Last Friday, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) announced that it had discovered a tunnel beneath two of its schools in the Gaza Strip. The tunnel was condemned for putting the lives of students and staff at risk. The Israeli government used this as an excuse to ramp up its propaganda against Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement, which has been the de facto government in Gaza since it won democratic elections in 2006.
Although UNRWA conceded that the tunnel had neither entry nor exit points within the schools, Israeli occupation officials when so far as to call for the agency to be completely shut down.
UNRWA’s statement, was clear: “On 1 June UNRWA discovered part of a tunnel that passes under two adjacent Agency schools in Maghazi camp in the Gaza Strip… Following a thorough inspection of the site, UNRWA can confirm that the tunnel has no entry or exit points on the premises nor is it connected to the schools or other buildings in any way.” Without entry and exist points, resistance groups would not, and could not, be using both the tunnel and the UNRWA schools.
The tunnel announcement echoed a report published in December last year, when it was again claimed that a tunnel had been discovered under the same school. At the time, Shehab news agency asked UNRWA for permission to see the tunnel but the agency refused to let any media representatives visit the site. Undeterred, Shehab continued to investigate. It found that during construction work at the school, workers had found a large hole beneath the site which they believed to be an old well.
After last Friday’s announcement, Shehab again asked UNRWA’s spokesman in Gaza, Adnan Abu Hasna, for permission to visit the schools in question to take pictures of the tunnel’s location. “I have already sent an application to the UNRWA administration on behalf of other journalists,” he responded, “but there has been no reply.”
Nevertheless, Israeli officials continued with their incitement against Hamas and UNRWA. On Saturday, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon filed a protest to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the Security Council. “The latest finding verifies once again that Hamas’s cruelty knows no limits, including endangering centres of learning and education, and using children as human shields,” he claimed.
On Sunday, at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting and two days after the UNRWA statement about entry and exit points, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that it was a tunnel and, like Danon, he said that it belonged to Hamas. “A Hamas tunnel has recently been discovered under two schools in the Gaza Strip,” he claimed. “Hamas is using schoolchildren as human shields and this is the enemy that we have been fighting against for many years, an enemy that is committing a twofold war crime. On the one hand, it first attacks innocent civilians and then hides behind children.”
Although UNRWA made no mention of Hamas in its statement, Netanyahu assumed that he knew best and asked his foreign ministry to launch another propaganda war against the movement. “On Friday,” he told the cabinet, “I instructed the foreign ministry director general to file an official protest against Hamas at the UN Security Council.”
His attack on UNRWA commenced before the agency’s tunnel statement. “Last week,” said Netanyahu, “I met with the US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. I thanked her, on your behalf as well, for her sharp words in favour of the State of Israel and against the anti-Israel obsession at the UN. I told her that the time has come for the UN to reconsider the continued existence of UNRWA.”
The Israeli leader argued that all refugees should be the remit of the UN High Commission for Refugees, whereas the Palestinian refugees have their own agency. “This is UNRWA; it has its own institutions and considerable incitement against Israel. Therefore, the time has come to disband UNRWA and integrate it into the UNHCR.”
The following day, Monday, the United States followed the Israeli line. “We strongly condemn the creation of these tunnels which are used for terrorism and recklessly put at risk the lives of students and staff,” tweeted Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump’s special envoy for international negotiations.
Hamas denied the Israeli and US claims that it has dug a tunnel beneath a UN school. It also confirmed that it checked with all of the Palestinian factions operating in Gaza and all had insisted that that they have no operations in the location. UNRWA was called upon to fill the hole in without delay for the safety of its staff and students.
In the face of the Israeli and US criticism, a spokesman for Secretary General Antonio Guterres said that the UN chief wished to express his support for UNRWA and his admiration for the role it plays in delivering essential services and protecting the rights of millions of Palestine refugees across the Middle East. “The Secretary General is concerned about recent public criticism of UNRWA and the integrity of its operations,” said Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq. “UNRWA is mandated by the General Assembly whose members have repeatedly acknowledged the agency’s unique contribution to peace and security in that region.”
The official spokesman for UNRWA itself also defended the agency, and pointed out that its future could not be decided unilaterally. “UNRWA receives its mandate from the UN General Assembly and only the UN General Assembly, by a majority vote, can change our mandate,” Chris Gunness told Agence France-Presse.