Gallant: Odds of war on the northern front are significant

Israel's defense chief says the government is 'getting closer to making a decision' on how to tackle Hezbollah

Even as Israeli troops continue to battle Hamas inside the Gaza Strip, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told Jewish Insider on Monday that there is an overwhelming chance of a second front opening up in the north.

Dressed in his trademark all-black, Gallant, a former IDF general and a member of Israel’s war cabinet, told JI in a briefing that Israel was “getting closer to making a decision” on how to tackle Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Islamist group that dominates southern Lebanon, and the odds of war on the northern front were significant. 

Gallant said that Israel prefers a diplomatic outcome in tandem with American negotiators, but it is also ready and prepared for military alternatives.

Since Hamas carried out its brutal Oct. 7 terror attack on civilian communities in southern Israel, Hezbollah has joined the fray, threatening Israel from the north with a steady stream of rockets, projectiles and armed drones, even dispatching small terror cells to infiltrate across the border. The threat has forced some 80,000 Israeli civilians to abandon their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in the country.

In recent days, as fighting inside Gaza has intensified and Israeli troops turn their attention south to where Hamas’ leaders are believed to be hiding underground in a web of tunnels, Hezbollah’s attacks have also increased, with the IDF returning fire on military targets deeper and deeper inside Lebanon and even Syria, according to IDF press statements and media reports.

Gallant’s assessment of a looming war with Hezbollah comes following a meeting on Sunday with Biden administration senior official Amos Hochstein. Hochstein, who as energy envoy in 2022 successfully mediated an agreement between Israel and Lebanon on a decades-old maritime border dispute, has been engaged in shuttle diplomacy between the two countries for the past month and, according to Israeli media this week, conveyed signs of a possible diplomatic solution that would include Hezbollah pulling back from the border.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with White House senior advisor Amos Hochstein (Courtesy)

“Any diplomatic solution must remove the threat of terrorist infiltrations and fire by Hezbollah,” Gallant explained to JI, adding that such a solution might require an amendment to the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which the two countries reached following the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

“My priority is to return 80,000 people to their homes, safely. I am giving the diplomatic channel a chance, but we will not tolerate the threat of infiltrations or firing on our northern communities,” said the former general, who, according to reports, pushed for an immediate military operation against Hezbollah in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack.

“War would not be good for Hezbollah – they know they will pay a heavy price,” he added. “But we mean to return our civilians to their homes either with a treaty or with force.”

Gallant drew a direct line between Hezbollah and Hamas, saying that both groups, as well as other players in the region from Yemen to Iraq, were backed by Iran, which has provided funding, weapons and training.

“On Oct. 7, Hamas aimed to terrorize Israelis – to attack us brutally and project it to the world, aiming to deter Israelis from wanting to live in Israel,” Gallant said, adding, “Hamas thought Hezbollah and Iran would be there to support them. They also thought that the Israeli army would not enter Gaza, that it would be too scared of losing soldiers, but none of it happened the way Hamas thought.”

“Today, Hamas is worried about the situation,” continued Gallant, who said in a televised press conference later on Monday that the IDF had defeated more than half of Hamas’ forces, taking out some 18 of its 24 battalions, including four in the southern city of Khan Younis.

Speaking to JI, the minister admitted that the next phase of combat in Gaza would be complex, perhaps one of the most intricate undertakings in the history of modern warfare. He said that the army had yet to enter the Strip’s southernmost city, Rafah, and some parts of central Gaza.

According to military assessments, Hamas’ top leaders, including Yahya Sinwar and its military chief, Mohammed Deif, remain hidden deep underground somewhere in the southern part of the Strip and have most likely surrounded themselves with at least some of the more than 100 Israelis still being held hostage. Above them, more than a million Gazan civilians – forced from their homes in the north during the four months of fighting – are now sheltering.

On one wall of his sparse office, Gallant proudly displays a flow chart of the very Hamas leadership that he has vowed to dismantle and destroy. The chart features names, ranks and photographs of the terror group’s senior leaders and commanders, broken down by battalion and including those both inside Gaza and abroad. Individuals who have already been killed have been crossed out with a thick red marker.

“We need to put this in proportion,” Gallant said. “The only way to close this out is to destroy Hamas – its military body and its governing capacity – and to return the hostages — and the only way to do that is through continued military pressure.”

Since Oct. 7, the straight-talking Gallant has been singularly focused on exerting that military pressure, arguing that Hamas’ previous agreement to release, after some 50 days of war, more than 100 of the 240 people taken hostage was due to Israel’s swift military progress. He has also maintained that continuing such pressure is the only way to force Hamas to even consider releasing the remaining hostages.

With Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s return to the region this week, the U.S. is expected to push a proposal drafted last week in Paris that would see additional hostages released in exchange for a prolonged pause in fighting — which the U.S. reportedly hopes will turn from a temporary truce to a more permanent cease-fire. 

Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier Wednesday, and is slated to meet with Gallant. He will also head to Ramallah for meetings with Palestinian Authority officials, according to reports.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (Photo: Ariel Hermoni/IMoD)

Recent reports suggest that the U.S. administration is hoping to mediate and implement a plan that would ultimately bring about a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank after the war ends, offering Israel a chance to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia — a move it hopes will stabilize the region for the long-term.

Israel’s current leadership, including Netanyahu, has pushed back at the notion of a fully-fledged Palestinian state emerging from this war, as well as the idea that the Palestinian Authority, even a reformed version, would rule in some way.

“Israel will not rule Gaza after Hamas is defeated – there will be no Israeli civilians living there and no soldiers remaining inside, even though we will maintain security control,” he said, sharing a final hope that a Palestinian leadership will eventually emerge that “is not hostile to Israel.”

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