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Israel reduces troops in south Gaza under growing pressure from US

The Israeli military has withdrawn more ground troops from the southern Gaza Strip, leaving just one brigade there six months after the start of its offensive, a spokesperson for the force said on Sunday.

The military has been reducing numbers in Gaza since the start of the year to relieve reservists and under growing pressure from its ally Washington to improve the humanitarian situation. It did not give details on its reasons for withdrawing soldiers or the numbers involved.

Meanwhile, Egypt is preparing to host a new round of talks aimed at reaching a ceasefire and hostage release deal, which both Israel and Hamas said they would attend.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Israel would not bend to international pressure and give in to “extreme demands” by Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza.

It was unclear whether the withdrawal would delay a long-threatened incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, which Netanyahu says is needed to eliminate Hamas.

Palestinian residents of the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, which has come under Israeli bombardment in recent months, said they had seen Israeli forces leaving the centre of the city and retreating to the eastern districts.

Israel’s offensive, launched after the shock attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7, has focused in the past months on the south of the Gaza Strip.

More than 250 hostages were seized and some 1,200 people killed during the October 7 attack, according to Israeli tallies. More than 33,100 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli offensive, according to the health ministry in Gaza.

Rafah has become the last refuge for more than a million Palestinians sheltering in the territory near the border with Egypt.

Six months of combat in Gaza has strained the Israeli military and the country’s economy. Many Israeli security experts say they now see a greater threat from Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel is also on alert for a possible retaliatory attack from Iran in reaction to the killing of Iranian generals on April 1.

Israel is under increased pressure from the United States, where President Joe Biden has demanded that it improve humanitarian conditions in Gaza and work towards a ceasefire, saying that US support could depend on that.

That was the first time Biden, a staunch supporter of Israel, has sought to leverage US aid as a way to influence Israeli military behaviour. The US is a major supplier of arms to Israel’s military.

Biden has also urged the leaders of Egypt and Qatar to pressure Hamas to agree to a ceasefire and hostage deal ahead of a fresh round of talks in Cairo.

Netanyahu, at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting, said any deal must include the release of 133 hostages still being held in Gaza, and that Hamas’ “extreme demands” were the obstacle.

“Giving in to Hamas’ demands will allow it to repeat the crimes of October 7 again and again, as it has promised to do,” he said.

There was no immediate comment from Hamas.

More than 130 hostages are still in captivity in Gaza, and Israel says it will not stop its offensive until they are all returned.

Source: The Arab Weekly