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Israel’s withdrawal of some troops from Gaza sparks new government rift

A far-right Israeli government minister has criticized a decision by the country’s military to withdraw an army division from Gaza, exposing further divides between lawmakers over the military offensive in the Palestinian enclave.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said a “rocket barrage” launched from Gaza into Israel on Tuesday morning “proves once again that the occupation of the (Gaza) Strip is necessary for the realization of the combat goals.”

The IDF said Monday that the 36th division, which comprises armored, engineering, and infantry companies, withdrew from the Gaza Strip after 80 days, in the most significant sign yet of a shift to a new phase of fighting that some Israeli officials have been promising.

A growing chorus of leaders have condemned the spiraling death toll in Gaza, where Israel’s deadly military offensive since October 7 has decimated swathes of the territory and left more than 2.2 million people facing famine, deadly disease and forcible displacement.

Israeli attacks in Gaza have killed at least 24,100 Palestinians and injured another 60,834, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health. CNN cannot independently confirm the numbers due to the difficulty of reporting from the war zone.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, pictured on December 18 in Tel Aviv, announced the withdrawal of some troops from Gaza on Monday. It was the most significant sign so far of a new phase in Israel's military offensive. - Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, pictured on December 18 in Tel Aviv, announced the withdrawal of some troops from Gaza on Monday. It was the most significant sign so far of a new phase in Israel's military offensive. - Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Monday that the “intensive manoeuvring stage” of Israel’s military offensive in northern and southern Gaza would “end soon.”

The Israeli military is working to “eliminate pockets of resistance” in northern Gaza, Gallant said, claiming: “We will achieve this via raids, airstrikes, special operations and additional activities.”

After the October 7 attacks, Gallant said the original plan was for the “intensive manoeuvring stage” of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza to last approximately three months. But, he cautioned the Israeli military adapts its operations “in accordance with the reality on the ground” and “our intelligence.”

A spokesperson for the IDF told CNN the 36th division withdrew from Gaza “for a period of refreshment and training,” adding that the division’s future movements are yet to be decided.

“At the end of the period, and according to the assessment of the situation, it will be decided on the continuation of the operational activity of the division’s forces according to the operational need,” the spokesperson added.

The withdrawal means there are now three IDF combat divisions left in Gaza, alongside special forces, according to the spokesperson.

The units still on the ground in Gaza include the 98th division, which is operating in central Gaza and is the biggest division ever created in the history of the IDF. The IDF does not comment on the number of its troops in Gaza, but every division comprises multiple brigades which can each include thousands of soldiers.

Divides within Netanyahu’s cabinet

Ben Gvir’s comments highlight the tensions that exist within the Israeli government, and the wider defense and security establishment, over how much of a presence Israel should retain inside Gaza after the war.

Earlier this month, Israeli cabinet members argued over plans for the post-war future of Gaza and how to handle investigations into the security failings around Hamas’ October 7 attacks.

The public spat on January 4 followed what one source described as a “fight” at a meeting of the the security cabinet. Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said there had been a “stormy discussion,” while former Defense Minister Benny Gantz said a “politically motivated attack” had been launched.

The security cabinet split was over how to handle investigations into the October 7 attack on Israel, including the Israeli military’s failure to anticipate it, as well as how to approach the war from now on.

If the government collapses, Israel would likely face new elections that Netanyahu is widely expected to lose.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured on September 27, in Jerusalem. Divides between lawmakers within Netanyahu's cabinet, over proposed post-war plans for Gaza, have spilled into public view recently. - Abir Sultan/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, pictured on September 27, in Jerusalem. Divides between lawmakers within Netanyahu's cabinet, over proposed post-war plans for Gaza, have spilled into public view recently. - Abir Sultan/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, some far-right politicians are pushing for complete re-occupation, along with the possible return of Jewish settlements, in the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under pressure from the United States to ensure a prominent role for the Palestinian Authority, said recently Israel has “no intention of permanently occupying Gaza.”

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza has forcibly displaced at least 1.93 million people, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees. Thousands of families have moved multiple times as Israel’s offensive has moved to new areas.

Regional actors in the Middle East have repeatedly likened the mass movement of Palestinians in Gaza to the “Nakba,” or catastrophe, the Arabic term for the expulsion or flight of Palestinians from their towns during the founding of Israel in 1948.

CNN’s Richard Allen Greene, Niamh Kennedy and Lauren Izso contributed reporting.

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