IDF says it has withdrawn nearly all ground troops from south Gaza

Israel has withdrawn all ground troops apart from one brigade from southern Gaza, a military spokesman has said as the world marked six months of war since the 7 October attack by Hamas.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said it had withdrawn troops from the area overnight, with only the Nahal brigade remaining in southern Gaza, tasked with securing the “Netzarim Corridor”. The corridor was built this year by Israel from east to west right across the Strip, dividing it in two. An Israeli brigade is typically made up of a few thousand troops.

Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said troops that have pulled out of Gaza on Sunday did so to prepare for future operations, including in the enclave’s southern city of Rafah.

Mr Gallant said: “The forces are exiting and preparing for their next missions, we saw examples of such missions in the Shifa operation, and also of their coming mission in the Rafah area.”

In a statement about the decision, the IDF: “Today, Sunday 7 April, the IDF’s 98th commando division has concluded its mission in Khan Yunis. The division left the Gaza strip in order to recuperate and prepare for future operations.

“A significant force led by the 162nd division and the Nahal brigade continues to operate in the Gaza strip, and will preserve the IDF’s freedom of action and its ability to conduct precise intelligence-based operations.

“Due to security reasons the IDF cannot comment on the deployment of its forces nor future operational plans.”

An elderly Palestinian woman pushes a wheelchair past rubble in Khan Yunis on 7 April after Israel pulled troops out of southern Gaza (Photo: AFP)

However, the head of the IDF warned that the war was far from over, in a statement marking six months of war.

The Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, said: “The war in Gaza continues, and we are far from stopping. Senior Hamas officials are still in hiding. We will get to them sooner or later… We will not leave Hamas brigades active in any part of the Strip.”

Today marks exactly six months since Hamas launched its brutal raids in southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and dragging an estimated 253 hostages back into Gaza.

Since then, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says 33,175 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Strip.

TOPSHOT - People walk past damaged and destroyed buildings in Khan Yunis on April 7, 2024, after Israel pulled its ground forces out of the southern Gaza Strip. Israel pulled all its troops out of southern Gaza on April 7, including from the city of Khan Yunis, the military and Israeli media said, after months of fierce fighting with Hamas militants left the area devastated. (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP) (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)
Damaged and destroyed buildings in Khan Yunis today after Israel pulled ground forces out of the southern Gaza Strip (Photo: Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Only hours after the withdrawal, rockets were fired from Khan Yunis towards Israel.

The withdrawal of troops comes four months after the Israeli military went into southern Gaza, with operations focused on Khan Yunis, which Israel claimed to be a headquarters of Hamas.

RAFAH, GAZA - APRIL 06: Palestinians try to go on their daily lives among the rubble and ash of the buildings in the Gaza Strip, which has been under intense Israeli bombardment for 183 days in Rafah, Gaza on April 06, 2024. Palestinian families who took refuge in the city continue to live under difficult conditions in makeshift tents they set up in the rubble of buildings. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Destruction following Israeli strikes in Rafah, southern Gaza (Photo: Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty)

It was unclear how the withdrawal would affect a long-threatened invasion of the southern city of Rafah, where nearly half of the 2.3 million population of Gaza is seeking shelter.

The Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, said withdrawn forces would now prepare for future missions, including one “in Rafah area”.

Israeli leaders have repeatedly said invading Rafah is necessary to destroy Hamas.

John Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, said on Sunday that the troop reduction in southern Gaza appeared to be “rest and refit” and not necessarily indicative of any new operations.

“As we understand it, and through their public announcements, it is really just about rest and refit for these troops … and not necessarily that we can tell indicative of some coming new operation for these troops,” he said in an interview with ABC News.

TOPSHOT - Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attacks by Hamas militants hold placards and wave Israeli flags during a demonstration in front of the Defence Ministry in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv, on April 6, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian militant Hamas movement. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza attend a protest in front of the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv on 6 April (Photo: Jack Guez/ AFP via Getty)

The troop withdrawal follows a reportedly tense phone call last week between the US President, Joe Biden, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, during which the President warned Israel that American support for its war was conditional on it taking “immediate action” to protect civilians, including “specific, concrete, and measurable” steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering and the safety of aid workers.

