GAZA: Israeli forces have discovered a tunnel network hundreds of metres long and running partly under the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees’ (UNRWA) Gaza headquarters, the military says, calling it new evidence of Hamas exploitation of the main relief agency for Palestinians.
Army engineers took reporters for foreign news outlets through the passages at a time of crisis for UNRWA, which has launched an internal probe and seen a string of donor countries freeze funding over allegations last month by Israel that some of its staff doubled as Hamas operatives.
The Palestinians have accused Israel of falsifying information to tarnish UNRWA, which employs 13,000 people in the Gaza Strip and has been a lifeline for the aid-dependent population for years.
The agency runs schools, primary healthcare clinics and other social services, and distributes aid, describing its activities as purely humanitarian.
UNRWA headquarters is in Gaza City, among northern areas that Israeli troops and tanks overran early in the four-month-old war against Hamas, sending hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing southward.
Israel’s army and the Shin Bet security agency said operations in Gaza City in recent weeks had led to the discovery of a “tunnel shaft” near a school run by the humanitarian agency.
“The shaft led to an underground terror tunnel that served as a significant asset of Hamas’s military intelligence and passed under the building that serves as UNRWA’s main headquarters in the Gaza Strip,” they added in a statement.
Documents and a stash of weapons in the UN compound itself “confirmed that the offices had in fact also been used by Hamas terrorists”, the joint statement said.
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 as 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.
It appeared that heavy Israeli barrages and sustained winter rains may also have played a part in the departure: Several stretches of the tunnel were clogged with dislodged sand and knee-high water.
In a statement, UNRWA said it had vacated the headquarters on Oct 12, five days after the war began, and 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.
“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.”