Israel’s Gaza Withdrawal, A Prelude to Full-Out War

Don’t be lulled by the Israeli troop withdrawal from northern Gaza. Tel Aviv has no intention of ending this war, and is escalating on all its other fronts, including with Lebanon.

At the start of the new year, Israel’s occupation army began implementing the withdrawal of a large portion of its forces from the northern Gaza Strip.

This withdrawal did not mean the end of the war on Gaza, and it certainly did not suggest calm on the Lebanese-Israeli front. On the contrary, reducing the pace of the war in the Gaza Strip increases the possibilities of an Israeli war on Lebanon. 

The battles taking place between the occupation army and Hezbollah along the southern Lebanese border since 8 October, in support of the resistance in Gaza, have been increasing in intensity day after day. 

Washington and Tel Aviv have sought to maximize pressure on Hezbollah by warning of the possibility of a large-scale war between Israeli forces and the Lebanese resistance. These tactics were in effect long before the assassination of Hamas’ Deputy Head of the Political Bureau Saleh Al-Arouri on 2 January by an Israeli air strike in Dahiyeh, the southern suburb of Beirut. The killing of Al-Arouri now increases the chance of the war expanding.

The third stage is coming

The first stage of Tel Aviv’s war was the mass destruction and occupation of northern Gaza; the second stage is the occupation of key points in the south of the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian civilians have flocked for safety. The current troop withdrawal from the territory’s north means that the Israelis are cementing their southern plans and preparing to move on to phase three: the long, low-intensity war. 

As it enters the third stage, the occupation army intends to maintain a geographical buffer surrounding the northern Gaza Strip. It also plans to continue occupying the Gaza Valley area (central Gaza), while completing its operations in Khan Yunis in the south. 

The fate of the Philadelphia axis – or Salah ad-Din Axis – a strip of land on the border between Gaza and Egypt which Israel wants to control, will be left to deliberations between Tel Aviv and Cairo. This is to ensure that incidents do not occur that lead to tension between the two parties, as well as to guarantee that refugees do not flow from the south of the Gaza Strip towards Sinai.

Israel’s ground withdrawal from northern Gaza is taking place primarily because the occupation army’s target bank has been depleted. All targets prior to the start of the war have been destroyed, and all new operational targets have been bombed. 

Despite this, the Palestinian resistance continues to carry out operations against Israeli forces. These organizations remain relatively unscathed in the entire area of ​​the northern Gaza Strip, which will increase the ability of the resistance to inflict losses on occupation ranks, now and in the future. 

This clear Israeli loss – in terms of Tel Aviv’s stated war objectives – has been made evident by two basic factors: First, that the occupation army cannot ‘cleanse’ the northern Gaza Strip house by house or tunnel by tunnel, because this process will take years, expose more of its soldiers to danger, and cannot be implemented without further displacing the entire population of northern Gaza or massacring them. It should be noted, despite Israeli attempts to portray matters otherwise, that hundreds of thousands of civilians are still present in the north. 

Second, the Israeli government needs to gradually re-inject reserve soldiers into the country’s economy to jump-start it, and to ensure that the productive sectors are not exposed to damage from which recovery will take a long time. This, despite the fact that the US and much of Europe appear ready to assist Israel’s economy, if necessary.  

These measures are being taken because Israel has patently failed to achieve the two main goals of its war, namely, eliminating the Hamas-led resistance in Gaza, and liberating the Israeli prisoners captured by the resistance on 7 October.

There remains a basic motive that must be noted: The Israeli army is currently putting all its efforts into implementing a US decision to push the war from its first and second phases into the third phase before the end of January 2024. This requires the war to be managed at a slower boil, drawing less attention to Israeli carnage and the mass suffering of Palestinians. 

After three months of brutalities, Washington has assessed the Israeli army as unable to eliminate the resistance or the possibilities of regional escalation, and has noted the significant harm caused to the US administration of Joe Biden as he enters the presidential primary season.

An escalation with Lebanon

As the Israeli occupation army moves to focus its operations on the southern Gaza Strip, the intensity of military operations along the Lebanese border between Hezbollah and the Israeli army has also been ratcheted up.

