JERUSALEM - Israel has begun withdrawing some ground troops from the Gaza Strip and redeploying others but operations against Hamas would continue, an army spokesman told AFP on Sunday.
"We are removing some (forces), we are changing from within," Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said, describing it as "an ongoing mission".
"We are redeploying within the Gaza Strip and taking out other different positions, and relieving other forces from within, so it won't be the same type of ground operation," he told AFP.
"But indeed we will continue to operate ... (and) have a rapid reaction force on the ground that can engage Hamas if required," he added.
"It's changing gear but it's still ongoing." His remarks came a day after the Israeli army gave a first indication it was ending operations in parts of Gaza, informing residents of Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra in the north that it was "safe" to return home.
Witnesses in the north confirmed seeing troops leaving the area as others were seen pulling out of villages east of Khan Yunis in the south.
It was the first time troops had been seen pulling back since the start of the Israeli operation which began on July 8.
Lerner confirmed troops had pulled out of Beit Lahiya and Al-Atatra, but refused to be drawn on whether the pullout would expand into other areas hit by heavy fighting.
"The reality is that Hamas has tried to continue its attacks so we need to maintain our presence to a certain extent and combat those intentions," he said.
"In the next 24 hours we will see the activity continued on the ground and the redeployment in parallel," he said, without elaborating.