Israel declares «tactical control» over Gaza’s strategic corridor bordering Egypt

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The Israeli military said Wednesday evening it had taken “tactical control” over the Philadelphia Corridor – a sensitive strip of Gaza along the border with Egypt – in a move that could further strain Israel’s already strained ties with Cairo.

Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, said the area was “Hamas’s oxygen pipe” and had been used by the Palestinian armed group to “regularly smuggle ammunition into Gaza territory.” He said Hamas had also built tunnels near the Egyptian border, calculating that Israel would not dare strike so close to Egyptian territory.

Israeli officials said seizing the narrow area, about 9 miles long, is crucial to preventing Hamas from rearming itself through cross-border smuggling. “It must be in our hands; it must be closed,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters in December, after being asked whether Israel still intended to capture the area.

An Israeli military officer, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to respect military protocol on Wednesday, said troops had identified at least 20 tunnels running from Gaza to Egypt, some of them discovered only recently.

But while briefing reporters Wednesday evening, Admiral Hagari stopped short of saying the tunnels crossed the border.

“I can’t say now that all these tunnels go through Egypt,” he said. “We will look into it and pass on the information” to Egypt. Tunnel shafts in Gaza “are located near the border with Egypt, including in buildings and homes,” she added. “We will investigate and take care of each of these wells.”

After the Israeli announcement, Egyptian state channel Al-Qahera News quoted an unnamed senior official as saying there was “no truth” to the claims about tunnels under the border.

“These lies reflect the scale of the crisis facing the Israeli government,” the official said, adding: “Israel continues its attempts to export lies about the conditions on the ground of its forces in Rafah in order to obscure its military failure and to find a way out of its political crisis.”

Egypt has previously warned that an Israeli occupation of the border corridor would pose a “serious threat to Egyptian-Israeli relations.” On Monday, at least one Egyptian soldier was killed in a shootout with Israeli forces near the Rafah crossing; both sides have said they are investigating the matter.

Israeli troops are not present everywhere in the Philadelphia corridor, the Israeli military official said, but they now have the ability to effectively block Hamas’s ability to move through tunnels under and near the border. During the operation, Israeli troops destroyed a network of tunnels that ran nearly a mile underground in eastern Rafah, Admiral Hagari said.

The Egyptian government has disputed that cross-border tunnels are a problem, saying its own forces have eliminated them in recent years.

“Israel uses these accusations to justify the continuation of the Rafah operation and the prolongation of the war for political purposes,” he said.

A limited number of Israeli forces were also deployed in the Tel al-Sultan area in western Rafah, the official said. This is the deepest advance into the city of Rafah confirmed by Israel since its ground offensive began in early May.

Egypt and Israel have traded blame over who is responsible for the continued closure of the Rafah crossing, a key conduit for bringing aid to Gaza and allowing the sick and injured to leave. Israeli troops captured the crossing on May 6, and Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian officials have been unable to reach an agreement to resume operations there.

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