Why is Israel pulling some troops out of Gaza?

Israel and the US say the war could be moving to a less intensive phase - but Israeli generals think heavy fighting will continue

Israeli tanks on the border of southern Israel and the Gaza Strip on January 2, 2024. The Israeli military says reservists are returning to civilian life as the financial burden of war against Gaza is felt AFP
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Israel said that it would withdraw five brigades from Gaza, a move that has led one US official to say the intensity of the conflict is reducing.

Israeli officials, however, released mixed messages on the issue, saying military operations were shifting focus and fighting would continue for months.

Rocket fire from Gaza has dropped sharply in recent weeks as fighting has raged throughout the densely populated enclave of 2.3 million people, killing around 22,000 Palestinians. Israeli operations including air strikes, were reported in central Gaza on Tuesday.

Minister of Defence Yoav Gallant suggested a decline in violence will allow some Israeli “displaced communities home, in areas within a range of four to seven kilometres north of the Gaza Strip”.

Yet Maj Gen Yaron Finkelman, the chief of the Israeli army’s Southern Command, said that fighting will continue throughout Gaza, “in a variety of methods, in a variety of intensities, and in varying forms”.

“We are continuing the training of officers and commanders … After their experience in combat, they are returning to training and will join the army's line of commanders when they finish,” Israeli military spokesman Admiral Daniel Hagari said.

Why is the Israeli army pulling forces back in Gaza?

Soldiers cannot remain in intense combat for weeks on end and are often taken from the front to rest and recuperate.

Secondly, the army wants some of these brigades, which were also used for military training, to pass on their combat experience to soldiers in training within Israel. And the third reason relates to Israel’s economy, which has been hit hard by the war.

The decision is also not new – Israeli media reported in early December that some of the reserve forces would be withdrawn and replaced – meaning no overall reduction in forces – after fighting in northern Gaza shifted south.

Adm Hagari said “some of the reservists will return to their families and work this week”.

This would provide a boost for the economy, he said, which has shrunk by around two per cent as hundreds of thousands of reservists have been pulled from the workplace and into military roles.

“It will result in considerable relief for the economy, and will allow them to gain strength for operations next year, and the fighting will continue and we will need them,” he said.

How many soldiers does Israel have in Gaza?

The pullback of five brigades – perhaps up to 15,000 soldiers – will mark a significant reduction in the Israeli ground presence.

But the Israeli army will still have elements of about five divisions in Gaza and while the divisions vary widely in strength, they can each comprise 10,000 to 20,000 troops.

The soon-to-be withdrawn 551st Reserve Parachute Brigade for example, which was fighting around Beit Hanoun, is one of six brigades in the 98th Infantry Division, which has a headquarters in Gaza.

For context, Israel invaded Gaza with around 20,000 troops in the north of the strip alone, having built up a force that was by some estimates up to 300,000 strong after emergency mobilisation in southern Israel.

The combat contingent later grew to around 40,000 – perhaps more – because military doctrine says attacking forces need at least a three-to-one numerical advantage.

Hamas and its allies have between 20,000 and 30,000 fighters, meaning that the Israelis are likely to have had many more than 40,000 deployed to Gaza at a given time.

A US official said the decision appeared to indicate the start of a shift to lower-intensity operations in the north of the Palestinian enclave.

Washington has been urging Israel to reduce the intensity of its military operation, amid international calls for a ceasefire as the death toll mounts.

Updated: January 02, 2024, 12:05 PM