Now, as the conflict enters its fourth month, Israel appears to have made good on that threat, risking a broader war along its border with Lebanon even as it begins withdrawing its forces from Gaza for the first time.
Military commanders said a partial withdrawal was possible now that attacks had weakened Hamas in the north, and that thousands of reservists would be allowed to return home and return to work. It also comes after months of pressure from Washington to withdraw from what President Biden has called “indiscriminate bombing” and reduce the devastating civilian death toll.
These events come amid growing concerns about the economic toll of the war in Israel and the gradual return of protests and internal political intrigues. While few analysts see an end to the violence in Gaza, they expect an improvement.
“We are in the third phase,” said Chuck Freilich, Israel’s former deputy national security adviser, referring to the expected war phase after the initial response to the October attacks and the ongoing air and ground war inside the Strip. “I think we are moving to a new normal, something closer to what the United States has been calling for from the beginning.”
The Israeli army said months ago that it was ready to fight a war on two fronts, as it mobilized its forces and tanks along the Lebanese border and evacuated at least 70,000 residents. Israeli army units repeatedly exchanged fire with Hezbollah, the Lebanese armed group allied with Iran, but strikes and counter-strikes never came close to Beirut — until Tuesday.
Israel refused to confirm or deny any role in the assassination of Saleh Al-Arouri, the exiled Hamas official who served as a liaison with Iran and Hezbollah. But it was on their list.
“Without a doubt, this was the most important assassination of any senior Hamas official since the war began on October 7,” Palestinian affairs expert Avi Issacharoff wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth on Wednesday.
While Israel says it has killed a number of Hamas leaders and officials inside Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, who is believed to have masterminded the October 7 attacks, and other senior leaders remain at large.
On Wednesday, Lebanese and international officials were quick to stop Hezbollah's expected retaliation. So far, the movement has resisted Hamas's calls to enter the war fully. Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said they hoped Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah would show restraint given that none of his officers were killed in the raid.
“There is a tanker there. We hope that will be enough,” one Israeli official said, referring to the presence of a US aircraft carrier group in the eastern Mediterranean.
Nasrallah warned of “retaliation and punishment” in a speech on Wednesday, but offered few clues about how his fighters might respond.
Israeli residents in the northern coastal city of Haifa were advised to have plans to take shelter during the attack. Military analysts said that withdrawing forces from Gaza would likely allow more resources to be directed toward Lebanon.
Israeli army spokesman Admiral Daniel Hagari said after Al-Arouri’s killing: “We are fully prepared for any scenario.”
On Tuesday, in Elon, a kibbutz located a mile south of the Lebanese border, Israeli artillery was firing every few minutes toward what the Israeli military said were “terrorist targets.” Hezbollah anti-tank missiles were intercepted, and sometimes landed, in abandoned villages.
Across the north, local security teams were training for what they believed was an impending war. Dotan Razili, an Elon resident who serves as a reservist there, said the evacuations allowed the Israeli army to operate freely in the area, firing from agricultural fields.
“We are being dragged into a war that we did not ask for,” he said.
The assassination in Lebanon was widely welcomed in Israel, although some defenders of the estimated 133 Israelis still detained in Gaza said they were concerned that the attack could derail talks on another hostage exchange.
“the [government] “The motive behind this is a sense of revenge,” Carmit Balti-Katsir, whose brother Elad is being held hostage, said in an interview with Israeli Radio. “But I say, for God’s sake, there are living people out there.”
The Israeli military said last week that it had withdrawn up to five brigades from the northern Gaza Strip, marking a potential shift from large-scale bombing to more targeted raids by forces stationed outside the Strip. However, Israeli officials have repeatedly said that the fighting is likely to continue for several months.
Biden and Netanyahu are headed toward a collision over the post-war agenda
Bombs and shelling echoed in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Yunis on Wednesday, where witnesses told The Washington Post that the fighting remained as intense as ever. Ambulances rushed back and forth all day to transport the dead and wounded, according to Hussam Kurdieh, a displaced civilian from Gaza City who is taking shelter in Nasser Hospital.
“People here are accustomed to the horrific sight of bombing,” he said. “But the daily struggle is more about securing food, water and basic necessities.”
But in Israel, the war no longer seemed so exhausting, and citizens began to find room for broader political discussions. The country's Supreme Court on Monday overturned a vote by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition to strip the court of key judicial review powers, a ruling celebrated by its critics as a victory for Israeli democracy.
Anti-government protests that rocked the country for much of last year returned, but were suspended after October 7.
On Saturday, crowds in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem chanted for new elections amid pent-up anger against Netanyahu, who is widely blamed for failing to prevent Hamas attacks and who has seen his support decline in public opinion polls.
“We are witnessing a new phase, where people are returning to the streets,” said Gael Talsher, a professor of political science at Hebrew University. “Now the people at the forefront of the protests are the families of the hostages, the families of the dead soldiers, and the reservists.”
Divisions are increasingly visible within the emergency war government in which Netanyahu shares power with his political rival, former Israeli army chief of staff Benny Gantz, among others. Gantz, along with Defense Minister Yoav Galant, refused to appear with Netanyahu in some recent press conferences. Both have expressed more openness to ideas pushed by Biden to form a post-war government in Gaza based on a restored Palestinian Authority, an idea rejected by Netanyahu and the more extreme members of his coalition.
Gantz, whose popularity has soared, said politics and investigations into the October 7 failures should wait until the war subsides. 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 convincing five coalition members, many of whom have criticized Netanyahu, to join a vote of no confidence.
“The moment Gantz felt able to leave the war cabinet, the snowball would start rolling,” Talscher said. “We are beginning to feel that this is more possible as the situation in Gaza stabilizes.”
She added: “Of course, if we have a second front with Hezbollah, everything will change again.”
Shira Rubin in Elon, Israel; Louay Ayoub in Rafah, Gaza Strip; Hazem Balousha from Amman contributed to this report.