Yoav Gallant says, ‘We are fighting an axis, not a single enemy.’
TEL AVIV—Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, says the scale and severity of the Oct. 7 assault on Israel by Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas deeply shook Israelis’ sense of security and profoundly altered the way they view the world around them.
“October 7 was the bloodiest day for Jewish people since 1945,” Gallant, a general-turned-politician, told The Wall Street Journal. “The world needs to understand. This is different.”
More than 1,200 people were killed after hundreds of Hamas fighters poured across the border from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel in a raid that included terrorist attacks on a music festival and small agricultural communities. More than 200 others were kidnapped. Scores are still being held hostage.
The gravity of the threat, Gallant says, underlies the ferocity of Israel’s response and its determination not only to destroy Iran-backed Hamas, but to act with enough force to deter other potential adversaries allied with Tehran, including Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.
In wide-ranging comments, Gallant staunchly defended Israel’s conduct of the war, which is entering its fourth month, and offered a stark assessment of the dangers he says his country is facing, signaling a potentially lengthy conflict in Gaza and an enduring shift in Israel’s defense posture.
“My basic view: We are fighting an axis, not a single enemy,” Gallant said. “Iran is building up military power around Israel in order to use it.”
Ahead of a visit to Israel by Secretary of State Antony Blinken of the U.S., which has urged Israel to do more to avoid civilian casualties, Gallant indicated Israeli forces would be shifting from what he called the “intense maneuvering phase of the war” toward “different types of special operations.”
But, he cautioned, the next chapter in the conflict “will last for a longer time” and he stressed that Israel wouldn’t abandon its goals of destroying Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and others, as a fighting force, ending its control of Gaza and freeing the remaining hostages.
Gallant—who was briefly fired and then reinstated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he warned that upheaval over a controversial judicial-overhaul plan pushed by the government posed risks to national security—has tried to stake out a middle ground on the war and its aftermath.
The defense minister is one of three members of Israel’s war cabinet, along with Netanyahu and National Unity party head Benny Gantz.
After calls last week by far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition for a return of Jewish settlers to Gaza and Israeli occupation of the strip, Gallant’s office outlined a postwar vision of Palestinian self-governance coupled with freedom for the Israeli military to act against security threats.
As Gallant sees it, a multinational task force led by the U.S., with European and Middle Eastern partners, should oversee the “rehabilitation” of Gaza.
Gazan authorities say more than 22,000 people have been killed in the war. The number doesn’t distinguish combatants and civilians. Swaths of the enclave have been destroyed in the fighting, which has also precipitated a humanitarian crisis, with severe shortages of food and medicine.
All of that has drawn criticism from aid organizations and foreign capitals, which have called on Israel to do more to protect civilians and ensure access to aid and healthcare.
“We’re close to the next phase in the north, including Gaza City,” where Israeli troops have largely established control, at least above ground, Gallant said. Israeli officers say they are still working to destroy a large network of underground tunnels used by Hamas fighters.
As the fight—now centered on Khan Younis—moves south, Israel’s military will be operating on an extremely crowded battlefield. Most of the strip’s 2.2 million people are now jammed into the southern end of the enclave, raising the risk of higher civilian losses in fighting there.
“We need to take into consideration the huge number of civilians,” Gallant said, adding that military tactics would need to adjust. “It will take some time,” Gallant said. “But we aren’t going to give up.”
Israeli officials said the shift to lower-intensity operations would be gradual and would happen at different times in different parts of Gaza.
Israeli officers said the most delicate phase of fighting would likely be around Rafah, a Gaza city on the enclave’s border with Israel that is now packed with people displaced by fighting elsewhere. They said Hamas militants also were sheltering there and were being resupplied via tunnels from Egypt.
Israel is in talks with Egypt over control of a critical corridor along the border that Israel says has been used by Hamas to smuggle weapons and people. Israel says its destruction is critical to demilitarizing Gaza.
Israeli officials also say they consider improving flows of humanitarian assistance to be central to the war effort. The worse the situation becomes for civilians, the more public pressure Israel’s allies put on it to end the fighting.
“We see humanitarian aid as a strategic necessity,” said one Israeli official. “It will let us go after terrorists and separate them from civilians.”
Gallant said his other immediate concern is Israel’s northern border, where large numbers of Israeli soldiers have been deployed in case of conflict with Hezbollah. Tens of thousands of Israeli civilians have evacuated from their homes in the north of the country.