Israeli aircraft, tanks intensify strikes in southern Gaza; plans to reduce troops

Israeli aircraft and tanks intensified strikes overnight in southern Gaza, residents reported, following Israel’s announcement of plans to scale back troops. The US interpreted this move as a gradual transition to less intense operations in northern parts of the enclave.

Israel stated that the conflict in Gaza, which has caused extensive destruction and a humanitarian crisis for its 2.3 million residents, is expected to continue for several months. However, a shift in strategy was indicated with an Israeli official announcing Monday a reduction of forces within Gaza this month. The new phase will focus on localized “mopping up” operations expected to last several months.

This troop reduction will enable some reservists to return to civilian life, aiding Israel’s economy affected by the war, and prepare for potential conflicts in the north, particularly with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, backed by Iran.

A U.S. official noted the decision likely marks the beginning of lower-intensity operations in northern Gaza. Amidst international calls for a ceasefire and a rising death toll, Washington has been pressuring Israel to de-escalate military actions.

However, Israeli planes and tanks have increased bombardments in Khan Younis’s eastern and northern areas, according to residents.

As these developments unfold, the U.S. Navy announced the return of the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier to Virginia, after deployment in the Eastern Mediterranean due to the hostilities. Concurrently, Iran’s Alborz warship entered the Red Sea, reported Tasnim news agency, amid heightened tensions and attacks by Yemen’s Houthis, who support Hamas.

Artillery exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel have increased along the border since the Gaza conflict began, with Israel conducting an airstrike on Monday. An Israeli official stressed the importance of the next six months for the situation on the Lebanese border, hinting at potential escalation.

The risk of a broader regional conflict looms, with US forces already targeted by Iran-backed militants in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

The Gaza conflict was sparked by a Hamas attack on Israeli towns on Oct. 7, which, according to Israel, resulted in 1,200 deaths. Palestinian health officials in Hamas-controlled Gaza report over 21,978 casualties due to the Israeli offensive.

In Gaza’s Rafah, 11-year-old Layan Harara expressed a bleak outlook for 2024, highlighting the dire living conditions. The city’s zoo has become a refuge for people amid the crisis.