Defense Minister Yoav Gallant says that Israel’s new, second phase of its war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip may last for “months,” and the military expects it will be insufficient on its own to fully uproot the terror organization that has governed the coastal territory for the past 16 years.
Sitting down with reporters in Tel Aviv’s military headquarters on Friday morning, war cabinet member Gallant said that the current expanded ground activity, which began Friday evening, and an expected larger-scale ground maneuver, are only the second of four planned phases to the war. Israel opened the campaign with a three-week-long aerial bombardment of the Strip and limited ground raids, following Hamas’s onslaught on October 7, the most devastating attack in Israel’s history.
Israel has set its war goals as removing Hamas as a military and political force in the Gaza Strip, as well as freeing the at least 239 hostages captured by the terror group on Israeli territory three weeks earlier, as part of the terror assault that killed over 1,400 people.
The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry cites over 8,000 killed, including combatants, since the war’s start. US President Joe Biden has cast doubt on the accuracy of the figures, though a UN body said it finds them credible.
Up against deeply entrenched Hamas infrastructure, including a network of “hundreds of kilometers” of interconnected underground tunnels and bunkers, Gallant said that “our work won’t be complete” after Israel’s ground maneuver.
Rather, the military is preparing for a third, intermediate stage of fighting during which it will begin to seek out new leadership for the battered enclave, while rooting out “pockets of resistance.”
Only after this lower-intensity conflict, which is also estimated to take several months, Gallant has said, will Israel transition to its final phase: disconnection from the Gaza Strip.
The final phase of the war will “require the removal of Israel’s responsibility for life in the Gaza strip, and the establishment of a new security reality for the citizens of Israel,” Gallant said on October 20.
Apart from saying that neither Israel nor Hamas will control Gaza in the war’s aftermath, the defense minister did not detail what this disconnection would ultimately entail.
Before the war, Israel provided about nine percent of Gaza’s water needs and 50% of its electricity, and last year processed about 22 million tons of goods on 20,000 trucks into the Strip, an officer for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said Sunday. About 18,500 Gazans crossed into Israel daily for work, up until Hamas caught Israel by surprise with its brutal October 7 attack. As part of its onslaught, Hamas destroyed the Erez passenger border crossing, while killing or abducting the staff who serviced Gazans who crossed through daily.
Coordination with the US
The United States has forcefully backed Israel’s right to defend herself, and also pushed for humanitarian relief for Gazan civilians, given a partial Israeli siege and what the Israeli government and The New York Times have described as Hamas hoarding of critical fuel, food, and medical supplies.
Gallant confirmed reports that US leaders have shared lessons from their own experiences fighting a more targeted ground effort against the Islamic State in Mosul and a fuller invasion of Fallujah, during the Iraq War. The US has reportedly pressed upon Israel to consider a Mosul-like model.
Of these American-raised examples, the defense minister said “it’s not exactly the same” situation between Israel and Hamas, but that he is having an “ongoing conversation.”
He also noted that he is in near daily contact with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and that IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi is in close contact with the Commander of US Central Command, General Michael E. Kurilla, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Charles Quinton Brown.
“We share 100% of the values and 99% of the interests,” Gallant said of Israel’s American allies.
Over the past several days, Iran-linked groups have fired from Iraq and Syria upon American positions in Syria. Last week, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired several projectiles — according to the Pentagon, “potentially” toward Israel — which an American Navy destroyer intercepted.
On Friday, Israel said it scrambled jets to counter an “aerial threat” in the Red Sea, and Egypt reported a drone crashing into the resort town of Taba, which straddles the border with Israel’s southernmost city, Eilat.
The United States is in the process of moving a second aircraft carrier into the Mediterranean theater, perceived to be a warning against intensified action from Iran-backed groups, chief among them Hezbollah.
The US has reportedly pressured Israel to hold off on its full-scale ground maneuver until American ships, missiles, and troops can arrive. Gallant declined to comment on whether Israel will intensify its efforts once the American reinforcements are here to protect American positions in the region.
