The Israeli military said it withdrew a division of ground troops from southern Gaza on Sunday, raising questions about its plans as the war reached the six-month mark.

Israel has significantly reduced the number of troops it has on the ground in Gaza over the past several months. Only a fraction of the soldiers that it had deployed in the territory earlier in the war remain.

The army said that the 98th Division had left Khan Younis in southern Gaza in order “to recuperate and prepare for future operations.” Israeli news media reported that the withdrawal of the 98th meant there were no Israeli troops actively maneuvering in southern Gaza.

It was unclear what the latest drawdown of forces meant for the prospect of an Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to invade the city, despite warnings from the Biden administration that a ground invasion would be catastrophic for the more than one million Gazans sheltering there.

On Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu said that Israel was determined to “complete the elimination of Hamas in all of the Gaza Strip, including Rafah.”

The army said that its forces would remain in other parts of Gaza to preserve its “freedom of action and its ability to conduct precise intelligence-based operations.”

Osama Asfour, 41, a resident of Khan Younis who is sheltering in a tent in Rafah, said the army’s announcement did not make him want to return to his city — and his destroyed home — anytime soon.

“The military might say it left today, but they can come back tomorrow,” Mr. Asfour, who had worked at the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, said in an interview. “I’m not going to go on an adventure with my life and my family’s lives.”

Even so, Ahmed al-Soufi, a local official in Rafah, said he had noticed some displaced people in the city were returning to Khan Younis on Sunday.


A senior White House official said he was uncertain what the withdrawal of the 98th division meant for the future of the war.

“It’s hard to know exactly what that tells us right now,” John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “As we understand it, and through their public announcements, it is really just about rest and refit for these troops that have been on the ground for four months, and not necessarily, that we can tell, indicative of some coming new operation for these troops.”

The departure of the 98th came about four months after Israeli forces invaded southern Gaza. Since the start of the war, the army has returned to areas of Gaza that its forces had previously left, especially in the north. Military officials have said that Hamas has tried to re-establish itself in parts of the north in the wake of Israel’s withdrawals.

Last week, the military pulled back from Al-Shifa Hospital in the north after a two-week-long operation. It had first raided the hospital in November. This time the troops left behind what appeared to be a wasteland following extended gun battles with Palestinian militants in and around the complex.

Mohammed Radi, 36, a displaced restaurateur from Gaza City who has been sheltering in Rafah with his family, said he was tired of the news about Palestinians in the enclave being killed and, more than anything, wanted the war to end.

“I feel frustrated and mentally crushed,” he said in an interview. “We are exhausted after six months in tents.”

Iyad Abuheweila and Erica L. Green contributed reporting.

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