IDF will answer 'difficult questions' that arose after Oct 7

IDF chief says Israel expanding ops in Gaza, warns war to last ‘many more months’

Halevi says ‘no magic solutions’ to destroying Hamas, but military will reach its leaders; says troops receiving all necessary air support after political storm on the matter

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

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi gives a statement to the media at an army base in southern Israel, December 26, 2023. (Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi gives a statement to the media at an army base in southern Israel, December 26, 2023. (Flash90)

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said Tuesday that the military is expanding its operations in southern and central Gaza as it is close to dismantling all of Hamas’s battalions in the northern part of the Strip, but warned that the war will last “many more months.”

“We eliminated many terrorists and commanders, some of them surrendered to our forces and we took hundreds of prisoners. We destroyed many underground infrastructures and weapons,” Halevi said in a press conference in southern Israel.

However, he warned that in “this dense urban area, where terrorists are dressed as civilians, it cannot be said that we killed all of them.”

“We will likely still meet [Hamas] fighters in this area, and we will continue to attack them and pursue them in a variety of ways,” he said of the fighting in northern Gaza, which is expected to shift into a lower gear once the last Hamas battalion is dismantled.

Halevi said that the military was concentrating its efforts in the south of the Strip while continuing to “preserve and deepen the achievement” in northern Gaza.

He added that the IDF “will not allow a return to the security reality before October 7, and we will not allow such an event to be repeated.”

IDF forces operate in the Gaza Strip, in a handout photo released on December 26, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Halevi also seemed to allude to a political storm that was sparked this week when  Economy Minister Nir Barkat said that not enough was being done to protect soldiers, claiming that the number of airstrikes in Gaza had fallen drastically and troops were “being sent to booby-trapped buildings like [sitting] ducks.” Barkat’s accusations were swiftly denied by war cabinet ministers.

“The Air Force continues to strike non-stop. A building falls when it is an enemy target, a building falls when it poses a danger to our forces,” Halevi said.

“The IDF is focused and precise in its operations. Wherever our forces attack, they are accompanied by heavy fire from the air, sea and land. In every operation in which our forces require firepower, they receive the required cover at its best,” he said.

A picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing over Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on December 26, 2023. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Halevi warned that the war would not end in the near future.

“This war has necessary and not easy goals to achieve, it takes place in complex territory. That’s why the war will continue for many more months, and we will work with different methods, so that the achievement will be maintained for a long time,” he said, adding that the IDF is constantly learning and adapting its fighting methods to each area of the Gaza Strip it operates in.

“There are no magic solutions, no shortcuts in the thorough dismantling of a terror organization, but stubborn and determined fighting. And we are very, very determined,” Halevi said.

“It was correct to set high goals” for the war against Hamas, “and we will reach high [achievements],” he elaborated. “We assessed from the start that it would take many months, and we believe that our assessments are accurate. Therefore, the timescale will be lengthy. At the end, will we be able to say ‘There are no more enemies around Israel?’ I think that’s too ambitious. But we will bring about a different security situation, and as much stability as we can.”

Over the 80-plus days of war so far, he said, “a lot of things are happening that we didn’t know ahead of time. There’s a reason that war has been defined as the ‘realm of uncertainty’.”

The military chief repeated the warning that the IDF will reach the Hamas leadership, “whether it takes a week or whether it takes months.”

“We are increasing the military pressure, in different ways, powerfully and in a deceptive way. This pressure enables the realization of the goals of the war, the dismantling of Hamas, and the return of the hostages,” Halevi continued.

“Our commitment to the return of the hostages remains the same; we will do everything to bring the hostages home. In this war, we are fighting a just war like no other… and it has a heavy and painful price. Some of our best sons and daughters fell in the battle for the security of the country. We will guarantee that their fall was not in vain,” he said.

Israeli soldiers operate on the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, December 25, 2023. (Flash90)

Israel launched its offensive against Hamas after the terror group led an unprecedented assault into southern Israel on October 7. Some 1,200 people in Israel, most of them civilians, were massacred.

Another approximately 240 people were kidnapped. It is believed that 129 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive.

Halevi also vowed that the military will answer the “many difficult questions” that arose following the October 7 onslaught.

“We are obligated to answer for all of them, and we will provide answers after a thorough investigation. We will not skip any question or any lesson. We will thoroughly investigate at the first possible opportunity, and we will publish the findings to the public with transparency,” he said.

Halevi also addressed criticism of decisions made by commanders in Gaza and during fighting in southern Israel on October 7.

“I want to say a few things as someone who served most of his years as a combat commander: The battlefield presents us with complex situations, and this time even more complex. In these situations, we have to make difficult decisions, and we are responsible for them, both in successes and in failures,” he said. “This is the way we chose, the wearers of the uniform, to bear the responsibility, and dedicate our lives to the security of the country.”

The house where the remains of 12-year-old Liel Hetzroni were found in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, November 19, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“Many commanders made very difficult decisions on October 7, and I appreciate all of them first of all for standing up to this challenge and risking their lives, and their endless willingness. The commanders’ decisions, as well as my own decisions, will be investigated and studied thoroughly, when the operational situation allows it,” Halevi said.

“Each of these commanders is now risking their lives in combat. It is not appropriate to attack them and judge them, when the cannons are still firing and they are leading forces inside the Strip in combat. We will continue to fight and continue to learn,” he added.

Halevi was asked if his comments referred to decisions made by Brig. Gen. Barak Hiram, who told The New York Times in a report published Saturday that he had made the tough decision on October 7 to order a tank to fire two light shells toward a house in Kibbutz Be’eri in which Hamas terrorists had been holding 14 Israelis hostage during the Palestinian terror group’s onslaught — fire that killed at least one Israeli.

During the entire hostage situation at that home, which included intense fighting between the Hamas gunmen and IDF forces, all the terrorists were killed, along with 12 of the 14 Israeli hostages.

Halevi responded that his comments did not only refer to the actions of Hiram.

Halevi also promised to create the conditions in which evacuated residents of northern Israel would be able to return to their homes, currently under frequent fire from Hezbollah. When the Lebanese terror group comes to look back at its decision to join in the fighting against Israel “on the night of October 7, it will understand that that was a mistake,” he said.

Asked about recent leaks from cabinet discussions regarding the war, he said such leaks of sensitive discussions “weaken national security.”

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