Limiting fighting on northern front
Chief among groups that Americans and Israelis hope will be deterred by increased allied firepower in the region is Hezbollah, the terror group that controls southern Lebanon and much of its parliament, and serves as the main long arm of Iran’s military.
Gallant, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the IDF’s chief spokesperson have all reiterated that Israel’s fight is with Hamas on its southwestern border, not the militias in the north. As tit-for-tat skirmishes continue to intensify on Israel’s Lebanese border — where current IDF policy is to respond to infiltrations, rockets, mortars, or other violent aggression by hitting Hezbollah or Hamas positions in Lebanon — Israeli leaders have also said they are prepared to fight Hezbollah, if required.
“We are not looking for big wars, but we are preparing ourselves [against any threat, whether it is] versus Iran and especially versus Hezbollah,” Gallant said.
Noting that Israel has many brigades and divisions deployed near the Lebanese border, the defense minister characterized Israel’s northern defense as strong.
While Iran is both Hezbollah’s and Hamas’s chief backer, both Gallant and Netanyahu have taken pains in recent days to say that Israel does not have direct evidence linking the state sponsor of terror to Hamas’s decision to execute its bloody October 7 attack.
“Iran supports Hamas,” and “provides over 90% of Hamas’s budget. It finances, it organizes, it directs, it guides,” Netanyahu said on Saturday evening, while adding that Israel cannot say “for certain” that Iran masterminded or green-lit, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, Hamas’s plan.
“I cannot tell you for certain that in this specific operation, at this particular moment, they were involved in the micro-planning,” he said.
Gallant similarly said that “I have no evidence [Iran] coordinated the exact day. But they knew the general idea.”
The rocket threat to Israeli civilians
As the war in Gaza picks up pace, rocket salvos have continued to hammer Israel’s south and center, while Lebanese-based groups have fired into northern communities.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday, more than 8,100 rockets have been fired into Israel since the start of the war. Gallant said that Hamas had an estimated stockpile of 15,000 rockets coming into the war, which it stores in tunnels, hospitals, and schools to shield them from IDF attack.
Hezbollah is estimated to possess a cache of 150,000 rockets, more sophisticated and accurate than Hamas’s. If Hezbollah were to fully enter the conflict, as some analysts expect could happen once Israel intensifies its ground battle, the terror group could overwhelm Iron Dome’s aerial defense capabilities, assessments say.
The defense minister stressed that Israel has no interest in reoccupying Gaza, but Israel has no clear plan for who, other than Israel and Hamas, will rule the Strip.
“Whatever will be next will be better, whatever it is,” Gallant said.
The defense minister said that he has already once before tried to eliminate Hamas, but his suggestions were not cleared by political leaders at the time.
During 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead, when Gallant was the military general in charge of the Southern Command, he presented then-prime minister Ehud Olmert’s government with plans for destroying Hamas. The cabinet rejected his proposal, he said.
Israel’s senior leaders have pledged to hunt down terrorists involved in the October 7 attacks, alongside Hamas. Gallant said that hundreds of Gazan civilians took part in the slaughter, part of a reported force of 2,500 terrorists that penetrated the border into Israel.
“I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, I’m not going to allow it again,” Gallant said, of permitting Hamas or another terror threat to reside alongside Israel’s southern communities.
Civilian and military leaders in Israel have stressed their interest in increasing humanitarian aid to the Strip’s southern portion, which will transit through Egypt into Gaza. Israel has tried to incentivize Gazans living in the northern part of the region to move southward, in order to clear the area ahead of intensified fighting.
“We are not fighting the Palestinian multitude and the Palestinian people in Gaza,” Gallant said.
IDF Spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said on Saturday that Gazans will be permitted to return to their homes in the north after the fighting, amid concerns on the Arab street that Israel may be trying to dispossess Palestinians of their land.
Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas was elected to run the Strip in 2006. While Israeli leaders say that Israel does not want to reoccupy Gaza, Hamas, Gallant said, has misunderstood Israelis and their determination to live in the country they have held sovereign for 75 years.
“The next 75 years will be defined in many ways by the achievements in this war,” Gallant said, describing Israel’s fight against the fundamentalist terror group as “at the frontline of the Western world.”