Troops destroy 'significant' Hamas tunnel near Rafah Crossing

IDF takes control of key Gaza-Egypt border road, locating at least 20 tunnels

Military spokesman Daniel Hagari says Hamas positioned rocket launchers in 'Philadelphi Route' hoping to dissuade Israel from striking close to the Egyptian border

Troops of the 401st Armored Brigade operate in southern Gaza's Rafah, in a handout image published May 29, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israeli military announced on Wednesday that it had established “operational control” over the entire so-called Philadelphi Route along the Gaza-Egypt border, discovering dozens of rocket launchers and at least 20 cross-border smuggling tunnels there so far.

At a press conference Wednesday evening, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said that the now-captured strip of land, which runs for a total of 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) all along the Gaza-Egypt border, served as “Hamas’s oxygen pipeline” for smuggling weapons.

Along the corridor, adjacent to the southern city of Rafah, the IDF said it has located so far some 20 tunnels that cross into Egypt. Hamas has been known to use such tunnels to smuggle weapons into Gaza, something the IDF believes it can no longer do as the military controls the area.

Some of the tunnels were already known to the IDF, and others were discovered for the first time. Some have already been demolished, and Israel has also been updating Egypt on the developments. Another 82 tunnel shafts leading into the tunnels have been located in the Philadelphi Corridor area, according to the military.

IDF troops are now physically located in most of the corridor. There is a small section near the coast where ground forces are not present, but the IDF said it is controlling the area with surveillance and firepower.

Dozens of rocket launchers were also discovered along the corridor, some only a dozen meters from the Egypt border. The IDF said it believes Hamas positioned the rocket launchers along the corridor in an attempt to prevent Israel from striking them, thinking Israel would fear overshooting into Egypt.

“Our troops located along the axis dozens of primed launchers for rocket attacks, launching pits used by Hamas to fire rockets and mortars at Israel,” Hagari said.

Hagari said Hamas “took advantage of the Philadelphi area, took advantage of it and built its infrastructure just dozens of meters from the border with Egypt, so that we won’t strike there.”

The rocket launchers were located between 10 and 40 meters from the Egyptian border, “in a way that Israel won’t strike there on the fence with Egypt,” Hagari said, noting that some 70 rockets and mortars were fired at Israel from the Rafah area in recent weeks.

In response, the Egyptian state-affiliated Al-Qahera News TV quoted a “high-level” source saying that there is “no truth” to the reports of tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. The channel also quoted the source as saying there “are continued Israeli attempts to export lies around the on-ground situation of its forces in Rafah” in southern Gaza.

The existence of cross-border tunnels between Egypt and the Strip has long been a matter of public record, including a highly shared 2013 New York Times article about the cottage industry of fast food deliveries through the “the scores of tunnels” controlled by Hamas.

Egypt itself has worked for years to thwart the cross-border tunnel network, blowing them up, flooding them with water, pumping toxic gas inside and even razing homes along the border to establish a buffer zone, but many were still believed to remain.

Troops of the 401st Armored Brigade operate in southern Gaza’s Rafah, in a handout image published May 29, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Asked whether the development would cross the US’ red line regarding a major military offensive in Rafah, the White House indicated Wednesday that it would not.

“When [Israel] briefed us on their plans for Rafah, it did include moving along that corridor and out of the city proper to put pressure on Hamas in the city,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters in a briefing.

He declined to confirm that Israel had indeed seized all of the Philadelphi Corridor, saying, “It’s not our op.” However, he said the move would be consistent with the “limited” ground operation that Israeli officials briefed the US on ahead of time.

US President Joe Biden warned earlier this month that he would halt certain offensive weapons shipments to Israel if the IDF launched a major military offensive in populated parts of Gaza’s southernmost city.

The IDF said Wednesday that it recently demolished a “significant” Hamas tunnel near the Rafah Border Crossing. According to the military, troops reached a tunnel shaft, some 100 meters from the border crossing with Egypt, following intelligence on its location.

The shaft led to an underground network, about a kilometer and a half long, which the IDF said was used by Hamas operatives to attack troops operating in the area. Troops raided the tunnel, locating weapons, including anti-tank missiles, guns, and explosive devices, according to the military.

The IDF said the network had many branching paths at different depths, and some areas were blocked with blast doors. It also featured rooms where Hamas operatives would reside, as well as bathrooms. The tunnel network was later demolished, the IDF added.

Israeli troops first moved into Rafah several weeks ago, following months of international warnings against entering the area, where more than half of Gazans had taken refuge after being displaced by months of fighting elsewhere in the Strip. The IDF urged those in the area to evacuate, pointing them toward designated safe zones, and a UN official said Monday that more than 1 million Palestinians had left the city so far this month.

Visiting troops in the city on Wednesday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said that dismantling Hamas’s battalions there is a top priority for the country.

“We are here for several reasons. Firstly, this is the last [Hamas] Brigade left with full capabilities, so we want to dismantle the Rafah Brigade,” Halevi said, adding that dismantling Hamas’s battalions is a “national mission of the State of Israel.”

Three IDF soldiers were killed on Tuesday by a blast in a booby-trapped building in Rafah. All three served in the Nahal Brigade’s 50th Battalion. Their deaths brought the toll of slain troops in the IDF’s ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza and amid operations along the border to 291.

Despite a growing wave of international criticism of the operation, the IDF has asserted that Rafah is the last major remaining Hamas stronghold in the Strip, and suggested that many of the remaining hostages captured by the terror group on October 7 could be held in the city. Israeli tanks reached the center of Rafah for the first time on Tuesday, witnesses said.

However troops have also been battling resurgent Hamas gunmen in northern Gaza, particularly Jabaliya, where the IDF also recently recovered the bodies of seven hostages.

War broke out on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israeli communities and army positions, killing around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 252 hostages, including a number of bodies.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 36,100 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far, though only some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals. The toll, which cannot be verified, includes some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle.

Reuters, Jacob Magid and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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