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What Netanyahu's abrupt Gaza withdrawal means for Israel, Rafah op

While negotiations continue for a hostage release and cease-fire deal between Israel and Hamas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is busy currying favor with his far-right ministers, promising them a military operation in Rafah.
An Israeli soldier checks a mobile atop a tank in a army camp near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on April 8, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (Photo by Menahem Kahana / AFP) (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images)

TEL AVIV — Anyone wishing to understand how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu operates need not delve into the biographies written about Israel’s longest-serving leader. Suffice it to follow one day in his life this week and in the life of the country he is holding hostage to his political survival. 

Israelis woke up Sunday to find that while they had been sleeping, the powerful 98th Division of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had been pulled out of the Gaza Strip, leaving behind just the Nahal brigade. The remaining force, estimated to be between 3,000 and 4,000 soldiers — down from 40,000 at the height of the war — has not been tasked with hunting Hamas assailants, only with securing the dividing axis that the IDF has carved between the northern and southern parts of the enclave in order to prevent the return of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians whom Israel has pushed from the north to the south. 

The nighttime pullout was even more surprising given Netanyahu's recently repeated promises that the IDF would soon carry out its long-awaited operation in Rafah, the final Hamas stronghold, destroy the remaining four Hamas battalions there, deal with two more battalions still more or less intact in Gaza’s central region, and declare the "total victory" Netanyahu has been pledging since Oct. 7.

But on the six-month anniversary of the war, it appears that not only is Israel not invading Rafah, but it has all but pulled out of Gaza altogether, without notifying the public.

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