ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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Thousands of ground force soldiers coming out of the Strip

As 2024 begins, IDF withdraws 5 brigades from Gaza, but says fighting likely all year

Military says rocket launches down to average of 14 per day; ‘We are adjusting the fighting methods,’ spokesman says

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

IDF soldiers walk near the border with the Gaza Strip in Israel on their return from the Gaza Strip, on December 31, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and the terror group Hamas. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)
IDF soldiers walk near the border with the Gaza Strip in Israel on their return from the Gaza Strip, on December 31, 2023, amid continuing battles between Israel and the terror group Hamas. (Menahem Kahana / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces said Sunday it was beginning to release five brigades from combat in the Gaza Strip, as the military increasingly gains control on the ground.

The military said it believes the war against the terror group will likely continue throughout 2024, and said it was prepared for lengthy fighting, though in different phases from the high-intensity campaign it has waged so far.

The announcement came as troops continued to operate in Gaza. The 162nd Division remains focused on Gaza City’s Daraj and Tuffah neighborhoods; the 36th Division is fighting Hamas in central Gaza’s al-Bureij; the 99th Division is also operating in central Gaza; and the 98th and Gaza divisions are operating in the Strip’s south, in Khan Younis and Khuza’a respectively.

War erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, when some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from Gaza by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

In response, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas and launched a wide-scale offensive in the Strip, which the Hamas-run health ministry says has left at least 21,000 people dead. Figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified and include both civilians and terror operatives killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. According to IDF assessments, some 8,500 terror operatives have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war.

Ground operations have in recent weeks led to a significant decline in the number of rockets launched from Gaza at Israel.

IDF forces operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout photo released on December 31, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to IDF data, in the first week of December, after a weeklong truce with Hamas collapsed, 75 rockets were launched at Israel on average per day. In the following week, that number dropped to 23 rockets on average per day; between December 15 and 21, only 16 rockets were fired per day; and between December 22 to 27, that number dropped to 14.

The data does not include mortars launched at ground troops in Gaza, rockets fired at the sea, and failed launches.

Rockets are fired toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, December 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

On Sunday evening, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the military was making adjustments to its deployment in Gaza, in anticipation of a long war ahead.

“We are adjusting the fighting methods to each area in Gaza, and the necessary forces to carry out the mission in the best way possible. Each area has different characteristics and different operational needs,” he said. “Tonight, 2024 will begin. The goals of the war require lengthy fighting, and we are prepared accordingly.”

Hagari said the military would be carrying out “smart” management of the forces in Gaza, allowing reservists to return home to help bounce back the economy, and for standing army troops to train to become commanders.

The 460th Armored Brigade, responsible for the Armored Corps training base; the 261st Brigade, the Bahad 1 officers’ school in wartime; the 828th Brigade, the School for Infantry Corps Professions and Squad Commanders; the 14th Reserve Armored Brigade; and 551st Reserve Paratroopers Brigade, are all being released.

The five brigades are made up of thousands of soldiers.

The brigades tasked with training soldiers will return to carrying out their usual activity, while the reservists are being released to help bounce back Israel’s economy.

“We are continuing the training of officers and commanders… after their experience in combat, they are returning to training and will join the army’s line of commanders when they finish,” Hagari said.

Hagari said “some of the reservists will return to their families and work this week.”

“It will result in considerable relief for the economy, and will allow them to gain strength for operations next year, and the fighting will continue and we will need them,” he said.

“These adjustments are aimed at ensuring the planning and preparations for 2024. The IDF needs to plan ahead, out of the understanding that we will be needed for additional missions and continued fighting during the entire coming year,” Hagari added.

IDF soldiers operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released December, 31, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

In Gaza, Hagari said some members of Hamas’s elite Nukhba force were killed by troops and others surrendered in the Khan Younis area earlier Sunday, some of whom participated in the October 7 massacres.

