The withdrawal of almost all Israeli forces from southern Gaza is a significant moment in this war – but it might be too early to assess how significant.

Officially, it is to give troops time to recuperate after months of heavy fighting, although that doesn’t explain why they haven’t just been replaced.

Israeli officials are also saying operations in Khan Younis are over and there is nothing left to do.

That’s not entirely true, as some rockets were fired out of the city towards Israel hours after the soldiers left.

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Although some forces will remain, predominantly patrolling the east-west corridor that divides the strip, withdrawing from Khan Younis concedes ground and surely makes a large-scale land invasion of Rafah unlikely, at least in the short term.

It could be linked to a hostage deal.

Senior level talks are expected to resume in Cairo on Sunday, with Israel’s intelligence chief David Barnea present.

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Six months of war in Gaza

Hamas had been demanding a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, something that Israel repeatedly rejected – could this partial withdrawal be a workable compromise?

Militarily, it signifies the shift to a new phase – the third phase in this six-month war. The first phase was the aerial bombardment and the second was the ground invasion.

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I would expect to see Israeli forces now operating in a counter-terrorism fashion, launching raids based on specific intelligence, rather than having an all-out continuous presence in much of Gaza.

The withdrawal of forces should create space for more humanitarian aid to move about Gaza – something that is desperately needed.

But without a “day after” plan, it will possibly also create a security vacuum, which, as we’ve seen in northern Gaza, can lead to the return of Hamas cells.

If this truly is a new significant phase, the withdrawal of forces must be accompanied by meaningful progress in the political process otherwise any military gains Israel has made could be rapidly lost.