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Thousands of Israeli troops pulled from Gaza as combat focuses on Khan Younis

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Israel says that some of its troops are backing out of Gaza. The Israeli military describes a shift in tactics after months of intensive bombardment and a ground operation, so what's going on? We have analysis this morning from Dennis Ross, who has been an influential U.S. diplomat under multiple presidents, works for a think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and is currently in Tel Aviv. Welcome back to the program.

DENNIS ROSS: Good to be with you. Thank you.

INSKEEP: What do you think the Israelis are doing?

ROSS: Well, I think what we're seeing is a movement gradually into a different phase of the conflict. From the Israeli standpoint, they put four divisions, which is an awful lot of forces, into a relatively small area. But they were actually going after what is a very deep military infrastructure and industrial base that Hamas has built up. It's not just the fact that they have tunnels, it's also that they produce their own rockets, their own mortars, their own drones, their own ammunition. This is a really profound infrastructure that was developed over time. And it took a lot of forces, I think, to begin to take on that infrastructure.

Now, what we're seeing is success, really, in the northern part of Gaza so that Hamas has pretty much lost control there. Because of that, the Israelis are shrinking the number of forces they have in Gaza because in a sense, they're concentrating more on other areas. But those other areas don't require the kind of large presence, No. 1. No. 2, that kind of a large presence also tends to create problems for the Israelis. They have - if you think about it, they have 29 killed by friendly fire. Some of that comes from a large number of forces in a very small space.

INSKEEP: Now, it's possible to see this as Israel's response to U.S. advice, given that the Biden administration would like to see a more targeted campaign with fewer civilian casualties, less indiscriminate bombing, to use a word that President Biden used. Is any of that happening here?

ROSS: I do think that's part of it. All along, I think the Israelis have been listening to the United States, but I think they were taking into account what they felt their own military plans required. But as they listened to advice from the Biden administration, one, they took it seriously. Two, they also began to think about, OK, how can we demonstrate that we're being responsive to the administration? And three, they went through their own process of looking at what seems to be working effectively, what might be working less effectively. So in a lot of ways, there was a kind of iterative process within Israel but I think also with the administration as well.

INSKEEP: Now, Israeli officials set a goal at the beginning of this war or after the Hamas attack on October 7. The goal was to eliminate Hamas, to destroy Hamas. Palestinians that I've spoken with, outside analysts that we've had on this program have warned that's too big a goal because it's too big a movement. There's too much popular support for Hamas among Palestinians. Do you think Israeli officials are recognizing they can't strike a crushing blow, that this will be a long, long and slow effort with an indeterminate outcome?

ROSS: I think there's kind of a mix here, I still think, at the political level, partly because one has to be here to fully understand the nature of the trauma. Everybody in Israel knows someone who was kidnapped or killed in the south on October 7.

INSKEEP: Sure.

ROSS: Or they know someone who is fighting in Gaza today. And they know people there who have been killed. Everybody is moved by this. The shock of it and the trauma of it is quite prominent. So politically, you have leaders who are saying we're going to eliminate them. Practically speaking, when you talk to people in the military, they're much more focused on the task at hand, which is how do you ensure that Hamas doesn't have the means to reconstitute itself, doesn't have the means to ever threaten Israel again, and ensure that it loses command and control to the point where politically it loses control in Gaza?

That doesn't mean eliminating every Hamas. It doesn't mean the idea of Hamas is gone. It doesn't mean even the group is necessarily gone. But it means as an organization with coherence and with the ability to control Gaza, that it loses. That, I think, actually is an achievable goal. That is very much what I think the military is focused on. They're also beginning to focus on what happens the day after you get to that point. But it's not going to be easy to get that point and I think it's going to take some time.

INSKEEP: We just got about 15 seconds. But do the Israelis know yet who they want to run Gaza on that day after?

ROSS: I think they're focused right now very much on kind of the civil administration that has been there even under the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and maybe some of the prominent families from the past. But that's kind of an intermediate phase before you get to what would be what I would call an interim administration.

INSKEEP: Dennis Ross, longtime U.S. envoy now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, thanks so much.

ROSS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: For more analysis and differing views, you can visit npr.org/mideastupdates. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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