Israeli troops in Rafah seize half of Gaza’s border with Egypt

Israel says taking control of the corridor is critical to its goal of defeating the militant group that it says is holding out in Rafah,. (Photo by Eyad AL-BABA / AFP) (AFP)
Israel says taking control of the corridor is critical to its goal of defeating the militant group that it says is holding out in Rafah,. (Photo by Eyad AL-BABA / AFP) (AFP)

Summary

Egyptian officials say Israel intends to dominate the strategic corridor by the end of this month as it pushes further into the city of Rafah in pursuit of Hamas.

Israel has seized at least half of the Gaza Strip’s 9-mile southern border with Egypt, a strategic corridor that Egyptian officials say Israel intends to dominate by the end of this month as it pushes further into the city of Rafah in pursuit of Hamas.

Egyptian officials say the Israeli military now controls around 70% of the Philadelphi Corridor that divides Gaza from Egypt. Israeli Army Radio said Wednesday that Israeli troops hold half of the border zone, and that troops were present as far as the Brazil neighborhood in eastern Rafah. The military has doubled the number of brigades operating in the Rafah area, according to the radio report on which the Israeli military declined to comment.

Israel says taking control of the corridor is critical to its goal of defeating the militant group that it says is holding out in Rafah, from where it has urged civilians to evacuate. But doing so could jeopardize the country’s 45-year-old peace treaty with Egypt, which limits the number of troops both countries can deploy in the area. The Israeli Defense Ministry declined to comment on whether it aims to take full control of the southern frontier or has a timeline for doing so. The prime minister’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Witnesses in Rafah said that Israeli tanks had advanced from the Brazil neighborhood toward the Bahlul gas station and the Zul-Nurein mosque. The tanks moved behind the Bank of Palestine and the cattle market, where some troops were present, the witnesses said.

Israel’s operations in Rafah and growing control of the corridor have hindered efforts to respond to the deteriorating humanitarian situation across the enclave. The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees said it suspended food distribution in Rafah on Tuesday because of a lack of supplies and security issues. The agency has struggled for weeks to get aid through two border crossings into Rafah.

In a sign of Israel’s growing isolation in light of its prosecution of the war in Gaza, on Wednesday three European nations said they would recognize Palestine as an independent state alongside Israel and said they expected others to follow in the coming weeks. Europe as a whole is divided on the issue.

Unilateral recognition of Palestine has gained momentum as the seven-month-long war in Gaza has destroyed much of the territory that, together with the West Bank and East Jerusalem, is integral to a future Palestinian state. It comes after the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor this week said he was seeking arrest warrants for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as for a number of Hamas leaders.

“Today Ireland, Norway and Spain are announcing that we recognize the State of Palestine. Each of us will now undertake whatever national steps are necessary to give effect to that decision," said Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris.

The U.S. and Israel reject such moves separate from a peace process, which has been moribund for years. Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz recalled the ambassadors to Ireland and Norway for consultations on what he said was a “distorted step" that rewarded Hamas for the Oct. 7 attack that killed 1,200 people and took more than 240 hostages.

The U.S. gave political and military support to Israel’s subsequent war in Gaza, which has killed 35,000 people, most of them civilians, according to Palestinian officials whose figures don’t say how many were combatants. But Washington has warned it against a major operation in Rafah, because of the risk to civilians.

Israel has said it would proceed in stages to minimize civilian casualties, but its moves along the Egyptian border have stoked tensions with its oldest Arab partner. Israel relinquished control over the corridor in 2005, but says it holds a vast tunnel network that allowed Hamas to smuggle in weapons. Israeli action there requires coordination with Egypt, which has pushed back against Israel’s recent overtures to establish an Israeli presence on the border.

The Egyptian military this month mobilized reservists and significantly increased its forces in the Sinai Peninsula along the border with Gaza to keep the conflict from spilling over into its own territory, Egyptian officials said. Both sides remain in contact but aren’t currently operationally coordinating.

The Israeli operations that began in Rafah earlier this month have also reduced the entry of aid through two key southern border crossings to a trickle and displaced some 800,000 people from Rafah, where more than a million had taken shelter from fighting elsewhere in the strip. Since this month’s evacuation orders, most of them are now living in tents along the roads and a crowded strip of beach lacking basic infrastructure, or in the bombed-out remains of other cities in Gaza.

Unrwa said that the military operation in eastern Rafah had prevented access to its distribution center and a U.N. World Food Program warehouse. The two agencies have delivered nearly 90% of all aid to Gaza, according to Cogat, the Israeli military body responsible for coordinating the entry of aid into the besieged territory.

Cogat says it has facilitated the entry of hundreds of trucks of aid in recent weeks through several border crossings between Gaza and Israel, though aid groups say that volume doesn’t begin to address the need. U.N. officials say that most of those trucks are from the private sector and so aren’t tracked once they enter the strip to ensure they reach people in need. The dozens of aid trucks that entered through Kerem Shalom this month have faced challenges traversing active military zones to reach warehouses.

Much of Gaza’s population was already facing a possible famine, with the hardest-hit areas in the territory’s north, which had been cut off from most aid deliveries entering through southern border crossings. A floating pier that the U.S. military set up on the coast of Gaza last week in coordination with the Israeli military has so far delivered only a few dozen trucks of aid into the enclave.

Anat Peled, Fatima AbdulKarim and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this article.

Write to Stephen Kalin at stephen.kalin@wsj.com and Summer Said at summer.said@wsj.com

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