Now, as the conflict enters its fourth month, Israel has apparently made good on that threat, risking a wider war along its border with Lebanon even as it begins to draw down troops in Gaza for the first time.
Military leaders said that the partial withdrawal was possible now that attacks have weakened Hamas in the north and that it would allow thousands of reservists to return home and go back to work. It also comes after months of pressure from Washington to pull back from what President Biden has described as “indiscriminate bombing” and reduce the devastating civilian death toll.
The events come amid growing concerns about the war’s economic toll in Israel and the gradual return of protests and domestic political intrigue. While few analysts see an end to the violence in Gaza, they detect an evolution.
“We are on to Stage 3,” said Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, referring to the phase of warfare expected to follow the initial response to the October attacks and the sustained air and ground war inside the enclave. “I think we’re moving into a new mode, something closer to what the U.S. has been advocating from the beginning.”
Israel’s military has said for months it is ready to fight a two-front war, having massed troops and tanks along the Lebanese border and evacuated at least 70,000 residents. Israel Defense Forces units have frequently exchanged fire with Hezbollah, the Iranian-aligned Lebanese militant group, yet the strikes and counterstrikes had never approached Beirut — until Tuesday.
Israel declined to confirm or deny any role in the assassination of Saleh Arouri, an exiled Hamas official who acted as a liaison with Iran and Hezbollah. But he was on their list.
“Without doubt, this was the most significant assassination of any senior Hamas official since the war began on October 7,” Palestinian affairs expert Avi Issacharoff wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Wednesday.
While Israel says it has killed a number of Hamas commanders and officials inside of Gaza, Yehiya Sinwar, believed to be the mastermind of the Oct. 7 attacks, and other top leaders are still at large.
Lebanese and international officials scrambled Wednesday to tamp down Hezbollah’s expected retaliation. To date, the group has resisted entreaties from Hamas to fully enter the war. Israeli officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said they were hoping Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah would show restraint given that none of his officers were killed in the strike.
“There is a carrier there. We hope it is enough,” said one of the Israeli officials, referring to the presence of a U.S. carrier group in the eastern Mediterranean.
Nasrallah warned of “a response and punishment” in a speech Wednesday but gave few clues about how his fighters would respond.
Israeli residents in the northern port city of Haifa were advised to have plans for sheltering during an attack. Military analysts said the drawdown of troops in Gaza would probably allow for more resources to go toward Lebanon.
“We are highly prepared for any scenario,” IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said after Arouri’s killing.
On Tuesday in Eilon, a kibbutz one mile south of the Lebanese border, Israeli artillery was launched every few minutes toward what the IDF said were “terrorist targets.” Hezbollah antitank missiles were intercepted — and sometimes fell — in the emptied villages.
Across the north, local security squads have been training for what they believe is an impending war. Dotan Razili, a resident of Eilon who is serving as a reserve soldier there, said the evacuations have allowed the IDF to operate freely in the area, firing from agricultural fields.
“We are getting drawn into a war we didn’t ask for,” he said.
The assassination in Lebanon was widely hailed in Israel, although some advocates for the estimated 133 Israelis still held captive in Gaza said they worried that the attack would derail talks for another hostage exchange.
“The [government] is currently motivated by a sense of revenge,” Carmit Palti-Katzir, whose brother Elad is being held as a hostage, said in an interview on Israeli radio. “But I’m saying, for God’s sake, there are living people there.”
The IDF said last week it was pulling up to five brigades from the northern Gaza Strip, marking a potential shift from widespread bombing to more targeted raids by troops based outside the enclave. Yet Israeli officials have said repeatedly that the fighting was likely to continue for months.
The sound of bombs and shelling echoed through the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis on Wednesday, where eyewitnesses told The Washington Post that fighting remained as intense as ever. Ambulances raced back and forth throughout the day carrying the dead and wounded, according to Hussam Kurdieh, a displaced civilian from Gaza City who is sheltering at Nasser Hospital.
“People here have grown accustomed to the grim spectacle of bombardment,” he said. “However, the daily struggle revolves more around securing food, water and essential necessities.”
In Israel, though, the war no longer feels so all-consuming, and citizens have begun to find room for broader political debates. On Monday, the country’s High Court reversed a vote by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to strip the court of key judicial review powers, a ruling celebrated by his critics as a win for Israeli democracy.
And the anti-government protests that rocked the country for most of last year, but were put on hold after Oct. 7, have made a return.
On Saturday, crowds in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem chanted for new elections amid pent-up anger at Netanyahu, who is widely blamed for failing to prevent the Hamas attacks and has seen his support plummet in public polling.
“We’re seeing a new phase, people are coming back onto the streets,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Hebrew University. “Now the people at the front of the protests are the families of hostages, the families of killed soldiers, the reservists.”
Splits are increasingly visible within the emergency war cabinet in which Netanyahu shares power with his political rival, former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, among others. Gantz, along with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, have declined to appear with Netanyahu at some recent news conferences. Both have expressed more openness to the ideas pushed by Biden for a postwar government in Gaza that relies on a restored Palestinian Authority, a notion that Netanyahu and the more extremist members of his coalition have dismissed.
Gantz, whose popularity has soared, has said that politics and investigations into the failures of Oct. 7 should wait until the war eases. As some troops withdraw from Gaza, political observers are watching closely for any sign that he might be ready to make a move.
Gantz could trigger new elections by persuading five members of the coalition, many of whom have criticized Netanyahu, to join a no-confidence vote.
“The minute Gantz felt like he could leave the war cabinet, that snowball would start rolling,” Talshir said. “That is beginning to feel more possible as the situation in Gaza is stabilizing.”
“Of course,” she added, “if we have a second front with Hezbollah, it would all change again.”
Shira Rubin in Eilon, Israel; Loay Ayyoub in Rafah, Gaza Strip; and Hazem Balousha in Amman contributed to this report.