Israel takes control of corridor full of Hamas' smuggling tunnels, says military | World News - Hindustan Times
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Israel takes control of corridor full of Hamas' smuggling tunnels, says military

AP |
May 29, 2024 11:46 PM IST

The capture of the corridor could complicate Israel's relations with Egypt, which has previously complained over Israel's advance toward its border

Israel’s military said Wednesday it had seized control of a strategic corridor that runs along the length of Gaza’s border with Egypt, an objective Israel had said was necessary in its bid to destroy Hamas as part of the ongoing war, now in its eighth month.

Israeli armoured personnel carriers (APC) operate, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near Israel's border with Gaza in southern Israel(REUTERS)
Israeli armoured personnel carriers (APC) operate, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near Israel's border with Gaza in southern Israel(REUTERS)

The capture of the area, known as the Philadelphi Corridor, gives Israel control over a strip of land it says is awash in smuggling tunnels that have funneled weapons and other goods for Hamas — even under a years long blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt.

The move comes as Israel has 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 capture of the corridor could complicate Israel's relations with Egypt, which has previously complained over Israel's advance toward its border, including when Israel took over the Rafah border crossing, the only crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Egypt has said that any increase in troops in the strategic corridor would violate the countries' 1979 peace accord.

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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 means we can control and we have the ability to cut off the oxygen line that Hamas has used for replenishing and movement,” the official said.

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.

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 Palestinian 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.

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.”

The announcement on the taking of the border corridor came after a top Israeli official said Israel’s war 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 repeatedly to the brink of a wider conflagration.

National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi's 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) said from the first days it was presenting its plan to the Cabinet that the war will be long,” he said. “They have designated 2024 as a year of war.”

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 postwar 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.

The war 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 wartime conduct, 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 war 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 war.

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.

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.

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 war 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.

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

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