Israel withdraws a division of troops from southern Gaza

The Israeli army said it withdrew a division of ground troops from southern Gaza on Sunday, raising questions about its plans as the war reached six months.

In recent months, Israel has significantly reduced the number of its troops on the ground in Gaza. Only a fraction of the soldiers who deployed to the territory at the start of the war remain.

The army said the 98th Division had left Khan Younis in southern Gaza to “recover and prepare for future operations”. Israeli media reported that the 98th's withdrawal meant there were no Israeli troops actively maneuvering in southern Gaza.

It is unclear what the latest withdrawal of forces means for the timing of an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, Gaza's southernmost city, where more than a million people have sought refuge.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the army was preparing for “follow-up missions” that included Rafah. “We will reach a point where Hamas will no longer control the Gaza Strip and will no longer function as a military structure that poses a threat to the citizens of the State of Israel,” he said.

The Biden administration has warned that a ground invasion of Rafah would be catastrophic and has pushed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to seek alternatives. But Netanyahu insisted on Sunday that Israel is determined to “complete the elimination of Hamas throughout the Gaza Strip, including Rafah.”

Osama Asfour, 41, a Khan Younis resident who is taking shelter in a tent in Rafah, said the army's announcement made him no longer want to return to his town – and his destroyed home – any time soon.

“The military might say they left today, but they can come back tomorrow,” Mr. Asfour, who had worked at the Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, said in an interview. “I'm not going to have an adventure with my life and my family's life.”

Even so, Ahmed al-Soufi, a local official in Rafah, said he noticed that some displaced people from the city were returning to Khan Younis on Sunday.

A senior White House official said he was unsure what the withdrawal of the 98th Division means for the future of the war.

“It's hard to know exactly what this tells us right now,” John Kirby, White House national security spokesman, said on ABC's “This Week.” “As we understand it, and through their public announcements, this is really just rest and recommissioning for these troops who have been on the ground for four months, and not necessarily, what can we say, indicative of some new operations in I'm coming for these troops.”

The 98th's departure came about four months after Israeli forces invaded southern Gaza. Since the start of the war, the army has returned to areas of Gaza that its forces had previously abandoned, especially in the north. Military officials said Hamas had sought to re-establish itself in parts of the north following Israel's withdrawal.

Last week, the military withdrew from Al-Shifa hospital in the north after a two-week operation. He broke into the hospital for the first time in November. This time the troops left behind what appeared to be a wasteland after extensive firefights with Palestinian militants in and around the compound.

Mohammed Radi, 36, a displaced restaurateur from Gaza City who took refuge in Rafah with his family, said he was tired of reports of Palestinians being killed in the enclave and, more than anything, wanted the war to end.

“I feel frustrated and mentally destroyed,” he said in an interview. “We are exhausted after six months in tents.”

This is Abuheweila AND Erica L. Green contributed to the reporting.

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