The Israeli military said on Monday that it would begin withdrawing several thousand troops from the Gaza Strip at least temporarily, in what was the most significant publicly announced reduction since the war with Hamas began.
The military cited a growing toll on the Israeli economy after nearly three months of wartime mobilization with little end in sight to the fighting. Israel had been considering scaling back its operations, and the United States has been prodding it to do so more quickly as the death toll and privation in Gaza rose.
More than 20,000 people have been killed in Gaza since the beginning of the war, most of them civilians, according to the local health authorities, primarily in Israeli bombing. With aid delivery restricted and aid workers unable to move safely within the territory, half of Gaza’s roughly 2.2 million people are at risk of starvation, according to the United Nations.
Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, emphasized that the move to demobilize some soldiers did not suggest any compromise of Israel’s intention to continue fighting until it destroys Hamas, and the fighting across Gaza remained intense. Admiral Hagari, who had said he expected “warfare throughout this year,” indicated that some troops would be called back to service in 2024.
He did not mention the American requests to scale back, and Israeli officials have not declared any shift toward a more limited, targeted phase of the war in Gaza, though they have said such a transition would come.
But military analysts and U.S. officials say the troop withdrawal probably signals that such a change has begun, though they caution that the war is nowhere near over.
Reservists from at least two brigades will be sent home this week, the Israeli military said in a statement, and three brigades will be taken back for “scheduled” training. Brigades vary in size, up to roughly 4,000 troops, and the Israeli military does not disclose how many troops it has deployed in Gaza, so it was unclear how many would remain.
“This move is expected to significantly alleviate economic burdens and enable them to gather strength for upcoming activities in the next year,” the military said.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is expected to return to Israel in early January for further talks on the war, according to U.S. officials. Last week, President Biden pressed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a tense conversation to take a more surgical approach to the war, using special forces to attack the leaders and infrastructure of Hamas, the militant group that has controlled Gaza.
Mr. Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, met for nearly four hours with Ron Dermer, a top Netanyahu adviser, at the White House the day after Christmas. The three discussed pivoting to a different phase of the war to “maximize focus on high-value Hamas targets,” a White House official said.
“The withdrawal is a clear signal that the fight is entering a new phase, in line with what the U.S. has been asking for,” said Lt. Gen. Mark C. Schwartz, a retired U.S. Special Operations commander who formerly served as the American security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “We will see more precision strikes and precision operations against Hamas leadership and Hamas militants going forward.”
Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired Israeli brigadier general, agreed that the drawdown reflected the military’s gradual transition to that next part of the war, even as intense battles continued in southern Gaza.
“In substantial parts of northern Gaza, we’re ready to advance to the next stage” of the fighting, General Kuperwasser said. “We can dilute our forces there, because we’ve taken control. To hold on, you need fewer than it took to take over.”
Israel began its campaign after a Hamas-led assault into Israel on Oct. 7 during which, the Israeli authorities say, about 1,200 people were killed and more than 240 taken hostage. Israel responded with an intense aerial and artillery bombardment and, in late October, an invasion with ground troops. It authorized the mobilization of over 350,000 reservists for the war effort.
The call-up added to the economic burden faced by hundreds of thousands of Israelis who fled their homes on Israel’s borders following the Hamas attack. The Israeli economy is expected to shrink by 2 percent this quarter, the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Israel, said in late December, as many left the labor force for reserve duty or abandoned businesses in their hometowns.
Residents of seven evacuated Israeli towns near the border with Gaza have been told that they can soon return home, and other notifications will soon follow, Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, said on Monday.
Israeli leaders have continued to tell the public to expect a long military campaign, even as some critics have voiced skepticism as to whether the goal of eliminating Hamas is ultimately feasible. “The goals of the war require prolonged fighting, and we are preparing accordingly,” Admiral Hagari told reporters in a televised news briefing on Sunday night.
Mick Mulroy, a former top Middle East policy official at the Pentagon, said that the troop withdrawal “does not mean that the war is close to conclusion,” but that it could mean “a lower intensity phase in the near future.”
Israel’s military operations in Gaza had already been slowing down and its air campaign had become more limited, said Amos Harel, the military affairs analyst for the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz. The military is trying to put the war on a more sustainable footing, but is making the transition “without announcing it,” he said.
Analysts say Mr. Netanyahu has been reluctant to declare any winding down of the war and has delayed any serious discussion of who will administer Gaza in the aftermath, not least because of the divergent opinions among his fractious, right-wing coalition partners and his desire to keep his government from falling apart.
In addition, Israel has not yet achieved its war goals of dismantling Hamas’s military capabilities or its ability to rule in Gaza, and has not managed to free the more than 100 people thought to still be held captive there.
In the Gaza Strip, conditions have gone from dire to catastrophic over the months of war. More than 85 percent of Gaza’s residents have been displaced from their homes, according to the United Nations, and many have crowded into shrinking zones in the enclave’s south that Israel has designated as safer, though still not exempt from bombardment.
They have sought shelter in overcrowded, increasingly unsanitary hospitals, schools and makeshift encampments, where the search for food and water has become a daily ordeal.
Hanin Abu Tiba, a 27-year-old English teacher sheltering at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, described an atmosphere of desperation at the hospital, which has been flooded with wounded patients and hungry refugees. Whenever aid convoys arrive, a crowd of displaced people descends on the trucks in an attempt to grab food and essential supplies, she said in a phone interview. Gaza police officers largely stand back and watch the chaos unfold, she said.
“People are fighting each other, pushing each other, to get dates that were thrown on the ground,” said Ms. Abu Tiba. “As soon as people hear that something’s arrived, everyone starts running.”
Fighting continued overnight on Monday, as Israeli forces sought to advance in central and southern Gaza. Israeli troops were still fighting in one area of northern Gaza, Admiral Hagari said, a region where the Israeli military has said it has eroded Hamas’s control.
Shortly after midnight — just after Israelis and Palestinians rang in the New Year — Hamas took responsibility for a rocket barrage from Gaza that sent scores fleeing to bomb shelters in central Israel.
Israeli troops struck targets in northern and central Gaza, the Israeli military said on Monday, claiming to eliminate a Hamas militant commander. There was no immediate confirmation by Hamas.
Around 170 Israeli soldiers have been killed since the beginning of the ground invasion in late October, according to the Israeli military. Roughly 29 were killed in accidents involving Israeli troops, such as friendly fire, the military says.