Rafah battles intensify as Israel seizes key Gaza-Egypt corridor

Israeli forces take over the 14-km Philadelphi corridor, alleging it was used for weapons smuggling

By AFP

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The Philadelphi, or Salaheddin corridor, a narrow buffer zone along the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt, as seen from the west of Rafah on January 14. — Photo: AFP file
The Philadelphi, or Salaheddin corridor, a narrow buffer zone along the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt, as seen from the west of Rafah on January 14. — Photo: AFP file

Published: Thu 30 May 2024, 8:03 PM

Intense shelling and gunfire rocked Rafah in southern Gaza on Thursday, residents said, after Israel declared it had seized a strategic corridor along the Palestinian territory's border with Egypt.

The Israeli military launched its incursion into Rafah in early May despite international objections over the safety of Palestinian civilians sheltering in the city.


A strike that sparked a fire and killed dozens in a displacement camp at the weekend drew a wave of fresh condemnation, including a social media campaign with the slogan "All eyes on Rafah" that has been shared by tens of millions of users.

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Israel, which has repeatedly vowed to destroy Hamas after the Palestinian militant group attacked southern Israel on October 7, said on Wednesday its forces had taken over the 14-kilometre Philadelphi corridor along the Gaza-Egypt border, which it alleges was used for weapons smuggling.

Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari announced Israel had taken "operational control" of the narrow border area, where he said troops had "discovered around 20 tunnels".

Egypt, a longtime mediator in the conflict, has rejected claims of smuggling tunnels running beneath the buffer zone.

Palestinians flee with their belongings as smoke rises in the background, in the area of Tel Al Sultan in Rafah. — Photo: AFP
Palestinians flee with their belongings as smoke rises in the background, in the area of Tel Al Sultan in Rafah. — Photo: AFP

"Israel is using these allegations to justify continuing the operation on the Palestinian city of Rafah and prolonging the war for political purposes," a high-level Egyptian source was quoted as saying by state-linked Al Qahera News.

Egyptian officials have said a potential Israeli takeover of Philadelphi could violate the two countries' 1979 peace deal, though there has been no official comment from Cairo since the military's announcement.

On a visit to Beijing, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi called for increased humanitarian assistance to besieged Gaza, and reiterated his country's longstanding opposition to "any attempt at forcing Palestinians to flee their land".

His host, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, called for a "broad-based, authoritative and effective international peace conference" to address the war.

In Gaza, witnesses reported fighting in central and western Rafah. Others told AFP at least five people were killed in a bombardment near an aid warehouse in east Rafah.

Nasser Hospital in nearby Khan Younis said at least "four martyrs were brought to the facility following a bombing" in west Rafah.

A Palestinian man walks near the wreckage of a vehicle hit in an Israeli strike, in Rafah. — Photo: Reuters
A Palestinian man walks near the wreckage of a vehicle hit in an Israeli strike, in Rafah. — Photo: Reuters

Witnesses said Israeli forces had also demolished several buildings in the city's eastern areas where the Israeli incursion began on May 7, initially focusing on the vital Rafah border crossing, a key entry point for humanitarian aid.

An AFP correspondent reported shelling and gunfire in Gaza City's Zeitun neighbourhood, in the territory's north, where witnesses saw thick plumes of smoke rising over Jabalia refugee camp and Beit Lahia.

A steady stream of civilians have fled Rafah, transporting their belongings on their shoulders, in cars or on donkey-drawn carts.

Before the Rafah offensive began, the United Nations said up to 1.4 million people were sheltering in the city. Since then, one million have fled the area, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, has said.

The Israeli military said on Thursday its forces had struck more than 50 targets across Gaza the previous day. Troops found weapons, explosives and tunnel shafts in Rafah, and battled militants in Jabalia, it added.

The weekend Israeli strike and ensuing blaze, which tore through the camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, killed 45 people, according to Gaza officials and has prompted two days of discussions at the UN Security Council.

A Palestinian man wounded in an Israeli strike is helped as he walks outside a field hospital where he receives treatment, in Rafah. — Photo: Reuters
A Palestinian man wounded in an Israeli strike is helped as he walks outside a field hospital where he receives treatment, in Rafah. — Photo: Reuters

Israel has said it targeted a Hamas compound and killed two senior members.

Following the strike, Algeria presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council that "demands an immediate ceasefire respected by all parties" and the release of all hostages, though it was unclear when it would be put to a vote.

In a phone call with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday, France's Emmanuel Macron said Paris was "determined to work with Algeria" to ensure the council "makes a strong statement on Rafah".

The French president also called on Abbas to "implement necessary reforms", offering the "prospect of recognition of the State of Palestine".

Decisions by Spain, Norway and Ireland to formally recognise Palestinian statehood this week have sparked a debate over the issue, and Macron said recognition should take place at a "useful moment".

The speaker of the Slovenian parliament said lawmakers there would vote next Tuesday on whether to join the recognition moves.

Israel's National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said the war could go on until the year's end.

Palestinians fleeing with their belongings ride atop their vehicle in Rafah. — Photo: AFP
Palestinians fleeing with their belongings ride atop their vehicle in Rafah. — Photo: AFP

"We may have another seven months of fighting to consolidate our success and achieve what we have defined as the destruction of Hamas's power and military capabilities," Hanegbi said.

Amid the war, Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz's centrist party on Thursday submitted a bill to dissolve parliament for an early election, drawing criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party.

The United States has urged Israel to refrain from a full-scale Rafah offensive because of the risk to civilians.

However, the White House said on Tuesday that so far it had not seen Israel cross President Joe Biden's "red lines".

The Israeli seizure of the Rafah crossing has further slowed sporadic deliveries of aid for Gaza's 2.4 million people and effectively shuttered the territory's main exit point.

The Gaza health ministry on Thursday called to "open the... crossings and facilitate the exit of the sick and the wounded for treatment abroad".

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