June 17, 2024

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Philadelphi corridor buffer zone under ‘tactical control,’ IDF says

Israel said Wednesday it had achieved “tactical control” over the boundary that separates Gaza and Egypt, a significant success for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly described control of the area as an objective for Israel in Gaza.

An official with the Israel Defense Forces, speaking on the condition of anonymity to brief reporters, said that while Israel does not have “boots on the ground” throughout the boundary, known as the Philadelphi corridor, its control means Israel can “cut off” Hamas supplies via underground tunnels in the corridor.

“It means we have the ability to cut off the oxygen line that Hamas has used for replenishing and movement in and around that area,” the official said, adding that about 20 cross-border tunnels had been found in the area.

The IDF announcement came amid intensifying international condemnation of Israel’s ongoing offensive in Rafah, just north of the Philadelphi corridor, after a strike at a tent camp on Sunday killed at least 45, and amid no sign of an end to fighting. A senior Israeli official said on Wednesday that the war in Gaza could last the rest of this year, prompting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to say there was an urgent need to plan for the “day after” the war.

Israeli military control of the Philadelphi corridor could complicate political relations with Cairo, risking a landmark 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty that has led to a half-century of coexistence.

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The corridor is a buffer zone and a no man’s land about nine miles long and several hundred yards wide that stretches from the southernmost tip of Gaza to the Mediterranean Sea. Israel has not had a troop presence along the border since 2005, when the country withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian officials did not publicly respond to the IDF announcement. A former Egyptian official familiar with negotiations, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, said that the Israeli military presence in the buffer zone appeared to violate the Camp David Accords of 1978, the U.S.-brokered agreements that led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979.

U.S. officials have expressed frustration with Israel’s war efforts in recent weeks. Speaking in Moldova on Wednesday, Blinken told reporters that Israel urgently needs a “clear plan” for after the war in Gaza ends that can ensure the enduring defeat of Hamas.

Blinken had been asked about comments made by Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s national security adviser, who had told Kan public radio Wednesday that he was expecting “another seven months of fighting” to destroy Hamas and other militant groups, adding that 2024 would be “a year of war.”

The remark showed little sign of a change in course after the horrified global reaction to Sunday’s strike in Rafah. Scenes of charred bodies and accounts of people burning alive prompted global condemnation of Israel’s strike. White House officials lamented the loss of life but said the attack did not cross President Biden’s “red line.”

In Moldova, Blinken called the weekend’s attack “horrific,” adding that it has affected all people on a “basic human level.” He said he could not confirm reports that U.S. weapons were used in the strike.

Eyewitnesses contacted by The Washington Post on Wednesday said Israeli tanks had pushed closer into central Rafah, accompanying an intense air operation that has led to what they described as a near-constant thud of airstrikes and other explosions. Responding to questions about those reports, the Israeli military said Wednesday that it “does not share the location of its forces.”

The witnesses said tanks were near the Awda roundabout in central Rafah and had taken up positions in western parts of the city, including the Tal al-Sultan neighborhood, the site of Sunday’s strikes.

Israeli forces expanded a cordon around Rafah on Wednesday, according to Mohammad al-Mughair of the civil defense forces in Gaza. “We expect that the Tal al-Sultan camp will be stormed,” Mughair said. Residents in that neighborhood said Israeli forces were increasing surveillance of the area using unmanned vehicles.

Nearly 1 million people have fled Rafah in the past three weeks even though there was “nowhere safe to go,” according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which aids Palestinian refugees. Aid groups also warned that Israel’s offensive in Rafah makes relief efforts nearly impossible, with World Central Kitchen announcing Wednesday that ongoing attacks had forced it to suspend its main kitchen there.

Algeria has put forward a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council calling for a halt to Israel’s military offensive in Rafah and an immediate cease-fire. It also calls for the release of all hostages held by Hamas and an increase in humanitarian aid into the enclave. A vote is expected in the coming days. It is unclear whether the United States will use its veto power to vote down the proposal.

At least 21 people were killed in a tent encampment near Rafah’s coast on Tuesday by what a spokesman for Gaza’s civil defense said was Israeli artillery fire. The Israeli military said in a statement Tuesday that it “did not strike in the humanitarian area in al-Mawasi,” referring to a zone along Gaza’s coast. Witnesses said the strikes occurred just south of the humanitarian zone.

A career State Department official involved in the Biden administration’s debates over Israel’s conduct in Gaza resigned this week, citing disagreements with a recently published U.S. government report that claimed Israel was not impeding humanitarian assistance to Gaza, two officials told The Post. The outgoing official, Stacy Gilbert, served in the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Gilbert sent an email to staff explaining her view that the State Department was wrong to conclude Israel has not obstructed aid to Gaza, officials who read the letter said.

At least 36,171 people have been killed and 81,420 injured in Gaza since the war started, said the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says the majority of the dead are women and children. Israel estimates about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, including more than 300 soldiers, and it says 290 soldiers have been killed since the launch of its military operations in Gaza.

Ellen Francis, Kelly Kasulis Cho, Lior Soroka, Kareem Fahim, Claire Parker and Hajar Harb contributed to this report.