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Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah. Alamy Stock Photo

Intense shelling continues in Rafah as Israel seizes key area along Gaza-Egypt corridor

Military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said troops had “discovered around 20 tunnels” in the narrow border area, claims Egypt have rejected.

INTENSE SHELLING AND gunfire rocked Rafah in southern Gaza today, 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.

Israel, which has repeatedly vowed to destroy Hamas after the Palestinian militant group attacked southern Israel on 7 October, 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.

“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.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin has said that Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and the killing of so many innocent civilians is “very difficult to comprehend” while also saying he disagrees “fundamentally” with views expressed by Ireland’s Chief Rabbi on the the subject of civilian deaths. 

In an interview with The Examiner, Chief Rabbi Yoni Wieder said that the ratio of civilian deaths to Hamas fighters was “a very good ratio compared to other wars, historically”.

“First of all, I would disagree fundamentally with his analysis,” Martin told reporters today. 

Martin said Wieder’s comments were “extraordinarily insensitive to many, many families who have lost children, who lost loved ones in Palestine, people who had nothing at all to do with Hamas”.

“Just as we’ve condemned the Hamas atrocity, and the shocking killing of the innocents by Hamas, likewise the bombardment of Gaza has caused the deaths of thousands of innocent children and men and women in Gaza. That type of approach is very difficult to comprehend.”

Civilians flee Rafah

On a visit to Beijing, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for increased humanitarian assistance to besieged Gaza, and reiterated his country’s long-standing opposition to “any attempt at forcing Palestinians to flee their land”.

palestinians-walk-through-the-destruction-in-the-wake-of-an-israeli-air-and-ground-offensive-in-jebaliya-northern-gaza-strip-thursday-may-30-2024-ap-photoenas-rami Palestinians walk through the destruction in the wake of an Israeli air and ground offensive in Jebaliya. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Witnesses said Israeli forces had also demolished several buildings in the city’s eastern areas where the Israeli incursion began on 7 May, 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.

UN resolution

The Israeli military said today 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.

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

israeli-soldiers-drive-an-apc-near-the-israeli-gaza-border-in-southern-israel-thursday-may-30-2024-ap-phototsafrir-abayov Israeli soldiers drive an APC near the Israeli-Gaza border. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

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 Mahmud 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.

The current conflict has been ongoing since Hamas’s 7 October attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,189 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.

So far, Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,224 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Palestinian health ministry which does not break down the death toll into combatants and civilians. 

Many more people are also presumed dead and buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings in Gaza. 

Gantz seeks elections

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

a-bundle-of-humanitarian-aid-for-the-gaza-strip-with-the-logo-of-world-central-kitchen-wck-is-on-a-truck-at-the-kerem-shalom-border-crossing-in-southern-israel-thursday-may-30-2024-ap-phototsa A bundle of humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip with the logo of World Central Kitchen (WCK) is on a truck at the Kerem Shalom border crossing in southern Israel. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“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 today 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 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 today  called to “open the… crossings and facilitate the exit of the sick and the wounded for treatment abroad”.

© AFP 2024 with reporting from David Mac Redmond