Anticipating long war, IDF pulls one of four divisions out of Gaza for R&R, training

Army to decide mission of 36th Division, which battled Hamas in northern part of Strip, after its break, as ground operation expands in central Gaza

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

A convoy of Israeli tanks return from the Gaza Strip on January 15, 2024. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
A convoy of Israeli tanks return from the Gaza Strip on January 15, 2024. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces on Monday began to withdraw its 36th Division from Gaza for an R&R and training period, leaving three other divisions fighting Hamas in the Strip.

The withdrawal of the division comes as part of the IDF’s plans for a long war against Hamas, as well as a potential escalation in the fighting against the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group in northern Israel, while maintaining the troops’ competence.

The division’s units will be given a short break, then will return for a training period, after which the IDF will decide if and where to redeploy them based to its latest assessments.

Over the past 80 days, the 36th Division operated in Gaza City’s Zeitoun, Shati, Shejaiya, and Rimal neighborhoods, where the IDF dismantled all of Hamas’s battalions. It also operated in central Gaza recently.

The 162nd Division remains in northern Gaza, carrying out clean-up operations to locate Hamas’s infrastructure and kill or capture its remaining operatives; the 99th Division is operating in the central part of the Strip; and the 98th Division is fighting Hamas in the Khan Younis area of southern Gaza.

The IDF has assessed that fighting in Gaza will likely last throughout all of 2024, as Israel works to strip Hamas of its military and governing capabilities. The army is also preparing for fighting to escalate further on the Lebanon border, where Hezbollah and allied Palestinian terror groups have carried out daily rocket, missile, and drone attacks amid the war in Gaza.

Last month, the IDF said it was withdrawing five brigades from Gaza — three brigades usually tasked with training other forces and two reserve brigades — as the fighting in the northern part of the Strip shifted into a lower intensity.

Also on Monday, the IDF said it had begun for the first time in the war to operate on the ground in central Gaza’s Nuseirat, as the offensive against Hamas further expanded.

It said troops of the 646th Reserve Paratroopers Brigade — part of the 99th Division — operating in Nuseirat located a mortar production facility, a rocket manufacturing factory, and weapons hidden in a building belonging to a humanitarian organization.

IDF troops operate in central Gaza’s Nuseirat, in an image published by the army on January 15, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF said the reservists also raided a school in Nuseirat where eight Hamas operatives were holed up. The operatives were detained and taken to Israel to be questioned.

Also in the area of the school, the troops located a weapons depot, the IDF added.

Meanwhile, in Khan Younis, the IDF said Monday that troops of the 98th Division and Israeli Air Force aircraft foiled an attempt by Hamas to ferry weaponry in a truck to operatives in the Khan Younis area.

The IDF said the 98th Division spotted two Hamas operatives loading a truck with weapons and called in an airstrike. The truck was destroyed, along with the operatives who fled to a nearby building, it said.

Also in Khan Younis, the IDF said troops of the 7th Armored Brigade raided a Hamas command center, locating a cache of weapons. The IDF said the troops seized assault rifles, handguns, grenades, RPGs, and diving equipment belonging to Hamas’s naval forces.

Two more weapons depots were destroyed by the IDF in Khan Younis, and other caches of weapons were found in various buildings, including the home of a Hamas operative, it said.

Meanwhile, in northern Gaza, the IDF said surveillance soldiers spotted five Hamas operatives in an area where ground forces were operating, and called in an airstrike, killing all five.

Troops of the Kfir Brigade operate in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, in a handout image published January 14, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

War erupted between Israel and Hamas with the terror group’s October 7 massacres, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages — mostly civilians.

Vowing to destroy the terror group, Israel launched a wide-scale military campaign in Gaza, which the Hamas-run health ministry has said killed over 24,000 people since. The figure cannot be independently verified, and is believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 9,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

Several hostages freed in a ceasefire deal in late November described being held inside tunnels, which Hamas has dug throughout the Gaza Strip and which Israel says have long been used to smuggle weapons and fighters throughout the enclave.

It is believed that 132 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during the late November truce. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 25 of those still held by Hamas, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Israel also believes that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar is hiding in a tunnel somewhere in Khan Younis.

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