The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) continued conducting clearing operations in the northern Gaza Strip on January 6. The IDF said that the 179th Armored Brigade (assigned to the 99th Division) conducted an intelligence-driven raid in an unspecified area in Gaza City. The brigade captured Hamas military equipment in UNRWA bags in a UNRWA clinic. The brigade also captured RPGs, Kalashnikovs, and small arms ammunition in a nearby building. The Nahal Brigade (assigned to the 162nd Division) engaged several Hamas fighters in Beit Lahia on January 5. Artillery units from the 215th Artillery Brigade and the 143rd (Gaza) Division’s artillery units provided fire support to the Nahal Brigade in Beit Lahia.
Iranian-backed actors in Iraq have intensified their effort to expel US forces from Iraq. CTP-ISW has assessed that Iranian-backed actors are using almost daily militant attacks and legal and political pressure to force US troops to leave. These Iranian-backed actors have disguised the reason for their attacks, framing them as responses to the Israel-Hamas war. These attacks trigger US self-defense strikes, to which the United States has a legitimate right to protect its servicemembers. The Iranian-backed Iraqi actors exploit these strikes, framing them as violations of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity and thereby pressuring the Iraqi federal government to pursue the removal of US forces.
Palestinian militias continued to try to defend against Israeli clearing operations in Daraj and Tuffah neighborhoods of Gaza City on January 3. Israeli forces in the neighborhoods coordinated with artillery and ground forces to direct a drone strike targeting Palestinian fighters surveilling them with drones. Hamas’ military wing, the al Qassem Brigades, conducted three attacks targeting Israeli forces and vehicles in Daraj and Tuffah. The group claimed that it detonated a Shawaz explosively formed penetrator (EFP) and anti-tank rocket at an Israeli bulldozer and tank east of Tuffah.
Unspecified fighters conducted a terrorist attack near Qassem Soleimani’s burial site in Kerman on the fourth anniversary of Soleimani’s death. Bloomberg News reported that the United States initially believes that the Islamic State or a related group was responsible for the attack.
The Houthis fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles at the Malta-flagged commercial vessel CMA CGM TAGE in the Red Sea. US CENTCOM reported that this was the 24th Houthi attack on maritime shipping in the Red Sea since November 19.
Israeli forces are transitioning to the third phase of their operations in the northern Gaza Strip, which will very likely enable Hamas to reconstitute itself militarily. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) confirmed that it withdrew five brigades from the northern Gaza Strip on December 31. This reduction in forces is part of what the IDF has described as its third phase in the strip, which also involves ending major combat operations, releasing reservists, transitioning to “targeted raids,” and establishing a security buffer zone within the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces have degraded several Hamas units and rendered others combat ineffective, particularly in the northern Gaza strip, since the beginning of the clearing operations. But Hamas’ military forces are neither defeated nor destroyed at this time. Decreased Israeli pressure would, in fact, allow Hamas to rebuild its military capabilities and infrastructure. Hamas maintains a conventional military structure, meaning that it should be able to quickly replace commanders who have died in the war. Several recently killed Hamas battalion and brigade commanders had led their units for many years, suggesting that they had the ability and time to develop successors to take their place. Such reconstitution is inconsistent with the stated Israeli war aims, which are to destroy Hamas militarily and politically.
Israeli forces advanced into Beit Lahiya for clearing operations in the northern Gaza Strip. An Israeli Brigade Combat Team identified three Hamas fighters inside a building and directed an airstrike at their position in Beit Lahiya, according to an IDF report on December 31. The al Qassem Brigades—the militant wing of Hamas—intercepted an Israeli reconnaissance drone in Beit Lahiya on December 31. Israeli forces initially advanced into the Gaza Strip west of Beit Lahiya in late October. Commercially available satellite imagery captured on December 31 shows recently flattened terrain in Beit Lahiya City and north of the city, which suggests that Israeli tanks or bulldozers recently began operating in the area. The Wall Street Journal published a map of the tunnel system that Hamas has created below the Gaza Strip based on data from 2014, which includes an extensive tunnel network in Beit Lahiya. Palestinian militia fighters have used tunnel shafts to maneuver through the strip and to ambush Israeli forces. The IDF has located about 1,500 tunnel shafts and routes in the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the ground operation in the Gaza Strip, according to an IDF report on December 19.
