Israel said its military is starting to shift from a large-scale ground and air campaign in the Gaza Strip to a more targeted phase in its war against Hamas, and Israeli officials have privately told their American counterparts that they hoped the transition would be completed by the end of January, U.S. officials said.
Israel’s disclosure came as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was expected in Israel to press officials there to curtail their campaign in Gaza and to prevent the war from spreading across the region, particularly in the aftermath of an Israeli strike last week that killed senior Hamas leaders in Lebanon and as Hezbollah said one of its commanders was killed in a strike in the country.
Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the chief spokesman for the Israeli military, said the new phase of the campaign involved fewer troops and airstrikes. U.S. officials said they expected the transition to rely more on surgical missions by smaller groups of elite Israeli forces that would move in and out of population centers in the Gaza Strip to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and destroy tunnels.
“The war shifted a stage,” Admiral Hagari said Monday in an interview. “But the transition will be with no ceremony,” he added. “It’s not about dramatic announcements.”
He said Israel would continue to reduce the number of troops in Gaza, a process that began this month. The intensity of operations in northern Gaza has already begun to ebb, he added, as the military shifts toward conducting one-off raids there instead of maintaining wide-scale maneuvers.
Israel will now focus instead on Hamas’s southern and central strongholds, particularly around Khan Younis and Deir al Balah, said Admiral Hagari, adding that he expected more aid and tents to be let into Gaza.
U.S. officials say they believe the number of Israeli troops in the northern part of Gaza has dropped to less than half of the some 50,000 soldiers that had been present as recently as last month during the height of the campaign. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
Still, Israeli officials have made clear to U.S. officials that, while they hope to complete the transition by the end of the month, the timeline is not fixed. If Israeli forces encounter Hamas resistance that is stiffer than expected, or discover threats that they did not anticipate, the size and pace of the withdrawal could slow, and intensive airstrikes could continue, they said.
President Biden has strongly supported Israel’s war in Gaza, in which the Israeli military, armed with American weapons, has killed about 23,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, according to the Gaza health ministry.
But Mr. Biden has come under pressure internationally, and from within his own administration, to rein in Israel’s campaign, launched after Hamas’s Oct. 7 terrorist attacks on southern Israel, in which 1,200 people were killed and 240 hostages were seized.
Mr. Biden told aides last month that he wanted the Israelis to make the transition around Jan. 1. The Israelis presented the Americans with their own transition timeline. Upon hearing it, Mr. Biden’s aides urged the Israelis to move more quickly
With the transition now underway, there is a growing sense of urgency among Israeli and American officials to come up with plans to restore and maintain public order in the Gaza Strip as Israeli troops accelerate their withdrawal.
Israeli officials have told their American counterparts that they envision a loose network of local mayors, security officials and leaders from prominent Palestinian families in the Gaza Strip stepping in to provide basic security in the near term in the areas where they live. These local leaders, according to Israeli officials, could oversee the distribution of humanitarian aid and enforce day-to-day order.
Though many of these local leaders will most likely have some ties to Hamas, which took control of the territory in 2007, Israeli officials see the district-by-district approach, in conjunction with aid groups on the ground, as their best option to allow for the distribution of humanitarian aid and to provide a measure of security for civilians.
Israeli officials have floated a wide range of other ideas. Some of them have held out hope that Arab states would agree to send in a peacekeeping force. Others have promoted the idea of a multinational force led by the United States, but with Israeli oversight for security of the strip. But U.S. officials say that their Israeli counterparts have not formally asked them to pursue the idea of an international force because they know it is unlikely to happen.
Israel’s plans have generally lacked detail, amid public disagreement among members of the government about how much control Israel should retain over Gaza after the war. Some have called for Israeli civilians to resettle the territory, while others, like the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, have ruled out an Israeli civilian presence.
To provide security in the Gaza Strip in the medium and long term, U.S. officials have proposed retraining members of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces. U.S. officials said they believed that there are at least 6,000 members of these forces in the Gaza Strip but retraining them will take many months, and it is unclear whether Israel will accept their deployment or how the local population will receive them.
The Biden administration has called for a “revamped and revitalized” Palestinian Authority to govern Gaza after the war, viewing it as a path toward a two-state solution that would create a Palestinian state consisting of Gaza and the West Bank, a proposal that many Israelis on the right oppose. So far, Israeli leaders have all but ruled out the idea of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority administering the Gaza Strip, and many Palestinians see it as corrupt and as an extension of Israel.
The Palestinian Authority has said it will help with postwar governance only if it is part of a wider process toward the creation of a Palestinian state.
On Jan. 1, the Israeli military announced that it would begin withdrawing several thousand troops from the Gaza Strip, at least temporarily. Israeli officials told their American counterparts in private that this was the start of the transition.
Mr. Blinken has visited a half-dozen countries in the region since landing in Turkey on Friday and has spoken to leaders in each of them about how they might help in a postwar Gaza. He expects to speak with Israeli leaders about the ramping down of the war and how the strip might function in the coming months, a State Department official on the trip said.