Israel withdraws from southern Gaza, but Rafah remains in the crosshairs. The war enters phase three: “Intelligence and targeted raids”


By John

Israel has withdrawn ground troops from southern Gaza, leaving Khan Yunis where displaced Palestinians are returning. The turning point – six months after the Hamas attack on 7 October – marked, according to IDF sources, the start of the Third Phase of the ground operation which began on 27 October. That is, that of “targeted and limited raids, as in the case of the Shifa hospital in Gaza City”.

On site – after the departure of the last division, the 98th – only the Nahal Brigade remained with the task of controlling and securing the so-called Netzarim Corridor which separates the Strip horizontally from Kibbutz Beeri to the coastal strip of Gaza, dividing it into two parts the territory of the Palestinian enclave.

The change in strategy – which does not, however, exclude the announced ground operation in Rafah – came on the same day as indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel delegations reopened in Cairo, under the pressure of Qatar, Egypt and especially the USA which sent the head of the CIA William Burns to the Egyptian capital. Local sources – cited by the Qatari media – have reported a possible temporary truce from next Tuesday for the following three days of the Eid el-Fitr celebration which puts an end to the month of Ramadan.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu entrusted the Israeli delegation with “a significant mandate” to negotiate, but was clear: “No ceasefire is possible without the release of the hostages” also because for Israel victory “is close”. “It is not Israel that is preventing an agreement but Hamas”, he specified, denouncing the demands of the Islamic faction as “extreme”. And he called for “the unity of the country” in the face of protest demonstrations and “an extreme and violent minority that is trying to divide us”.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant explained that the decision to withdraw fighting ground troops from Khan Yunis was taken “at the moment when Hamas ceased to exist as a military structure in the city.”

“Our forces have left the area – he explained – to prepare for their future missions, including the mission in Rafah”. In fact, the announced military operation in the last city of Gaza before Egypt to strike the remaining Hamas battalions remains on the field. The withdrawal – the army sources insisted – does not even exclude the possibility that the IDF “may not return to Khan Yunis if necessary”.

The decision – the sources specified – therefore has nothing to do «with the US pressure exerted on Israel», but rather with the desire to «leave space» in the area for displaced Palestinians «if and when the operation in Rafah”, but also to return residents to their homes in Khan Yunis.

The withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Gaza is probably just a period of “rest”, the White House said, reiterating the Joe Biden administration's “frustration” with the Jewish state which “must do more” in Gaza.

However, the move appears to be a change of pace in the IDF's overall strategy. The exit from Khan Yunis – a real Hamas stronghold held in check by the soldiers for a long time – will allow “further operational opportunities and for the intelligence” that remains in the field.

Targeted operations against Hamas militiamen and their leaders and, above all, for the search for approximately 130 Israeli hostages still in captivity. Another objective is not to further put the lives of Israeli soldiers at risk in close combat: yesterday alone 4 died with a total toll that rose to 260.

While tight surveillance on the Netzarim Corridor allows the IDF the ability to conduct raids in the north and center of the Strip, it prevents displaced Palestinians from returning to the north of the Palestinian enclave and allows humanitarian organizations to deliver aid directly to northern Gaza .

Finally, Israel assured that it is ready to respond “to any scenario that may develop with Iran”, which continues to threaten retaliation for the attack on the consulate in Damascus in which senior Pasdaran officials died. Threats also reiterated in the last few hours by Tehran, but which target the interests of the Jewish state abroad: “None of the Israeli embassies in the world are safer.”