Palestinian militias continued to defend against Israeli clearing operations in Daraj and Tuffah neighborhoods of Gaza City on December 30. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced that it was operating in Daraj and Tuffah on December 21. Palestinian militias have since then claimed several attacks on Israeli forces attempting to clear the remaining areas in the northern Gaza Strip. The al Qassem Brigades—the militant wing of Hamas—published footage on December 29 of its fighters firing rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) at Israeli tanks from destroyed buildings in Darraj and Tuffah. The al Quds Brigades—the militant wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)—fired tandem charged anti-tank rockets and RPGs at Israeli tanks and troop carriers as Israeli forces advanced into the neighborhoods. The al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades—the self-proclaimed militant wing of Fatah—fired tandem charged anti-tank rockets and RPGs at an Israeli tank and bulldozer in Tuffah.
Iran has increased its production rate of highly enriched uranium (HEU). The United States and the E3 confirmed in a joint statement on December 28 that Iran has increased its enrichment rate of 60 percent purity uranium. Iran has been stockpiling 60 percent HEU since April 2021. Iran decreased its enrichment rate and HEU stockpile after it reached an informal nuclear agreement with the United States in August 2023. Western media reported that the United States refroze Iranian financial assets released as part of the agreement in October. Iran’s current stockpile of 60 percent HEU stands at 128.3 kilograms as of October 28.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al Sudani announced that his administration will begin procedures to remove International Coalition forces from Iraq during a press conference on December 28, likely due to pressure from Iranian-backed Iraqi militias. These militias have used legal, military, and political pressure in recent weeks to expel US forces, as CTP-ISW previously assessed. This pressure, particularly the Iranian-backed attacks on US forces, creates an escalation cycle that triggers US self-defense strikes to protect US servicemembers. The Iranian-backed factions and militias then misrepresent these self-defense strikes as violations of Iraqi sovereignty, which generates domestic pressure on Sudani to remove US forces. This pressure appears to have succeeded at least partly in that Sudani repeated Iranian-backed militia talking points about the United States. Sudani said that that the self-defense strikes are violations of Iraqi sovereignty and were inconsistent with the advisory role of the International Coalition. These claims ignore the fact that the US forces have a right to self-defense and that the Iranian use of client militias and proxies in Iraq to attack US forces in line with Tehran’s regional agenda is itself a violation of Iraqi sovereignty. US advisory forces are currently deployed in Iraq for counter-ISIS operations at the invitation of the Iraqi government. Sudani did not provide a timeline for removing International Coalition forces or describe the mechanism by which they would be removed.
Iran and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias are driving an escalation cycle that combines military and political pressure to try to expel US forces from Iraq. Iranian-backed militia Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba said on December 11 that expelling US forces requires political efforts from the government and military efforts from the militias. Iranian-backed attacks against US forces combine both military and political effects to drive US forces from Iraq, which is a long-held objective for Iran and its proxies. Iranian-backed militias—not the United States—are driving the escalation in Iraq by conducting attacks that risk killing US military personnel to trigger US self-defense airstrikes against the militias. These Iranian-backed groups then frame these self-defense airstrikes as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty to argue that the Iraqi government should expel the United States from Iraq. The United States is in Iraq at the invitation of Iraq’s government to defeat ISIS, meaning that Iranian-backed attacks on an Iraqi partner are themselves a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
Hamas and other Palestinian militias are exploiting the Israeli hostages they are holding to ensure that Hamas and its partners are involved in any negotiations about the future of the Gaza Strip. Hamas having a role in the future of the strip is incompatible with Israel’s stated war objectives of destroying Hamas, demilitarizing Gaza, and deradicalizing “Palestinian society.”