Issues plea to Netanyahu, Gantz for 'unity and partnership'

Gallant: Intense fighting is over in northern Gaza, will soon end in Khan Younis too

Defense minister rejects calls for ceasefire, says only military pressure on Hamas will facilitate hostage deal; says ‘political indecision’ regarding ‘the day after’ harming war

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant gives a press statement on January 15, 2024. (Screen capture/GPO)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant gives a press statement on January 15, 2024. (Screen capture/GPO)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Monday that the “intensive phase” of Israel’s ground offensive in northern Gaza has ended, and it will soon be over in the Khan Younis area of the Strip’s south as well.

Troops have been carrying out operations at a lower intensity in northern Gaza, after the military said it had defeated all of Hamas’s battalions in the area. The soldiers have been working to locate the remaining Hamas sites and kill or capture the terror group’s last operatives.

“Three months ago, together with the IDF chief of staff, director of the Shin Bet, and IDF generals, I presented to the cabinet the war plan in the Gaza Strip and its ties to other arenas. We made it clear that the intensive maneuvering stage would last for approximately three months,” Gallant said.

“In the northern part of the Strip, this phase has ended. In southern Gaza, we will reach this achievement and [the intensive phase] will end soon,” Gallant said in a press conference, referring to the Khan Younis area, without giving an exact timeline.

“And in both places, the moment will come when we will move to the next phase,” he continued.

“We adapt our operations on the ground in accordance with the reality on the ground, as it becomes clearer to us, in accordance with military achievements, with the destruction of the enemy [Hamas], and in accordance with our intelligence,” Gallant said.

IDF troops operate in central Gaza’s Nuseirat, in an image published by the army on January 15, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

In northern Gaza, Gallant said, “All the [Hamas] battalion frameworks have been dismantled. We are now working to eliminate pockets of resistance. We will achieve this via raids, airstrikes, special operations, and additional activities.”

In central Gaza, he said, “we are destroying Hamas’ military industry, its production centers. These are the places that produce rockets, IEDs, explosives and other weapons to be used against us. The achievements [of our troops] are very impressive.”

In southern Gaza, Gallant said “IDF troops are focused on the head of the snake, the Hamas leadership. As part of this action… the Khan Younis Brigade is gradually disintegrating as a fighting force.”

“We also cut off the roads that lead to Rafah above and below ground,” he said. The IDF has not yet operated on the ground in the Rafah area, on the Egyptian border, but has indicated it will eventually expand the offensive there.

“I would like to reiterate, at the end of the war, there will be no military threat from Gaza. Hamas will not be able to control and function as a military force in the Gaza Strip, and the IDF will have full freedom of action to do whatever is required to defend the citizens of Israel. It may take a long time, but it will end with a single scenario, total victory,” he said.

While indicating the high-intensity fighting was nearing an end, Gallant said only continued military pressure on Hamas would bring about a new hostage deal.

“If the fire stops, the fate of the hostages will be sealed for many years in the captivity of Hamas. Without military pressure, no one will talk to us. Only from a position of strength can the hostages be freed,” he said.

“We will reach [all of the hostages] and defeat Hamas; our enemies and our friends alike look at the results and test us,” Gallant said.

He delivered his comments at a time of growing frustration with the government from the hostages’ families, who argue that this policy has proven ineffective, given that no hostages have been released in over a month, since Israel resumed its ground offensive after a seven-day truce that saw over 100 hostages released.

Israelis attend a rally marking 100 days since the hostages were kidnapped into Gaza, on January 13, 2024. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

It is believed that 132 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during the late November truce. Four hostages were released prior to that, and one was rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 25 of those still held by Hamas, citing intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Gallant in his press conference also warned that “political indecision” regarding the future of Gaza “may harm the progress of the military operation.”

“The future government in Gaza must grow from the Gaza Strip, Gaza will be ruled by Palestinians. The end of the military campaign must be anchored in policy,” he said.

Amid evident disagreements within the Israeli leadership over tactics and strategy in the war against Hamas, the hostage crisis, escalating West Bank violence and more, Gallant also issued a plea for unity in the war cabinet: “I want to urge my two senior colleagues in the unity government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister Benny Gantz: This is a time for unity and partnership,” he said. “This is a time for compromises between us in order to achieve the goals of the war for the sake of us all.”

Earlier Monday, the IDF began to withdraw its 36th Division from Gaza for an R&R and training period, leaving three other divisions fighting Hamas in the Strip.

The withdrawal of the division comes as part of the IDF’s plans for a long war against Hamas, as well as a potential escalation in the fighting against the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group in northern Israel, while maintaining the troops’ competence.

The 162nd Division remains in northern Gaza, carrying out clean-up operations to locate Hamas’s infrastructure and kill or capture its remaining operatives; the 99th Division is operating in the central part of the Strip; and the 98th Division is fighting Hamas in the Khan Younis area of southern Gaza.

The IDF has assessed that fighting in Gaza will likely last throughout all of 2024, as Israel works to strip Hamas of its military and governing capabilities. The army is also preparing for fighting to escalate further on the Lebanon border, where Hezbollah and allied Palestinian terror groups have carried out daily rocket, missile, and drone attacks, at the same time as the war in Gaza.

A convoy of Israeli tanks return from the Gaza Strip on January 15, 2024. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

War erupted between Israel and Hamas with the terror group’s October 7 massacres, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages — mostly civilians.

Vowing to destroy the terror group, Israel launched a wide-scale military campaign in Gaza, which the Hamas-run health ministry has said killed over 24,000 people since. The figure cannot be independently verified, and is believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF says it has killed over 9,000 operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

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