CAIRO: Israel is using claims of tunnels under Egypt’s border with Gaza as cover for its Rafah offensive, the state-linked Al-Qahera News reported on Wednesday, citing a “high-level Egyptian source”.

“There is no truth to Israeli media reports of the existence of tunnels on the Egyptian border with Gaza,“ the source told Al-Qahera, which is linked to state intelligence.

“Israel is using these allegations to justify continuing the operation on the Palestinian city of Rafah and prolonging the war for political purposes.”

The Israeli army said on Wednesday it had gained “operational control” over the Philadelphi corridor -- a buffer zone designated by an agreement between Israel and Egypt that limited the weaponry and personnel allowed on the border.

Army spokesman Daniel Hagari said troops “discovered around 20 tunnels” in the area.

Egypt says it has destroyed hundreds of cross-border tunnels with Gaza since 2013. It says were being used to transport militants and weapons during Cairo’s years-long war with Islamist insurgents in North Sinai.

Residential buildings were also demolished as authorities cleared areas where these tunnels opened up in North Sinai -- which has been a highly securitised military zone since.

Since the deadliest ever Gaza war began in October, Israel has repeatedly alleged that smuggling continues to take place through tunnels under the border.

Egypt has in turn accused Israel of using the allegations to justify illegally occupying the Philadelphi corridor, according to Egypt’s State Information Service head Diaa Rashwan.

In January, Rashwan said Egypt had “eliminated these tunnels once and for all”, including by creating a buffer zone and reinforcing the border, making “any smuggling operation impossible, whether above or below ground”.

Rashwan at the time warned that occupying the Philadelphi corridor would constitute a “violation” of the Camp David treaty, which Israel and Egypt signed in 1979.

Tensions with Egypt -- which was the first Arab state to recognise Israel and has historically played a key mediator role -- have soared since Israel dismissed global warnings and sent ground troops into Rafah earlier this month.

Israeli forces also seized the Palestinian side of the border crossing with Egypt, which has since refused to coordinate humanitarian aid deliveries through Rafah.

Despite a global outcry, Israel has pressed ahead with a long-threatened Rafah ground offensive.

On Tuesday, it sent tanks into the centre of the city where the UN says 1.4 million mostly displaced Palestinians have taken shelter.

The Gaza war was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 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.

Since October, Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,171 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.