The IDF on Sunday announced that it had concluded the active invasion stage of the war for now while leaving open the possibility of a future new invasion of Rafah in deep southern Gaza.

In terms of IDF soldiers, this means that the IDF has withdrawn all of Division 98 from Khan Yunis in southern Gaza while maintaining one plus brigades – the Nahal brigade and portions of Brigade 401 – in northern and central Gaza.

Although a top IDF official said that this change had nothing to do with US pressure, the timing was unmistakable in coming right after the IDF’s disastrous mistaken killing of seven humanitarian aid workers last week.

The decision also came less than two days after Israel opened the Erez Crossing and Ashdod port to transfer humanitarian aid, decisions made under threat by the US of potentially losing weapons support after Jerusalem had refused these requests from Washington for months.

Critically, this means that Palestinians can, on one hand, move freely within southern Gaza and Khan Yunis and that there is a complete vacuum for preventing a return of Hamas governance, but the IDF is keeping northern and central Gaza cut off from the south. IDF troops operate in the Gaza Strip. March 23, 2024. (credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON’S UNIT)

This means Palestinians cannot move from south to north and that over two million Palestinians, more than half of whom are northern Gaza residents, remain separated from their communities, with somewhere between 150,000-300,000 Palestinians remaining in northern Gaza, who never left.

At one point, the IDF had five divisions, between 30,000 and 40,000 ground forces, deep into Gaza, as well as even larger forces circling the Strip.

Those forces were reduced significantly in mid-January when the IDF declared it had achieved operational control of northern Gaza and released Division 63 to return to Fits standard northern border duties facing off against Hezbollah.

But from December until now, Division 98 was destroying Hamas’s forces in and around Khan Yunis, at one point with around seven brigades.

By early February, Division 98 had achieved most of its mission, but it continued more minor operations in areas such as the Hamed neighborhoods of Khan Yunis.

It had been accepted conventional wisdom from top Israeli officials that a major reason for keeping Division 98 in Khan Yunis was to achieve concessions from Hamas in the hostage exchange negotiations.

Hamas immediately declared the IDF withdrawal, even partial, a victory for sticking to its position of demanding IDF withdrawals, including of troops in northern Gaza.

The world’s attention will likely now shift to whether the IDF will invade Rafah first, whether Hamas will cut a deal for the hostages to avoid such an invasion, or whether Israel will concede further to Hamas’s demands for returning more Palestinians to northern Gaza.

An IDF official tried to frame the withdrawal from Khan Yunis as opening up Rafah as a stronger possibility because now hundreds of thousands of Palestinians may return there.

The official said that if more Palestinians leave Rafah, evacuating the remaining civilians will be easier without needing to take active, aggressive measures to move them.

In addition, the IDF said that its operation taking over Shifa Hospital a second time shows that it can quickly penetrate and take down Hamas if it tries to reform military units.

Politicians and Hostage families react to the news

United Right Party leader Gideon Sa’ar commented on the move in a post on X. “Regardless of what happens later in the war, the continuous decrease in the size of the forces and the intensity of the military pressure over the past months – has kept us far away from achieving the war goals.”

“This is directly connected to our moving away from arriving at a new hostage deal,” he added. 

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum released the following statement to the press:

In light of the news regarding the withdrawal of the maneuvering forces from Gaza, the Hostage and Missing Families Forum reminds us that the IDF entered Gaza after October 7 to bring about a complete victory for the State of Israel

The government’s decision to withdraw the maneuvering forces from Gaza and switch to ongoing defense proves that the IDF was able to bring Israel many achievements and victories in the military arena and undermine Hamas’ capabilities.

The Prime Minister and the War Cabinet – it’s time to bring the State of Israel to absolute victory! The departure of the maneuvering forces should be the first step in the deal. Now, the hostages in Gaza must not be left behind!

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