As fighting continued in the Strip, the IDF released new footage of the Oketz canine unit operating in Gaza. The military said the unit “in a large number of cases” had sent dogs to scan buildings before troops raided the site. The dogs have located threats, helped map out buildings and discovered weapons.

In one incident during an operation with the 460th Armored Brigade in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, an Oketz dog named Patrick was sent to scan a building before troops entered. The dog located and subdued a Hamas gunman who had planned to ambush the troops, according to the IDF.

In another incident in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood, an Oketz dog named Toy discovered a passage between a building troops were in and another building, where a Hamas gunman was hiding. The dog attacked the gunman, preventing the troops from being ambushed, according to the IDF.

The IDF also published new footage of the Commando Brigade’s Maglan unit operating in Khan Younis, where troops recently raided an educational institute from which Hamas operatives opened fire at troops.

The army said the troops found a rocket launcher, documents, and other equipment belonging to Hamas in the complex, along with weapons in civilian homes in the area.

Israel says it is making an effort to avoid harming civilians while fighting a terror group embedded within the civilian population.

It has long accused Gaza-based terror groups of using Palestinians in the Strip as human shields, operating from sites, including schools and hospitals, which are supposed to be protected.

Israeli soldiers gather near the border with the Gaza Strip in Israel after their return from the Gaza Strip, on December 31, 2023 amid continuing battles between Israel and the terror group Hamas. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Earlier on Sunday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi told reservists in southern Gaza’s Khuza’a that “every move you make will be supported by the strongest possible fire,” apparently alluding to unsupported claims by a government minister of an alleged lack of air support for ground forces.

“Khirbat Ikhzaa (Khuza’a) also conducted terror here for many, many years, and the attack on Nir Oz was led from here. We are both killing the terrorists who participated and killing the terrorists who will want to commit terror in the future,” Halevi told troops and commanders of the 5th Reserve Brigade. “We are preparing a security region here so that the return to Nir Oz will be safe [for civilians], and will be safe for many, many years.”

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi speaks to commanders in southern Gaza’s Khuza’a, December 31, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

“Every move you make will be supported by the strongest possible fire. Plan it with the abilities you have, always push forward with strength… and use the open-fire regulations with common sense,” Halevi said.

He commented that open-fire rules are not “tying anyone’s hands. The open-fire regulations come to protect us from ourselves as well.”

Meanwhile, the IDF on Sunday responded to claims that soldiers opened fire on a United Nations aid convoy in Gaza last week, saying the troops fired warning shots because they were not aware that the vehicles were due to pass them.

Citing an investigation into Friday’s incident, the IDF Spokesperson Unit said in a statement to The Times of Israel that after the UN humanitarian convoy finished delivering aid to shelters in northern Gaza, it was asked by the military to go via a different route back south.

“This was to maintain its safety given the fighting that was taking place near the area,” the IDF said.

A convoy of trucks carrying fuel and aid drive in Gaza City’s Zeitoun district on November 25, 2023, on the second day of a temporary truce between Israel and Hamas. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

It said troops in the area were not aware of the change of route, and “as a result, when the vehicles arrived, the troops on the ground acted to stop [the convoy] in a procedure that included a warning shot that was not aimed at the vehicles.”

“When the vehicles stopped, the shooting stopped,” the IDF said, adding that there were no casualties, but shrapnel from the warning shots hit one of the vehicles.

The IDF said it had drawn lessons from the incident “in order to prevent such cases from happening again,” adding that the open-fire regulations and conduct of troops with regard to humanitarian aid convoys “were underscored.”

“Since the beginning of the war, the IDF has been working in close coordination with the international aid agencies operating in the Gaza Strip and has coordinated hundreds of humanitarian movements in very complex combat conditions,” the IDF added.

As combat rages on, 85 percent of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have been displaced, according to the UN, which warns of a growing risk of hunger and disease as desperate families shelter in makeshift tents against the winter cold.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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