Gallant warns: If Hezbollah isn’t deterred, Israel can ‘copy-paste’ Gaza war to Beirut

Amid US deescalation efforts, defense minister tells WSJ the fight against Hamas must serve to dissuade other Iran-backed proxies in the region from launching their own attacks

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant addresses soldiers from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit of the IDF, October 24, 2023. (Ariel Hermon, Israel Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant addresses soldiers from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit of the IDF, October 24, 2023. (Ariel Hermon, Israel Defense Ministry)

Israel isn’t afraid to go to war with the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon if push comes to shove, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told the Wall Street Journal in an interview on Sunday.

Defending the need for Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, Gallant explained that among other purposes, it will serve to warn Iran and its proxies away from launching similar attacks in the future.

“My basic view: We are fighting an axis, not a single enemy,” he said. “Iran is building up military power around Israel in order to use it.”

While Tehran has claimed that Hamas acted independently on October 7, when members of the terror group slaughtered some 1,200 people in southern Israel and seized around 240 hostages, it has publicly praised the deadly onslaught. The IDF said on Sunday that it had uncovered equipment being used by Hamas to develop precision-guided missiles under Iranian tutelage.

At the same time as Israel fights Hamas on its southern border, it has been battling Hezbollah on the northern border, albeit in a much more limited way.

Since October 8, Hezbollah and allied Palestinian terror factions in Lebanon have engaged in daily border clashes with Israeli troops, targeting civilian communities with drone, rocket and missile attacks, and forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate from the area.

The fighting along the border has resulted in four civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of nine IDF soldiers.

Hezbollah has named 153 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 19 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and at least 19 civilians, three of whom were journalists, have been killed.

An Israeli artillery unit fires from a position in Upper Galilee in northern Israel towards southern Lebanon, on December 11, 2023 (Photo by jalaa marey / AFP)

The alleged Israeli killing of Hamas terror chief Saleh al-Arouri in the Lebanese capital of Beirut last week has sparked fears of broader conflagration as he was the most high-profile figure to be killed since October 7 and because his death came in the first strike on the Lebanese capital since hostilities started.

Gallant told the Journal that the idea of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran being “allowed to decide how we live our lives here in Israel” was “something we don’t accept.”

While Israel’s priority isn’t to get entangled in a war with Hezbollah, Gallant said  that “80,000 people need to be able to go back to their homes safely,” and so if all else fails, “we are willing to sacrifice.”

A girl holds a sign reading “When can I return home?” at a protest organized by residents of northern Israel calling for increased support amid widespread evacuations, December 26, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“They see what is happening in Gaza,” he said. “They know we can copy-paste to Beirut.”

In an effort to deescalate the boiling tensions on the northern border, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to the Middle East at the end of last week to embark on a weeklong whirlwind tour of the region, with stops in Jordan, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt, as well as Turkey and Greece.

After Hezbollah on Saturday launched one of its largest rocket barrages at Israel since the start of the war, Blinken reaffirmed the US’s commitment to Israeli security along the country’s northern border.

Speaking to reporters ahead of his departure for Istanbul, the top US diplomat said that Israel has made it clear that it is not interested in escalation against Hezbollah but that “they also have to be fully prepared to defend themselves.”

He warned that if diplomatic solutions to the crisis on the northern border aren’t found, the outcome will be “an endless cycle of violence… and lives of insecurity and conflict for people in the region, which is what virtually no one wants.”

In Qatar the following day, Blinken again warned of the “profound tension” that has been caused by the war between Israel and Hamas.

Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shake hands during a press conference following a meeting in Doha on January 7, 2024. (Karim JAAFAR / AFP)

“This is a conflict that could easily metastasize, causing even more insecurity and suffering,” he said, in an apparent reference to the threat on the Lebanon border.

Other messengers, including US special envoy Amos Hochstein and the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, have been dispatched to the region in recent days to try and push diplomatic solutions to the crisis with Hezbollah that would allow the displaced residents of the north to return home.

In the wake of the deadly October 7 onslaught and the scenes of horrific violence that came with it, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, launching an aerial campaign that entered its fourth month on Sunday, followed by a ground operation several weeks later.

The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip has said that more than 22,000 people have been killed in the enclave since the start of the war, but these numbers cannot be verified and do not differentiate between civilians and combatants. Israel believes that among those killed in the fighting are some 8,500 terror operatives.

During his visit, Blinken is expected to urge Israel to do more to reduce civilian deaths in Gaza, secure increased humanitarian aid for the residents of the coastal enclave, and hold meetings with regional allies about what is to happen the day after the war ends.

Defending the war and its high death toll, Gallant said that Israel won’t declare the war over until the goals of destroying Hamas and freeing the hostages seized that day — of whom 132 are still held in Gaza, not all of them alive — have been met.

“October 7 was the bloodiest day for Jewish people since 1945,” he said as a reminder of how the fighting began. “The world needs to understand. This is different.”

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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