Hezbollah increased its targeting of occupation soldiers, both in their visible locations and inside the settlements of northern Palestine.

The information capabilities of Hezbollah have developed in both sophistication and accuracy during the past months. The Lebanese resistance fighters have employed missile types not previously utilized, which have a greater range and better destructive capacity than previous generations.

On the other hand, Tel Aviv has doubled the firepower it used in southern Lebanon. The Israelis continue to limit their operations to the area south of the Litani River, and are not expanding their scope except to target resistance groups that carry out strikes across the border. In recent weeks, the occupation army’s destructive power has risen dramatically since the early days of the battle.

By increasing its strikes, Israel’s leadership seeks to inflict the greatest possible number of losses among the ranks of the resistance fighters, as well as to spread panic among southern Lebanese residents – displacing more of them, and destroying the largest possible number of homes. This places a burden on both Hezbollah and the Lebanese state in the reconstruction process after the end of hostilities.

But there is a longer-term goal to this Israeli military performance. The government in Tel Aviv, according to its official statements, wants Hezbollah to withdraw from the south of the Litani, to ensure the security of Israeli settlers in northern Palestine who abandoned their homes, either voluntarily or under evacuation orders from their army. By some estimates, the number of Israelis fleeing their settlements in occupied north Palestine has reached more than 230,000 people.

In parallel with the public statements, messages began arriving in Beirut, from the US and from European capitals, demanding what they call ‘the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701,’ meaning Hezbollah’s withdrawal from the south of the Litani River.

According to emerging information, Tel Aviv is betting that Hezbollah will be deterred, as the 2019 economic collapse from which Lebanon has not yet recovered and the country’s long-running internal tensions are factors that will ultimately prevent Hezbollah from waging war. 

Israel is therefore hoping that Hezbollah will yield to pressure and meet its demands regarding the withdrawal of its fighters from the border area with occupied Palestine.

The Israeli assessment of Lebanese affairs preceded its assassination of Al-Arouri in Beirut on 2 January. But in the same way that Israel military commanders and politicians have under-estimated and dismissed armed Palestinian resistance initiatives within occupied lands prior to 7 October, they continue to cling to a dated Israeli calculus that Hezbollah will never fully retaliate, or that it will only do so in a way that stops short of war. 

Granted, Hezbollah does genuinely seek to limit the scope of the military confrontation, and has often pushed for a Gaza ceasefire to end hostilities throughout the region. Hezbollah is equally concerned about not disrupting the lives and livelihood of southern residents. 

But while Hezbollah takes into account the complex political and economic Lebanese reality, it is not prepared to make concessions. Sources in the resistance axis say that Israel, as Hezbollah sees it, is not in a position to go to war with Lebanon when it cannot even compensate or digest the massive strategic losses it has incurred from Operation Al-Aqsa Flood.

Despite its desire to not expand the war, Hezbollah has already begun to prepare for it. Hezbollah’s party statement, issued after the assassination of Al-Arouri, indicates this, and field measures and developments will begin to appear in time. 

What Israel was unable to achieve in Gaza (restoring deterrence) while facing the tight ranks of the region’s Axis of Resistance, it will most certainly not be allowed to gain in Lebanon. 

The first signs of this will appear in the plans that Hezbollah is expected to carry out in response to Israel’s 2 January raid on Dahiyeh to assassinate Al-Arouri – the first of its kind since August 2006 – and to which its Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah had previously threatened he would respond.

The bottom line is that Tel Aviv’s assessment of a war with Lebanon is based on its reading that Hezbollah wishes to prevent a major confrontation at any cost. Not only is this calculus wrong, but it has also muddled Israeli minds to the point where this may itself lead to the outbreak of a destructive war between the two sides.

Hasan Illaik is a Lebanese journalist who has worked with various regional media outlets and platforms, including 15 years with leading daily Al Akhbar. His reporting is focused on issues related to Syria, Lebanon, US interventionism, economics, and security affairs, including Israeli espionage.

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