Israeli forces have discovered a tunnel network hundreds of metres long and running partly under UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters, the occupation military has said, calling it new evidence of Hamas exploitation of the main relief agency for Palestinians, Reuters reports.
Army engineers took reporters for foreign news outlets through the passages at a time when Israel has accused 12 UNRWA staff members of taking part in the Hamas attack on towns and villages in the Gaza envelope on 7 October. The so-far unsubstantiated claims have led 18 countries to cut funding to the vital UN organsiation. The agency runs schools, primary healthcare clinics and other social services and distributes aid.
UNRWA Headquarters is in Gaza City, among northern areas that Israeli troops and tanks overran early in the four-month-old genocidal war on Gaza, displacing 85 per cent of the enclaves population.
Reporters on the closely escorted trip entered a shaft next to a school on the periphery of the UN compound, descending to the concrete-lined tunnel. Twenty minutes of walking through the stifling hot, narrow and occasionally winding passage brought them underneath UNRWA Headquarters, an army lieutenant-colonel leading the tour said.
The tunnel, which the military said was 700 metres long and 18 metres deep, bifurcated at times, revealing side-rooms. There was an office space, with steel safes that had been opened and emptied. There was a tiled toilet. One large chamber was packed with computer servers, another with industrial battery stacks.
“Everything is conducted from here. All the energy for the tunnels, which you walked through them are powered from here,” said the lieutenant-colonel, who gave only his first name, Ido.
“This is one of the central commands of the intelligence. This place is one of the Hamas intelligence units, where they commanded most of the combat.”
But Ido said Hamas appeared to have evacuated in the face of the Israeli advance, preemptively cutting off communications cables that, in an above-ground part of the tour, he showed running through the floor of the UNRWA Headquarters’ basement.
In a statement, UNRWA said it had not been officially informed of the tunnel by Israeli authorities and had vacated the headquarters on 12 October, five days after the war began. It was therefore “unable to confirm or otherwise comment” on the Israeli finding.
“UNRWA … does not have the military and security expertise nor the capacity to undertake military inspections of what is or might be under its premises,” the statement said.
Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri dismissed the Israeli statements about the tunnel as “lies”. He told Reuters that Israel aimed to undermine the work of UNRWA and was “covering up to that decision by making these allegations”.
UNRWA’s supporters say it is the only agency with the means of aiding Palestinians in deepening humanitarian distress. Israel says the agency is “perforated by Hamas” and must be replaced. Hamas has denied operating in civilian facilities.
Lack of cellphone reception in the tunnel made geolocating it as under UNRWA Headquarters impossible. Instead, reporters were asked to put personal items in a bucket that was lowered by rope into a vertical hole on the grounds of the headquarters. They were reunited with the still-tethered items during the tunnel tour.
As a condition of taking journalists on the trip, the Israeli military did not allow photographs of military intelligence such as maps or certain equipment in the convoy of armoured vehicles they travelled in. It also requested approval before transmission of photographs and video footage taken on the trip.
Israel has repeatedly tried to link UNRWA to Hamas in efforts to discredit the humanitarian organisation, providing no proof of the claims, while lobbying hard to have UNRWA closed as it is the only UN agency to have a specific mandate to look after the basic needs of Palestinian refugees. If the agency no longer exists, argues Israel, then the refugee issue must no longer exist, and the legitimate right for Palestinian refugees to return to their land will be unnecessary. Israel has denied that right of return since the late 1940s, even though its own membership of the UN was made conditional upon Palestinian refugees being allowed to return to their homes and land.