According to the military, Israeli soldiers have found a network of tunnels hundreds of metres (yards) long that runs partially beneath UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters, describing this discovery as further proof of Hamas’s abuse of the primary Palestinian assistance organisation.
During a time of crisis for UNRWA—which has initiated an internal investigation and seen a number of donor nations suspend financing amid charges last month by Israel that some of its personnel acted as Hamas operatives—army engineers walked reporters from foreign news outlets through the passageways.
Israel has been accused by the Palestinians of fabricating facts in order to damage UNRWA, which supports 13,000 jobs in the Gaza Strip and has long served as a lifeline for the community that depends on aid. The organisation describes its operations as exclusively humanitarian and manages assistance distribution, primary healthcare clinics, schools, and other social services.
The UNRWA Headquarters resides in Gaza City, the northern districts that Israeli forces and tanks overran early in the four-month-old battle against the ruling Islamist organisation Hamas, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate southward.
On the edge of the U.N. site, reporters under careful supervision descended to a concrete-lined tunnel through a pit beside a school. The tour guide, an army lieutenant-colonel, informed them that after twenty minutes of trekking down the stuffy, tight, and often meandering route, they had arrived beneath UNRWA Headquarters.
At several points, the tunnel, which the military claimed to be 700 metres long and 18 metres deep, split, exposing side chambers. Steel safes that had been opened and empty were present in the office area. A tiled toilet was included. Two enormous chambers held industrial battery stacks and computer servers.
The Lieutenant-Colonel, who identified himself as Ido, said, “Everything is conducted from here. All the energy for the tunnels, which you walked through them are powered from here.
“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.”
However, Ido stated that Hamas seems to have fled in response to the Israeli approach, cutting communications cables ahead of time that he had shown passing through the basement floor of UNRWA Headquarters during the tour’s above-ground portion.
Prolonged winter rains and intense Israeli artillery strikes seems to have contributed to the evacuation as well, as parts of the tunnel were filled with knee-deep water and displaced sand.
The UNRWA claimed, in a statement, that it was “unable to confirm or otherwise comment” on the Israeli conclusion since it had left the headquarters on October 12, five days after the conflict started.
The statement read, “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.
“In the past, whenever (a) suspicious cavity was found close to or under UNRWA premises, protest letters were promptly filed to parties to the conflict, including both the de facto authorities in Gaza (Hamas) and the Israeli authorities.”
Advocates for UNRWA claim that the organisation is the only one equipped to assist Palestinians in their increasing humanitarian need, while Israel claims that Hamas “perforated” the agency, necessitating its replacement. However, Hamas has denied using civilian facilities in its operations.
Speaking to reporters, Ido said, “We know that they (Hamas) have people working in UNRWA. We want every international organization to work in Gaza. That is not a problem. Our problem is the Hamas.”
The tunnel’s poor cell coverage prevented it from being geolocated beneath UNRWA Headquarters. Rather, reporters were instructed to place personal belongings in a bucket that was lowered into a vertical pit on the headquarters’ grounds using a rope.
The Israeli military refused to allow pictures of military intelligence, such as maps or specific pieces of equipment, to be taken inside the convoy of armoured vehicles they drove in, in exchange for allowing journalists to accompany them. Additionally, permission was sought prior to the transmission of the captured photos and videos on the trip.