IDF Pulls Ground Troops From Southern Gaza, Stresses ‘War Is Not Over’ Until Hostages Are Free

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) insisted on Sunday that the war against Hamas is not coming to a close following reports of a ground troop withdrawal from southern Gaza.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesperson for the IDF, reportedly told the BBC that the military completed its mission in the Khan Younis area, leading to a rotation of troops while a focus of the campaign remains on the southern city of Rafah.

“It is a decline in the forces but there are more operations that need to be conducted. Rafah is clearly a stronghold. We need to dismantle Hamas’ capabilities wherever they are,” Lerner said.

“This is another stage in the war effort” in which the IDF’s campaign is “continuously evolving,” he continued, adding, “The war is not over. War can only be over when they [hostages] come home and when Hamas is gone.”

IDF forces have been fighting in Gaza for six months after Hamas launched an attack on Israel in October that killed roughly 1,200 people. An IDF spokesperson told Newsweek on Friday a little more than half of the approximately 250 hostages taken are still being held.

The Times of Israel reported on Sunday the IDF had withdrawn all of its “maneuvering ground forces” from Gaza, leaving just one brigade to protect a corridor that bisects the territory, cutting the northern part off from the rest of the strip.

Holly Williams, a reporter for CBS News, said the remaining Israeli troops are on Gaza’s border with Israel and noted that a colleague informed her that people can “move freely” from southern Gaza up to central Gaza for the first time in three months.

John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, told ABC News that the U.S. believes the pullout is “really just about rest and refit for these troops” after four months of fighting and “not necessarily … indicative of some coming new operation for these troops.”

Israel has been gearing up for an invasion of Rafah, where it was estimated that more than half the strip’s 2.3 million population had gathered during the conflict, to root out a Hamas stronghold and free hostages who may be held there.

Although the United States continues to supply weapons to Israel, the Biden administration has voiced opposition to the plan for a Rafah ground operation and is pushing for a ceasefire.

In an address on Sunday, reportedly delivered hours after the reports of the partial withdrawal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there would be no standing down until the hostage situation is resolved.

“Citizens of Israel, there is no war more just than this one, and we are determined to achieve total victory,” Netanyahu said, adding, “I have made it clear to the international community: There will be no ceasefire without the return of the hostages. It simply will not happen.”

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