Israel will begin pulling thousands of soldiers out of Gaza this week in preparation for a new phase of the conflict, the military announced Monday, though a top official warned that he expected the fighting to continue throughout the year.
The announcement from the Israel Defense Forces marked the biggest known withdrawal of troops from the territory since the war against Hamas began and comes after the military said it was expanding operations in the central and southern Gaza Strip.
The 551st and 14th brigades - comprised of reservists - will return to their families and civilian lives this week, the IDF said in a statement.
The 828th brigade, which trains squad commanders, the 261st brigade, which trains army officers, and the 460th brigade, which trains the armored corps, will return to their scheduled training, the IDF said.
The statement said the move is expected to "significantly alleviate economic burdens" and the troops "to gather strength for upcoming activities in the next year, as the fighting will persist, and their services will still be needed."
In a briefing on Sunday, IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the return of the reservists was aimed at ensuring "planning and preparation for the continuation of 2024... understanding that we will be required for additional tasks and warfare throughout this year." The objectives of the war "require prolonged fighting," he added.
The focus of Israel's ground operation has moved to the center and south of the Strip, but fighting in the north continues, where an estimated 52% to 65% of structures have been damaged and 46,000 housing units completely destroyed, according to the UN.
The IDF extended operations further into Khan Younis in southern Gaza last week. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) warned on Thursday that over 150,000 people "have nowhere to go" after the IDF warned residents in many parts of central Gaza that they must urgently leave.
Israel aims to destroy Hamas after the Palestinian militant group's surprise attacks on October 7 left 1,200 people in Israel dead, according to Israeli authorities, as well as bring back the hostages Hamas captured.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that Israel's war in Gaza is at its "highest level and will continue for months," according to Israel's Army Radio.
Senior US officials told CNN in early December that they expected the current phase of Israel's ground operation targeting the southern end of the Strip to last several weeks before it transitions, possibly by January, to a lower-intensity, hyper-localized strategy that narrowly targets specific Hamas militants and leaders.
The Biden administration has warned Israel that it cannot replicate the kind of devastating tactics it used in the north and must do more to limit civilian casualties.
More than 21,000 people have been killed in the enclave during Israel's offensive, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health in Gaza.
(The-CNN-Wire & 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.)