Gaza conflict far from over amid Israel's "tactical" withdrawal

The Gaza Strip still faces the risk of escalation after six months of heavy Israeli strikes as the Israeli military's latest pullout of all ground troops except for one brigade may be "tactical," analysts and experts said.

The withdrawal on Sunday occurred when the current round of the Israel-Hamas conflict entered its 6th month. It came amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza, ongoing tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border, and the possibility of Iranian retaliation following the attack on the Iranian consulate building in Damascus.

An Israeli tank maneuvers near the border with Gaza Strip, in southern Israel, on April 7, 2024. (Photo by Jamal Awad/Xinhua)

Despite this, the crisis in the region is far from over, as Israel is still preparing for a ground invasion in the southern Gazan city of Rafah and a possible escalation on its northern border with Lebanon, analysts have said.

According to Israeli media reports, the only troops remaining in Gaza are the Nahal Brigade under the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which was tasked with the Netzarim Corridor, an east-west passage through the strip built by the Israel Defense Forces.

The passage splits the territory into two sectors, serving as a conduit for aid into northern Gaza and preventing the return of displaced civilians from the south to the north of Gaza.

Hossam Talib, a Syrian political analyst, told Xinhua that Israel pulled out its troops under mounting international and domestic pressure.

Internationally, the United Nations Security Council resolution passed on March 25 and the killing of seven World Central Kitchen workers by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza earlier this month have put Israel under increasing pressure, including from its allies. Domestically, protests calling for a hostage deal and early elections have recently intensified.

An analysis by Israel's Haaretz newspaper pointed out that the two main goals of the military operation in Gaza, including eliminating top Hamas officials and rescuing Israeli hostages, have not been achieved yet.

Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, commander of the faction's Al-Qassam Brigades, are still on Israel's most wanted list. Meanwhile, only two Israeli hostages have been rescued since the temporary truce in late November.

During a tour on Sunday at the IDF's Southern Command, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said that forces leaving Gaza were preparing for "follow-up missions," including in Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold in Gaza.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi announced on the same day that the military operation against Hamas was "far from" over, vowing to reach senior Hamas officials sooner or later.

Yonatan Freeman, an international relations expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told Xinhua that the withdrawal marks the IDF's entry into the third phase of the operation in Gaza, which focuses mainly on pinpoint operations based on specific intelligence rather than a high kinetic level with large numbers of ground troops.

Egyptian researcher on Arab and international affairs Mostafa Amin noted that Israel is repositioning and redeploying its troops while preparing to "re-establish displacement areas for those in the south and later evacuate the city of Rafah to launch a military operation."

The complicated preparations will take some time, as Israel needs to coordinate with Egypt and the United States and evacuate more than one million people, said Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Israel Institute for National Security Studies.

Another possible factor leading to the sudden withdrawal could be the situation along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Lebanese Hezbollah, a militant group considered by Israel as a "proxy" of Iran, has been exchanging fire with Israel since October to show support for the Palestinian people. After the alleged Israeli airstrike on the consular building of the Iranian embassy in Syria earlier this month, Iran vowed to retaliate. Analysts believe the retaliation could be in the form of more rocket launches by Hezbollah from Lebanon.

The IDF announced on Sunday night that it had completed another phase of war preparedness, centering on "operational emergency storages for a broad mobilization of reservist and regular troops when required."

U.S. Senator Chris Coons, a close ally of President Joe Biden, told FOX News on Sunday that the withdrawal of IDF troops was a "tactical decision" in light of the threat of a "real attack" from Hezbollah or "direct attack" from Iran.

Syrian political analyst Mohammad al-Omari also noted that Israel is redeploying its troops, especially in the north, in response to possible Iranian retaliation.