JERUSALEM - Israel has said it has taken control of a strategic corridor along Gaza’s border, meaning it now effectively controls Gaza’s entire land border.

Israel claims the Philadelphi Corridor buffer zone between the Gaza Strip and Egypt was being used by Hamas to smuggle in weapons despite a blockade, with around 20 tunnels found.

However, Egyptian TV quoted sources disputing that claim, instead alleging that Israel was trying to justify its deepening incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah.

The move risks complicating Israel’s relationship with Egypt, which says any increase in troops in the strategic border area would violate the countries’ 1979 peace accords.

“The Philadelphi Corridor served as the oxygen line of Hamas through which Hamas carried out weapons smuggling into Gaza on a regular basis," said Israel's military chief spokesperson, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari.

He added that Israeli troops were "investigating” and “neutralising" tunnels found in the area, but later told a briefing with reporters that he could not be sure all of the tunnels crossed into Egypt.

Egypt has previously said it had destroyed cross-border tunnels to stop weapons smuggling.

The corridor is part of a larger demilitarised zone along the entire Israel-Egypt border.

Under the peace accord, each side is allowed to deploy only a small 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 there were "no communications with the Israeli side" on the allegations of finding tunnels on the border, which Israeli military officials have rebutted.

It comes amid intensified military operations in Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been seeking shelter.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said that a fifth brigade, consisting of up to several thousand soldiers, joined troops operating in the city on Tuesday.

In a statement, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said seizure of the Philadelphi Corridor would be consistent with the "limited" ground operation Israeli officials briefed US President Joe Biden's team on for the city of Rafah.

On Wednesday, a top Israeli official said the war was likely to last through the end of the year, despite mounting international concern about the scale of civilian casualties.

Israel's national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, told Kan public radio 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 has said from the start the "war will be long," he said, adding: “They have designated 2024 as a year of war."

The war began when Palestinian militants burst into southern Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people, most of them civilians in a terror attack, and taking around 250 hostages.

Israel's offensive in response to the attack has killed at least 36,096 Palestinians, according to Gaza's Health Ministry. Israel says it has killed 15,000 militants.

AB/ANA/30 May 2024