Israeli forces have discovered a tunnel network hundreds of meters long and running partly under the Gaza headquarters of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the military said, 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 the governing Islamist faction Hamas, sending hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing southward.
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 700m long and 18m 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,” he said.
However, he said that Hamas appeared to have evacuated in the face of the Israeli advance, pre-emptively cutting off communications cables that, in an above-ground part of the tour, he showed running through the floor of the UNRWA headquarters’ basement.
Heavy Israeli barrages and sustained winter rains might 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 not been officially informed of the tunnel by Israeli authorities and had vacated the headquarters on Oct. 12, five days after the war began.
It was therefore “unable to confirm or otherwise comment” on the Israeli finding, it said.
“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,” it said.
Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri dimissed the Israeli statements about the tunnel as “lies.”
He said that Israel aimed to undermine the work of UNRWA and was “covering up to that decision by making these allegations.”
UNRWA 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.
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