Netanyahu says Israel will cut Gaza off from Egypt, taking control of Palestinian enclave’s remaining border

RAFAH, GAZA - JANUARY 11: Palestinians, who left their homes due to Israeli strikes and live in tents, talk to an Egyptian soldier at the Rafah border in Rafah, Gaza on January 11, 2024. (Photo by Abed Zagout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Palestinians, who left their homes due to Israeli strikes and live in tents, talk to an Egyptian soldier at the Rafah border in Rafah, Gaza on January 11, 2024.Abed Zagout/Anadolu/Getty ImagesCNN — 

The border between Egypt and Gaza “must” be closed, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday – a move that would give Israel complete control over the Palestinian enclave’s access to the world.

During a press briefing, Netanyahu said that Israel would not consider the war finished until it closes the Philadelphi Corridor, a 14km strip of land that serves as a buffer zone on the border between Egypt and Gaza.

“We’ll destroy Hamas, we’ll demilitarize Gaza, and military equipment and other deadly weapons will continue to enter this southern opening, so of course we need to close it,” Netanyahu said.

Egypt has previously warned Israel against military operations in the corridor, according to Egypt’s Ahram Online. The state-run news outlet, citing an unnamed source, reported in October that any Israeli incursion into the Philadelphi Corridor would be seen as a violation of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979.

Gaza borders Israel on two sides, and its Mediterranean coast and airspace are also under tight Israeli blockades. Its border crossing with Egypt, at the town of Rafah, is the only crossing point not controlled by Israel, though it has still been subject to limited access and lengthy Egyptian bureaucratic and security processes.

Israeli officials have not decided exactly how they would proceed with closing Gaza’s border with Egypt, according to Netanyahu, but doing so would signify a renewed Israeli control over the enclave not seen in years and a blow to Palestinians’ limited sovereignty in Gaza.

Years of blockade

Israel held Gaza under occupation until 2005, when it withdrew troops and settlers. In 2006, Hamas won a surprise landslide victory in Palestinian legislative elections – the last polls to be held in Gaza. The Islamist militant group, whose charter calls for Israel’s “obliteration,” has controlled the enclave since then.

But Israel never relinquished control of most of the coastal enclave’s perimeter. For nearly 17 years, Gaza has been almost totally cut off from the rest of the world, with severe restrictions on its population’s movement. Smugglers have long turned to the enclave’s underground tunnel network to bring in commercial goods, people and weapons – a key reason why Israel aims to cut it off from Egypt.

Israel’s longstanding blockade has been fiercely criticized by international bodies including the United Nations, which said in a 2022 report that restrictions have had a “profound impact” on living conditions in Gaza and have “undermined Gaza’s economy, resulting in high unemployment, food insecurity and aid dependency.”

But Israel argues that the blockade is vital to protect its citizens from Hamas – an argument that has gathered force since the militant group’s devastating attacks in Israel on October 7, which killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli authorities.

Following the terror attacks, Netanyahu’s government declared a “complete siege” of Gaza and shuttered all of its crossings, leaving Rafah the sole avenue for negotiated deliveries of supplies of basic humanitarian assistance like food and water, and for evacuations of foreign nationals. In recent weeks, some aid has also been allowed to enter Gaza through Israel’s Kerem Shalom border crossing, following intense diplomatic pressure from the United States and other parties.

But aid groups say it is still far from enough and warn of a growing risk of famine for Gaza’s isolated population if Israeli restrictions on imports persist.

In three months of siege, more than 23,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to health authorities in the Hamas-controlled enclave. Almost 70% of those killed have been women and children, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a December report.

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