The rebuke from Israel’s biggest military supporter followed an Israeli air strike on an aid convoy in Gaza, which killed seven international humanitarian workers, including three Britons. The aid group, World Central Kitchen, said it had coordinated its staff’s movements with the IDF. Israel admitted the strike had made a “grave mistake”.

Tens of thousands of Israelis joined anti-government protests at the weekend and demanded the return of hostages as the war in Gaza reached its six-month mark, with the Prime Minister declaring that his country was “a step away from victory”.

Speaking at the start of a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem yesterday, Benjamin Netanyahu said: “The achievements of the war are great,” claiming that Israel had eliminated 19 out of 24 Hamas battalions; had killed, wounded or captured a “significant number” of Hamas commanders; and was “systematically” dismantling Hamas’s tunnel network.

He reiterated his commitment to returning all the hostages and destroying Hamas in Gaza. “Let our enemies make no mistake — the absolute majority of the people are united in the need to continue fighting until victory,” he said.

Yesterday thousands of demonstrators including the families and friends of hostages still held in Gaza gathered outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem to demand their immediate release. Many held placards and carried pictures of those kidnapped, and banners reading: “Half a year of abandonment.”

Crowds at the protest, organised by the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, held a moment of silence for the hostages. Itay Regev, one of the hostages freed last year, recalled his time in captivity, describing how Hamas tried “to convince the hostages that the government has given up on them”.

Meanwhile in southern Israel, the grieving loved ones of the 364 people killed at the Nova music festival returned to the site to visit a memorial where photos and tributes to the victims had been put up.

Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attacks by Hamas militants hold placards and wave national flags during a demonstration in front of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem on April 7, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Palestinian militant Hamas movement. (Photo by Menahem KAHANA / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)
Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages hold placards and wave national flags during a demonstration in front of the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem (Photo by Menahem Kahana / AFP)

On Saturday, huge numbers came out for demonstrations in cities throughout Israel including Jerusalem, Haifa and Caesarea to mark the six-month milestone, with many demanding the resignation of Mr Netanyahu and the hostages’ immediate return.

Organisers claimed that about 100,000 people protested in Tel Aviv with many chanting “elections now”. Skirmishes broke out between protesters and police, and one person was arrested.

A driver was arrested after a car rammed into crowds at the protest. The driver claimed on Sunday that the ramming was accidental. Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, claimed the incident was a “direct result of the incitement coming from the government”.

A car rammed into crowds at the protest in Tel Aviv, injuring five. Police said the driver was arrested.

Israeli demonstrators call on the government to secure the release of hostages held in the Gaza Strip by Hamas during a rally marking six months since the outbreak of war against the Islamic militant group, outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Sunday, April 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Israeli demonstrators call on the government to secure the release of hostages held in Gaza during a rally marking six months since the outbreak of war (Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

Today António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, said in a statement on X: “The 7 of October is a day of pain for Israel and the world. Nothing can justify the horror unleashed by Hamas. I once again condemn the use of sexual violence, torture & kidnapping of civilians, and call for the unconditional release of all the hostages.”

Today, Egypt prepares to host a new round of talks aimed at reaching a ceasefire and hostage release deal.

Hamas has said it will send a delegation to the Egyptian capital for the talks, due also to be attended by William Burns, the CIA director, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the Qatari foreign minister, according to Egypt’s Al Qahera news.

An Israeli government official confirmed today that an Israeli delegation had received permission to attend truce and hostage release talks in Cairo.

Mr Netanyahu warned, however, that Israel would not agree to a ceasefire until the hostages were released, despite growing international pressure. He said Israel would not give in to “extreme” demands from Hamas, including an end to the war and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners.

On Saturday, the IDF said it had recovered the body of one of the hostages seized by Hamas. Elad Katzir, 47, was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz, along with his mother, Hanna, 77, who was released in November.

Mr Katzir’s body was recovered from Khan Yunis and brought back to Israel, the IDF said, adding that it believed he was killed in January by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another of the Islamist groups that attacked Israel on 7 October.

Mr Katzir had been seen alive in a hostage video released by the group in January.