Gallant warns US war against Hamas will take ‘more than several months’

Comments to visiting Biden aide come amid growing bilateral tensions over offensive; army chief visits troops in Shejaiya; IDF shows Palestinian gunmen surrendering near hospital

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Tel Aviv, December 14, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (right) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Tel Aviv, December 14, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Thursday told visiting US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan that the military campaign against Hamas will not be completed within the next few months, as intense battles raged for control of the terror group’s redoubts in the northern Gaza strip.

Gallant’s comments to Sullivan flew in the face of an increasingly strident push by the US for Israel to wrap up the fighting quickly, warning of dwindling support for the campaign even as Israeli leaders vow not to stop until Hamas is destroyed.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization that built itself over a decade to fight Israel, and they built infrastructure under the ground and above the ground and it is not easy to destroy them,” Gallant said, according to a readout from his office. “It will require a period of time — it will last more than several months, but we will win and we will destroy them.”

After sweeping through the north of the Strip with little resistance, soldiers are now battling for hard-fought gains in Shejaiya and Jabaliya, two Hamas strongholds outside of Gaza City.

Visiting soldiers in Shejaiya, where two senior commanders and seven other troops were killed in an explosive-laden ambush earlier this week, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said the fight was necessary to bring security back to communities of southern Israel devastated by Hamas terrorists on October 7.

“Remember you are fighting now in Shejaiya, Zeitoun hard battles, [in] dense [urban] areas,” Halevi said. “We need, as you do, to carry out very determined, very, very thorough [operations] so that we can return Nahal Oz and Kfar Aza to a very high level of security.”

In Jabaliya, the army said troops had encountered and killed dozens of Hamas operatives over the past week. In one encounter, explosives were detonated and Hamas gunmen opened fire with machine guns and launched anti-tank missiles from two directions at the troops.

“The terrorists were eliminated by gunfire carried out by the troops, and accurate shelling by tanks from the armored forces under the command of the reconnaissance unit,” the IDF said.

In another incident, the IDF said an anti-tank missile was fired at the soldiers, with the troops returning fire and killing three operatives. A fourth gunman, part of the cell, was killed in a drone strike directed by the Nahal troops, it added, one of over 500 airstrikes called in by ground troops over the past week.

Earlier Thursday, the army released footage of what it said was some 70 Hamas fighters surrendering following battles near the Kamal Adwan Hospital in northern Gaza.

The IDF said that troops had fought Hamas operatives who were using a building near the hospital, killing many of them.

Hamas gunmen surrender to IDF troops at northern Gaza’s Kamal Adwan Hospital, in a handout image published December 14, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The fighting near the hospital had added to a chorus of global criticism against Israel over the offensive, which has turned swathes of Gaza into rubble and left many Gazans homeless and hungry. The IDF insists that hospitals and other civilian areas are being used as shields by terrorists, including to hide Hamas’s vast network of tunnels.

A top item on Sullivan’s agenda in Israel was expected to be the reopening of the Kerem Shalom crossing for the entry of humanitarian aid directly from Israel to Gaza, which the government has refused to do since the war began. The crossing was recently opened for inspections of aid, which is then trucked into Gaza via the Rafah Border Crossing between the Strip and Egypt.

Sullivan arrived in Israel amid rising tensions between Washington and Jerusalem over the war. On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden said Israel was losing global support in the war against Hamas due to “indiscriminate bombing” in the Palestinian enclave, a remark several officials including White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby have since tried to soften.

Biden, who has provided unprecedented support for Israel since the outbreak of the war, went after Netanyahu and members of his hardline coalition over their opposition to a two-state solution, while warning that Israel was losing international backing and that the prime minister “has to change.”

Kirby said Wednesday that the president’s comments “reflected the reality of global opinion, which also matters. Our support for Israel is not diminished, but we have had concerns and we have expressed those concerns about the prosecution of this military campaign, even while acknowledging that it is Hamas that started this and that it’s Hamas that is continuing it.”

He said Israel has been acting on the “intent [to reduce civilian casualties] in positive ways,” while admitting some of the steps the Israeli military has taken to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza might go further than what the US would have done in the same scenario.

Sullivan also held talks Thursday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was slated to meet later with the so-called war cabinet and on Friday with President Isaac Herzog.

There was no immediate US readout on Sullivan’s meetings with Israeli leaders.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Tel Aviv, December 14, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershon/GPO)

Sullivan paid a quiet visit to Saudi Arabia before arriving in Israel, where he discussed “efforts to create new conditions for an enduring and sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians” with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh yesterday, the White House said.

The US has said it still plans to try and broker a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia after the war, but US and Arab officials have told The Times of Israel that the Palestinian component of such a deal will now likely be much more significant.

The two additionally “discussed the humanitarian response in Gaza, including efforts to increase the flow of critical aid,” the White House readout said.

Ahead of Sullivan’s arrival, a television report claimed Israel was set to present to the US a schedule for gradually ending the war.

According to the unsourced Channel 12 report, the current phase of intense fighting would wrap up by the end of January,  after which the IDF would need several weeks to withdraw its forces from the heart of Gaza and deploy them on defense lines — located in and out of the Strip.

The third and most prolonged stage was reportedly expected to last for most of 2024, consisting of localized raids and operations, with the goal of mopping up pockets of support for Hamas, whose rule over the enclave Israel has vowed to end.

The report said Israel was aiming to maintain security control over Gaza for the foreseeable future, though the US has insisted that an Israeli reoccupation of the enclave is not an option.

For now, Israel has focused on hunting down Hamas’s leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar, reportedly seeing his capture or killing as the key to the terror group crumbling.

Pictures published Thursday showed fliers dropped in Gaza offering $400,000 for information on the whereabouts of Sinwar and smaller amounts for other Hamas commanders.

The flier contained a telephone number and a contact on the Telegram messaging app, with the IDF promising confidentiality.

The war between Israel and Hamas — now in its third month — began after the October 7 assault on Israel by the Palestinian terror group. Some 1,200 Israeli citizens were killed and another approximately 240 taken hostage in the onslaught on communities, music festivals and army posts in southern Israel; the vast majority of victims were civilians.

According to IDF data, since the beginning of the ground offensive against Hamas, 116 soldiers have been killed and another 648 have been wounded during combat in Gaza, including 146 in serious condition, 257 in moderate condition and 245 lightly hurt.

The dead include Col. Itzhak Ben Basat, the highest-ranking officer killed in the ground offensive, and Lt. Col. Tomer Grinberg. Both Golani Brigade commanders were killed in Tuesday’s ambush.

Golani troops are seen operating in Gaza City, in a handout photo published November 11, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Thursday, the military said another senior Golani officer, Lt. Col. Shahar Barkai, was moderately wounded in the southern Strip, after an explosive was detonated near a group of soldiers. Five other troops were seriously hurt in the attack, and three troops were badly wounded in fighting elsewhere.

Barkai, who commands Golani’s training bases, had been substituting for the commander of Golani’s 12th Battalion, Lt. Col. Omer Suleiman, who had been wounded in southern Israel at the beginning of the war, but will now return to command his battalion.

The fighting has killed more than 18,600 people in Gaza, many of them women and children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, whose numbers cannot be independently verified. That figure likely includes Hamas operatives and Gazans killed by errant Hamas rockets.

Israel says it has killed at least 7,000 Hamas fighters and arrested hundreds more, and has taken measures to protect civilians, including publishing maps of safe zones.

Jacob Magid and agencies contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: