- The Israeli military has claimed to have discovered a tunnel network hundreds of meters long, partially running under UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters. They describe it as new evidence of exploitation of the relief agency for Palestinians.
- The military said the tunnel was used by Hamas as a command center, an intelligence unit, and a power source for its underground operations. The tunnel was found during a tour for foreign reporters, amid a crisis for UNRWA over allegations of Hamas infiltration.
- UNRWA said it was unable to confirm or comment on the Israeli finding, and that it did not have the capacity to inspect what was under its premises. The agency said it had vacated the headquarters on Oct. 12, five days after the war began.
- The Israeli military has exposed a complex tunnel system under the main headquarters of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza City, claiming that it was used by Hamas militants as a command center and a power source for their underground operations.
Jerusalem: The discovery came amid a tense standoff between Israel and UNRWA, which provides humanitarian assistance to some 1.4 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Israel has accused the agency of harboring Hamas members among its staff and facilitating their attacks on Israeli forces during the recent war in October. UNRWA has denied the allegations and called for an independent inquiry into the tunnels, which it said it had no knowledge of.
A guided tour of the tunnels
On Thursday, Israeli army engineers escorted journalists from foreign media outlets to the UNRWA compound, which was heavily damaged by Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire. They showed them a shaft next to a school on the edge of the compound, leading to a concrete-lined tunnel that stretched for hundreds of meters under the UNRWA buildings.
The tunnel, which the military said was 700 meters long and 18 meters deep, had several branches and rooms along the way. Some of them contained steel safes, computer servers, industrial batteries, and a tiled toilet. The military said these were evidence of Hamas’s use of the tunnel as an intelligence and logistics hub, where they coordinated and powered their attacks on Israeli troops.
“Everything is conducted from here. All the energy for the tunnels, which you walked through them are powered from here,” said Lt. Col. Ido, who gave only his first name and led the tour. “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.”
Ido said Hamas had abandoned the tunnel before the Israeli forces reached it, cutting off the communication cables that ran through the floor of the UNRWA basement. He also said that the tunnel was partly flooded by heavy rains and Israeli shelling, which dislodged sand and water into the passages.
UNRWA’s response and crisis
In a statement, UNRWA said it had evacuated the headquarters on Oct. 12, five days after the war began, and was therefore “unable to confirm or otherwise comment” on the Israeli finding. It also said it lacked the expertise and capacity to inspect the tunnels, and that it had previously filed protest letters to both Hamas and Israel whenever it found suspicious cavities near or under its premises.
“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.”
UNRWA’s supporters say it is the only agency with the means of aiding Palestinians in deepening humanitarian distress, especially after the war that killed more than 2,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. Israel says the agency is “perforated by Hamas” and must be replaced by a new mechanism that ensures transparency and accountability.
Hamas has denied operating in civilian facilities and accused Israel of trying to smear and sabotage UNRWA, which employs 13,000 people in Gaza and runs schools, clinics, and food distribution centers. “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,” Ido told reporters.
The controversy over the tunnels has added to the financial and political crisis facing UNRWA, which has seen a number of donor countries freeze or reduce their funding over Israel’s allegations that some of its staff members were involved in the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7. The agency says that it has launched a formal investigation into the matter and that it is cooperating with the UN and other partners to address the situation.
According to UNRWA, it needs $1.4 billion to cover its budget for 2024, but it has only received $200 million so far. It has also faced difficulties in delivering aid to Gaza due to Israel’s blockade and restrictions on its bank account, shipments, and tax benefits. The agency has warned that it may have to suspend some of its services and lay off some of its staff if the funding gap is not closed soon.