The planned troop withdrawal came on the same day that Israel’s Supreme Court struck down part of Netanyahu’s polarising judicial overhaul.
The Israeli military confirmed on Monday that it was withdrawing thousands of troops from the Gaza Strip, a move that could pave the way for a new, long-term phase of lower-intensity fighting against the Hamas militant group.
The confirmation of the planned withdrawal came on the same day that Israel’s Supreme Court struck down a key component of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s polarising judicial overhaul.
Netanyahu’s plan opened up deep divisions within Israel and sparked months of mass protests, threatening to trigger a constitutional crisis between the judicial and legislative branches of government. It also damaged the cohesion of Israel’s powerful military, which proved unprepared for the October 7th Hamas attack that triggered the ongoing war.
Politicians warned against reopening those divisions and damaging the national unity that has prevailed throughout the Israel-Hamas war.
Netanyahu has vowed to press ahead with the military offensive until Hamas is crushed and the more than 100 hostages it still holds in Gaza freed.
But Israel has come under growing international pressure to scale back its onslaught on Gaza, an aerial and ground campaign that has left nearly 22,000 Palestinians dead – most of them civilians and many of them children.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has repeatedly urged Israel to abide by international law and spare civilians in its war against Hamas in Gaza, is expected in the region next week.
In its announcement, the army said five brigades, or several thousand troops, would be withdrawn from Gaza in the coming weeks.
Some will return to bases for training or rest, while many older reservists will go home. The war has taken a toll on the economy, preventing reservists from going to work, running their businesses or returning to university. The army’s chief spokesman, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, did not say whether the withdrawal of some troops reflected a new phase of the war.
“The objectives of the war require prolonged fighting, and we are preparing accordingly,” he told reporters late on Sunday.
But the move is in line with plans outlined by Israeli leaders for a low-intensity campaign expected to last much of the year, focusing on remaining Hamas strongholds and “pockets of resistance”.
Israel has said it is close to taking full operational control of most of northern Gaza, reducing the need for troops there. But fierce fighting has continued elsewhere in the Palestinian territory, particularly in the south, where many Hamas forces remain intact and where most of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled.
The fighting in Gaza has threatened to spread across the region. Israel has engaged in near-daily battles with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, Israel’s north.
Israel’s warplanes and drones struck several areas in southern Lebanon, including a strike on the village of Kfar Kila that killed three people, state media and security officials said. Hezbollah said the three were some of its fighters.
Since the latest exchange of fire began along the Lebanon-Israel border on Oct. 8, 133 Hezbollah fighters and around 20 civilians have been killed in Lebanon.
Netanyahu versus the law
Meanwhile, the Israeli Supreme Court’s landmark decision to strike down part of Netanyahu’s contentious judicial overhaul could reopen the protests that preceded the war against Hamas – and the same rifts that split Israeli civil society for much of last year.
In Monday’s decision, the court narrowly voted to overturn a law that prevents judges from striking down government decisions they deem “unreasonable.” The law was the first part of the government’s plan to curb the authority of unelected judges.
The legislation has been widely criticised as a naked attempt to protect Netanyahu from facing legal sanction on numerous allegations related to his personal conduct while in office.
But Benny Gantz, a rival of Netanyahu’s who joined his War Cabinet when the strikes on Gaza began, has called on all sides to put aside their differences and focus on the war.
“These are not days for political arguments,” he said after the judgment was handed down. “There are no winners and losers today.”