Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant believes his country has "no other choice" but to defend itself and that Hamas underestimated just how "tough and stubborn" the people of Israel are.
Echoing the sentiments of other Israeli leaders, he says Israelis have nowhere to go, saying, "this is a big and powerful weapon," Gallant told a small group of reporters during an hourlong roundtable in his Tel Aviv office on Friday.
"2023 isn't 1943," he added, referring to the Holocaust. "We now have the ability to protect ourselves."
Hamas is a militant Palestinian Islamist group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union and others. It carried out an unprecedented incursion into Israel from the neighboring Gaza Strip on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and taking over 200 others hostage, according to Israeli authorities. In response, the Israeli military has conducted wide-scale airstrikes on Gaza, killing more than 7,000 people and injuring over 18,000 others, according to the Hamas-run Ministry of Health. ABC News has not independently confirmed those casualty figures.
Gaza, a 140-square-mile territory, is home to 2 million Palestinians who have lived under a blockade imposed by neighboring Israel and Egypt since Hamas seized power in 2007.
During Friday's roundtable, journalists pressed the Israeli defense minister on the reported civilian casualties in Gaza. He said the Israeli military was doing everything possible to prevent civilian loss of life. Humanitarian agencies have repeatedly warned of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza amid Israel's total siege.
"We don't want to hit civilians," he told reporters. Israeli political and military leaders insist that Hamas deliberately hides amongst the civilian population.
Gallant played extracts of some of the videos he said were taken by Hamas during the Oct. 7 terror attack, telling reporters that none of the clips were the full or most graphic versions. They depicted brutal and violent acts of murder. He noted that he has spoken to his U.S. counterpart Lloyd Austin "every day" since the massacre.
"Secretary of Defense Austin told me that in the six years he was fighting ISIS, he never saw anything like it," Gallant said. "We share 100% of the values and 99% of the interests with the United States."
Austin had said during remarks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Oct. 13 in Tel Aviv that the attacks by Hamas were "worse than what I saw with ISIS."
Gallant laid out a four-stage mission: destroy Hamas, return the hostages, secure Israel's southern border and deter adversaries. He vowed that his country will not allow Hamas to survive and kill again.
In order to eliminate Hamas, Gallant said the Israeli military must first stop the militants' attacks and target them from the air, land and sea. Then there will be a ground operation of Gaza with a large number of Israeli forces, which Gallant said will take a long time. This new phase has now begun. Next, Gallant said the Israeli military will focus on destroying pockets of resistance in Gaza.
The final phase will be what an Israeli official calls "the day after." Here their plans are less detailed other than a vision for Gaza without Hamas or Israel in charge.
When asked whether Israel was waiting to launch the ground operation until the U.S. gives the green light or all the hostages are released, Gallant replied: "We will wait for the best conditions."
Amid speculation over whether Iran was potentially involved in the Oct. 7 attack, Gallant told reporters it was Hamas' decision to carry out the deadly incursion into Israel. But he said Iran is known to provide funding, training and weapons to Hamas as well as to Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group. U.S. officials have said they have not seen evidence of Iran's direct involvement in the Oct. 7 attack.
"We are not looking for bigger wars," he added. "But we are preparing ourselves against Iran and Hezbollah and have to be ready."