Israel, Hamas set for new ceasefire talks as troops pull out from southern Gaza for ‘tactical reasons’

Netanyahu says be no deal on truce without hostage release and that he would not cave to international pressure

Israel has pulled all of its ground troops out of southern Gaza for “tactical reasons”, the country’s army has said, raising questions about the future direction of the war as Hamas and Israeli delegations travel to Egypt for a new round of ceasefire talks.

Two brigades will stay in the northern half of the Gaza Strip and the new corridor that now bifurcates the Palestinian territory at Wadi Gaza, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said on Sunday, in order to “preserve the IDF’s freedom of action and its ability to conduct precise intelligence based-operations”.

It is believed the drawdown is primarily to relieve reservists after nearly four months of intense fighting in the decimated southern city of Khan Younis, rather than any significant shift in strategy.

A military official who spoke to the Israel daily Haaretz said: “There’s no need for us to remain in Khan Younis. The 98th Division dismantled Hamas’ Khan Younis brigades and killed thousands of its members. We did everything we could there.”


Displaced Palestinians from the city may now be able to return to their homes, they said. Military analysts said on Sunday that an Israeli ground offensive on Gaza’s southernmost town of Rafah, where about 1.5 million people were sheltering, was not off the table.

Israel has been reducing numbers in Gaza since the start of the year to relieve reservists and is under growing pressure from its ally Washington to improve the humanitarian situation, especially after last week’s killing of seven aid workers.

Defence minister Yoav Gallant said the troops will be preparing for future operations in Gaza.

Both Israel and Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, confirmed they were sending delegations to Egypt. Hamas wants any deal to bring about an end to the war and withdrawal of Israeli forces. Israel has said that, after any truce, it would topple Hamas, which is sworn to its destruction.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said there would be no deal without a hostage release and that he would not cave to international pressure. Hamas says an agreement must include freedom of movement of residents across the Gaza Strip.

More than 250 hostages were seized and some 1,200 people killed during Hamas’ October 7th attack, according to Israeli tallies. More than 33,100 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli offensive, according to the health ministry in Gaza.

Around 130 hostages are still being held in Gaza. Asked about troop withdrawals from the enclave, Israel’s chief of the general staff Herzi Halevi told reporters that the military was adapting its methods to what has been and will be a long war.

Mr Gallant said Israel will press on with the war until Hamas no longer controls Gaza or threatens Israel as a military group.

“The forces are exiting and preparing for their next missions,” Mr Gallant said at a meeting with military officials, according to a statement from his office, and “also their coming mission in the Rafah area”.

Israel says an incursion into the Rafah area, near the border with Egypt, is needed to eliminate Hamas but anxious foreign powers have said it could exact an unacceptable toll on civilians, with more than a million people sheltering there. Israel says it will evacuate civilians before launching an incursion.

Palestinian residents of the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, which has come under Israeli bombardment in recent months, said they had seen Israeli forces leaving the centre of the city and retreating to eastern districts.

Medics said they found at least 12 Palestinian bodies in the area. Some residents from Khan Younis, who have been sheltering in Rafah, began returning to their neighbourhoods after the Israeli troops left.

“It seems at the end it may be a happy Eid,” said Imad Joudat (55) who lives with his eight-member family in a tent in Rafah, referring to the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday that starts midweek.

“The occupation withdrew forces from Khan Younis, the Americans are pressuring after some foreigners were killed and Egypt is holding a big round with the Americans, the Israelis, Hamas and Qatar. This time we are hopeful,” Mr Joudat told Reuters via a chat app.

Israel is under increased pressure from the United States, with president Joe Biden demanding that it improve humanitarian conditions in Gaza and work towards a ceasefire, and saying that US support could depend on that.

It was the first time Mr Biden, a staunch supporter of Israel, has sought to leverage US backing to influence Israeli military behaviour. The US is a major supplier of arms to Israel.

Mr Biden has also urged the leaders of Egypt and Qatar to pressure Hamas to agree to a ceasefire and hostage deal in advance of a fresh round of talks in Cairo.

Israel is also on alert for a possible retaliatory attack from Iran in reaction to the killing of Iranian generals on April 1st.

Also on Sunday, thousands of protesters rallied in Jerusalem demanding the release of around 130 hostages still held in Gaza after six months of Israel’s war against Hamas.

But some hostage families are wary ahead of fresh talks, with previous rounds of negotiations having gone nowhere and some of the hostages dying in captivity.

“Their families and everybody here has had enough. And people need to understand that and the world needs to stand up and get them back,” said Michal Nachshon (39) who made her way from Tel Aviv to the protest outside Israel’s parliament

“It’s above politics. It’s above religion, it’s a humanitarian issue and that’s what we’re here to shout today,” she added.

While some hostage parents at Sunday’s rally called on Mr Netanyahu to do more to bring home the hostages, speakers largely kept messages apolitical, focusing on their pain and the urgent need to get their loved ones home. – Guardian/Reuters