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Israel says strategic corridor along Gaza-Egypt border now under its control

Click to play video: 'U.S.-made bombs used in Israeli strike on Rafah camp'
U.S.-made bombs used in Israeli strike on Rafah camp
WATCH: Remnants of American-made bombs have been found in the munition debris at the site of Israel's airstrike that killed at least 45 people in Rafah, according to multiple reports. Crystal Goomansingh reports on the White House's unwavering support for Israel; how the humanitarian crisis in Gaza just keeps getting worse; and the new projection about how much longer the fighting might last. – May 29, 2024

Israel’s military said Wednesday it seized control of a strategic corridor along Gaza’s border with Egypt to cut off smuggling tunnels as it tries to destroy the militant Hamas group in a conflict that is now in its eighth month.

The capture of the Philadelphi Corridor could complicate Israel’s relations with Egypt, which has previously complained about Israel’s advance toward its border. Israel says the corridor is awash in tunnels that have funneled weapons and other goods for Hamas — even under a yearslong blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt.

Israel also deepened its incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of people seeking shelter from fighting elsewhere had been displaced, and where intensifying violence in recent days has killed dozens of Palestinians. The military said that a fifth brigade — up to several thousand soldiers — joined troops operating in the city on Tuesday.

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Click to play video: 'Gaza crisis: Netanyahu calls deadly Rafah missile strike a ‘tragic mishap’'
Gaza crisis: Netanyahu calls deadly Rafah missile strike a ‘tragic mishap’

Egypt has said that any increase in troops in the strategic Philadelphi Corridor would violate the countries’ 1979 peace accord. It already has complained about Israel taking over the Rafah border crossing, the only crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

“The Philadelphi Corridor served as the oxygen line of Hamas through which Hamas carried out weapons smuggling into Gaza on a regular basis,” said the military’s chief spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

An Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations, said Israel had notified Egypt of the takeover. He said some 20 tunnels, including some that were previously unknown to Israel, had been found during the operation, as well as 82 access points to those tunnels. It was not clear what the state of the tunnels was and if they were currently in use.

The corridor is part of a larger demilitarized zone along both sides of the entire Israel-Egypt border. Under the peace accord, each is allowed to deploy only a tiny number of troops or border guards in the zone, though those numbers can be modified by mutual agreement. At the time of the accord, Israeli troops controlled Gaza, until Israel withdrew its forces and settlers in 2005.

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Countries continue to push for two-state solution

Egypt’s state-run Al-Qahera News TV reported that there are “no communications with the Israeli side” on the allegations of finding tunnels on the borders. Egypt has repeatedly expressed concerns that the Israeli offensive could push Palestinians across the border — a scenario Egypt says is unacceptable.

The narrow corridor — about 100 meters (yards) wide in parts — runs the 14-kilometer (8.6-mile) length of the Gaza side of the border with Egypt and includes the Rafah crossing into Egypt.

Hamas has had free rein of the border since its 2007 takeover of Gaza.

Smuggling tunnels were dug under the Gaza-Egypt border to get around the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, imposed after Hamas took over with the aim of preventing it from building up its military stockpile. Some of the tunnels were massive, large enough for vehicles. Hamas brought in weapons and supplies, and Gaza residents smuggled in commercial goods, from livestock to construction materials.

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That changed over the past decade, as Egypt battled Islamic militants in Sinai. The Egyptian military cracked down on the tunnels and destroyed hundreds of them, saying they were being used to transfer weapons into the Sinai Peninsula.

The Israeli military official said Israel has also taken “tactical control” of Tel al-Sultan, a neighborhood on Rafah’s northwest edge. But he said the incursion into the city remains a “limited scope and scale operation.”

Earlier Wednesday, a top Israeli official said Israel’s conflict with Hamas is likely to last through the end of the year — a grim prediction for a conflict that has killed tens of thousands, deepened Israel’s global isolation and brought the region to the brink of a wider conflagration.

National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told Kan public radio that he was “expecting another seven months of fighting” to destroy the military and governing capabilities of Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group.

“The army is achieving its objectives,” but it has said from the start that the “war will be long,” he said. “They have designated 2024 as a year of war.”

Click to play video: 'Hamas rockets strike Tel Aviv, Israel retaliates with Rafah airstrikes'
Hamas rockets strike Tel Aviv, Israel retaliates with Rafah airstrikes

Hanegbi’s remarks raise questions about the future of Gaza and what kind of role Israel will play in it. The United States, Israel’s top ally, has already demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decide on a post-conflict vision for the Palestinian territory. Netanyahu’s defense minister and a top governing partner have warned that he must take steps to ensure that Israel isn’t bogged down in Gaza indefinitely.

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The conflict has already devastated Gaza’s urban landscape, displaced most of its population and sparked a humanitarian catastrophe and widespread hunger. It has opened Israel up to international legal scrutiny, with world courts faulting it over its conduct during the conflict, sparked disagreements with the White House, and prompted three European nations to formally recognize a Palestinian state on Tuesday, against Israel’s wishes.

Israel says it must dismantle Hamas’ last remaining battalions in Rafah and has said it will seek indefinite security control over the Gaza Strip, even after the conflict ends. Still, it has yet to achieve its main goals of dismantling Hamas and returning scores of hostages captured in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that triggered the conflict.

Beyond Rafah, Israeli forces were still battling militants in parts of Gaza that the military said it wrested control of months ago — potential signs of a low-level insurgency that could keep Israeli troops engaged in the territory.

The fighting in Rafah has displaced 1 million people, the United Nations says, most of whom were already displaced from other parts of Gaza. Palestinians on Wednesday reported heavy fighting in different parts of the city.

Residents said fighting was underway in the city center and on the outskirts of Tel al-Sultan, the same neighborhood where an Israeli strike over the weekend ignited a fire that swept through an encampment for displaced people, killing dozens. The military says it’s investigating the strike and that the blaze may have been caused by a secondary explosion.

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An expensive floating pier built by the U.S. to surge aid into the territory was meanwhile damaged in bad weather, another setback to efforts to bring food to starving Palestinians. Gaza’s land crossings are now entirely controlled by Israel.

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‘Canada is horrified’: Freeland on Israel’s attack at Rafah camp

The U.S. and other allies of Israel have warned against a full-fledged offensive in Rafah, with the Biden administration saying this would cross a “red line” and refusing to provide offensive arms for such an undertaking. But so far, it hasn’t tried to stop Israel’s advances through the city.

Last week, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt its Rafah offensive as part of South Africa’s case accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza, a charge Israel vehemently denies.

The conflict began when Hamas and other militants burst into southern Israel in a surprise attack on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and taking around 250 hostage. More than 100 were released during a weeklong cease-fire in November in exchange for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

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Israel’s offensive in response to the attack has killed at least 36,096 Palestinians, according to Hamas-run Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between fighters and civilians in its count. Israel says it has killed 15,000 militants.

–Shurafa reported from Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, and Magdy from Cairo.

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