Israel Says Its Military Is Starting to Shift to a More Targeted Gaza Campaign

Jan 8, 2024 | Read Now, Trending

Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem and Reim, Israel; Adam Entous reported from Washington; and Edward Wong reported from Amman, Jordan, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Israel said its military is starting to shift from a large-scale ground and air campaign in the Gaza Strip to a more targeted phase in its war against Hamas, and Israeli officials have privately told their American counterparts that they hoped the transition would be completed by the end of January, U.S. officials said.

Israel’s disclosure came as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was expected in Israel to press officials there to curtail their campaign in Gaza and to prevent the war from spreading across the region, particularly in the aftermath of an Israeli strike last week that killed senior Hamas leaders in Lebanon and as Hezbollah said one of its commanders was killed in a strike in the country.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief spokesman for the Israeli military, said the new phase of the campaign involved fewer troops and airstrikes. U.S. officials said they expected the transition to rely more on surgical missions by smaller groups of elite Israeli forces that would move in and out of population centers in the Gaza Strip to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and destroy tunnels.

“The war shifted a stage,” Admiral Hagari said Monday in an interview. “But the transition will be with no ceremony,” he added. “It’s not about dramatic announcements.”

He said Israel would continue to reduce the number of troops in Gaza, a process that began this month. The intensity of operations in northern Gaza has already begun to ebb, he added, as the military shifts toward conducting one-off raids there instead of maintaining wide-scale maneuvers.

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Still, Israeli officials have made clear to U.S. officials that, while they hope to complete the transition by the end of the month, the timeline is not fixed. If Israeli forces encounter Hamas resistance that is stiffer than expected, or discover threats that they did not anticipate, the size and pace of the withdrawal could slow, and intensive airstrikes could continue, they said.

President Biden has strongly supported Israel’s war in Gaza, in which the Israeli military, armed with American weapons, has killed about 23,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, according to the Gaza health ministry.
But Mr. Biden has come under pressure internationally, and from within his own administration, to rein in Israel’s campaign, launched after Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks on southern Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed and 240 hostages were seized.

Mr. Biden told aides last month that he wanted the Israelis to make the transition around Jan. 1. The Israelis presented the Americans with their own transition timeline. Upon hearing it, Mr. Biden’s aides urged the Israelis to move more quickly.

With the transition now underway, there is a growing sense of urgency among Israeli and American officials to come up with plans to restore and maintain public order in the Gaza Strip as Israeli troops accelerate their withdrawal.

Israeli officials have told their American counterparts that they envision a loose network of local mayors, security officials and leaders from prominent Palestinian families in the Gaza Strip stepping in to provide basic security in the near term in the areas where they live. These local leaders, according to Israeli officials, could oversee the distribution of humanitarian aid and enforce day-to-day order.

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Israel’s plans have generally lacked detail, amid public disagreement among members of the government about how much control Israel should retain over Gaza after the war. Some have called for Israeli civilians to resettle the territory, while others, like the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, have ruled out an Israeli civilian presence.

To provide security in the Gaza Strip in the medium and long term, U.S. officials have proposed retraining members of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces. U.S. officials said they believed that there are at least 6,000 members of these forces in the Gaza Strip but retraining them will take many months, and it is unclear whether Israel will accept their deployment or how the local population will receive them.

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Mr. Blinken has visited a half-dozen countries in the region since landing in Turkey on Friday and has spoken to leaders in each of them about how they might help in a postwar Gaza. He expects to speak with Israeli leaders about the ramping down of the war and how the strip might function in the coming months, a State Department official on the trip said.

Patrick Kingsley is the Jerusalem bureau chief, covering Israel and the occupied territories. He has reported from more than 40 countries, written two books and previously covered migration and the Middle East for The Guardian. More about Patrick Kingsley
Adam Entous is a Washington-based investigative correspondent and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Before joining the Washington bureau of The Times, he covered intelligence, national security and foreign policy for The New Yorker magazine, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. More about Adam Entous

View this New York Times report from January 8th