UNRWA claims no knowledge of underground facilities, says allegations merit ‘independent inquiry.’
The Israeli military says it has discovered tunnels underneath the main headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza City, alleging that Hamas militants used the space as an electrical supply room.
The unveiling of the tunnels marked the latest chapter in Israel’s campaign against the embattled agency, which it accuses of collaborating with Hamas.
UNRWA’s commissioner-general Philippe Lazzarini said the agency had no knowledge of the underground facilities, but the findings merit an “independent inquiry,” which the agency is unable to perform due to the ongoing war.
Recent Israeli allegations that a dozen staff members participated in the Hamas attack on Israel Oct. 7 plunged the agency into a financial crisis, prompting formal investigation and some donor states to suspend their funding. The agency says that Israel has also frozen its bank account, embargoed aid shipments and cancelled its tax benefits.
The army invited journalists to view the tunnel on Thursday.
It did not prove definitively that Hamas militants operated in the tunnels underneath the UNRWA facility, but it did show that at least a portion of the tunnel ran underneath the facility’s courtyard. The military claimed that the headquarters supplied the tunnels with electricity.
Military dug to locate tunnel
The headquarters, on the western edge of Gaza City, are now completely decimated. To locate the tunnel, forces repeated an Israeli tactic used elsewhere in the strip, overturning mounds of red earth to produce a crater-like hole giving way to a small tunnel entrance. The unearthed shaft led to an underground passageway that an Associated Press journalist estimated stretched for at least half a kilometre, with at least 10 doors.
At one point, journalists were able to gaze upward from the tunnel, through a hole, and make eye contact with soldiers standing in a courtyard within the UNRWA facility.
Inside one of the UNRWA buildings, journalists saw a room full of computers with wires stretching down into the ground. Soldiers then showed them a room in the underground tunnel where they claimed the wires connected.
That underground room bore a wall of electrical cabinets with multicolored buttons and was lined with dozens of cables. The military claimed the room served as a hub powering tunnel infrastructure in the area.
“Twenty metres above us is the UNRWA headquarters,” said a lieutenant colonel named Ido, whose last name was redacted by the military. “This is the electricity room, you can see all around here. The batteries, the electricity on walls, everything is conducted from here, all the energy for the tunnels which you walked though them are powered from here.”
The Associated Press journalist could see the tunnel stretching beyond the area underneath the facility.
Israel seeks destruction of tunnels
Hamas has acknowledged building hundreds of kilometres of tunnels across Gaza. One of the main objectives of the Israeli offensive has been to destroy that network, which it says is used by Hamas to move fighters, weapons and supplies throughout the territory. It accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields and has exposed many tunnels running near mosques, schools and UN facilities.
Lazzarini said the agency was unaware of what lay beneath it. In a statement, Lazzarini wrote that UNRWA had conducted a regular quarterly inspection of the facility in September.
“UNRWA is a human development and humanitarian organization that does not have the military and security expertise nor the capacity to undertake military inspections of what is or might be under its premises,” read the statement.
Also in the tunnel, journalists saw a small bathroom with a toilet and a faucet, a room with shelves and a room with two small vehicles in it that soldiers said the militants used to traverse the tunnel network.
The military said Saturday night that the tunnel began at a UNRWA school, and was 700 metres long and 18 metres deep.
The military said forces uncovered rifles, ammunition, grenades and explosives in the facility, claiming it has been used by Hamas militants. Lazzarini said the agency has not revisited the headquarters since staff evacuated Oct. 12, and is unaware of how the facility may have been used.
Israel has found similar primitive quarters in tunnels across Gaza over the course of its four-month-long campaign. The offensive was launched after Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and dragging 250 hostages back to Gaza. Since then, Israeli warplanes and ground troops have pounded targets across the enclave, unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe and wreaked widespread damage. Health officials in Gaza say more than 28,000 Palestinians have died.
Leaving the facility, it was nearly impossible to identify one window left fully intact. Bullet holes pockmarked the walls. Shrapnel was everywhere, and crumpled-up UN vehicles were perched precariously atop building debris. Dogs roamed the area.
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