height of the war in December.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said in a statement that the 98th Division’s operations in southern Gaza were “very impressive.” “Their activities have made it possible to dismantle Hamas as a functioning military force in the region,” he added.

The remaining forces in Gaza are mainly guarding the buffer zone that Israel has created by destroying Palestinian buildings along the border, or are stationed along the narrow land route that separates northern Gaza, including Gaza City, from the rest of the territory. ing.

Two New York Times reporters traveled along the corridor last week and learned that it serves as a supply road for the army, as a barrier for displaced people trying to return to northern Gaza, and as a barrier to future Israeli military operations in northern and central Gaza. We observed how it served as a potential launching pad for operations. Gaza.

For critics of the military’s decision, the cuts amount to Israel’s failure. After Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7, local authorities say more than 33,000 people have been killed and the Gaza Strip is on the brink of ruin and starvation despite a campaign it said , Israel is leaving large parts of the Gaza Strip without achieving the goals it set for itself. , killed about 1,200 people and sparked a war.

The top leaders of Hamas are still alive. Thousands of Hamas fighters are still at large. Approximately half of the hostages taken on October 7th remain in Gaza. With Israel’s withdrawal, large parts of Gaza are left without a functioning administration, a vacuum that could once again be filled by Hamas.

“In six months of war, we have not achieved a single goal,” prominent Israeli commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in a Monday column for the centrist news outlet Yediot Aronot. “We did not destroy Hamas,” he added.

For Palestinians who returned to their homelands after Israel’s withdrawal, there was a sense of horror as they realized the scale of the destruction in their neighborhoods.

“Destruction is everywhere,” said Akram al-Satori, 47, a freelance journalist not employed by The New York Times. He said he returned to his destroyed New York neighborhood Monday morning. Khan Younis.

“People were looking for their loved ones under the rubble. Others were looking for their belongings and things they could use now,” al-Satari said in a telephone interview. “I saw people finding decomposed human parts and trying to recognize who they were by their clothes.”

Dr. Ahmad al-Fala, 54, ran the children’s ward at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis until his family was evacuated to Rafah in the south in January, when his family returned to their three-story villa on Sunday. He said he found it reduced to rubble. It is surrounded by the few remaining trees in what was once a lush garden.

“I completely collapsed and almost passed out,” he said by phone Monday, adding that his wife and two teenage daughters started crying.

“I worked for 20 years to build this house,” said Dr. Al Falah. “We are building our house, corner by corner, stone by stone.”

“And ultimately, at the push of a button, it’s reduced to rubble,” he added.

They fear that once the Islamic holy month of Ramadan ends this week, Israel will send ground forces to Rafah in pursuit of Hamas leaders and fighters.

“The dreams of the whole family have gone up in the air,” said Dr. Al Falah. “Where do we go from here? Are we going to spend the rest of our lives in tents?”

To completely rout Hamas, Israel will need to make good on its promise to advance into Rafah, where most of Hamas’ remaining fighters and military leaders are believed to be hiding.

Prime Minister Netanyahu faces intense pressure from far-right members of his ruling coalition to press ahead with Operation Rafah. Some of these lawmakers have threatened to collapse the coalition government if Netanyahu calls off the ground invasion, potentially leading to him losing the election.

The prime minister also faces growing international pressure from President Biden and others to resist the invasion of Rafah because it risks widespread harm to civilians who have taken refuge there since the war began.

And Prime Minister Netanyahu faces a growing domestic backlash from Israelis who believe he should ensure the swift release of the remaining hostages, even at the cost of keeping Hamas in power.

The Biden administration announced Monday that a new ceasefire and hostage release offer had been presented to Hamas.

White House national security spokesman John F. Kirby told reporters: “We want to conclude the hostage deal as quickly as possible,” adding that the agreement “would involve a cease-fire of several weeks. Dew,” he added. Maybe about 6 weeks if possible. ”

Hamas spokesman Bassem Naim said Monday that the latest proposal is “worse than the previous one.”

Among other issues, he said: “They haven’t mentioned the withdrawal of troops from Gaza. They haven’t said anything about a permanent ceasefire,” he said of the proposal to allow displaced Gazans to return to their homelands. He said there had been “some progress”.

“This proposal is not a starting point for reaching a ceasefire agreement,” he said in an interview.

Negotiations have been stalled for months, primarily because Israel is unwilling to agree to a ceasefire agreement that would allow Hamas to remain in charge of any part of the Gaza Strip, while Hamas This is because they are wary of agreements that do not provide for the release of many members. Their long-term survival cannot be guaranteed unless they are removed from Israeli prisons whenever possible.

Report contributor: Hiba Yazbek, Abu Bakr Bashir, Jonathan Rees and katie rogers.

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