The Israeli army claims that Hamas used tunnels under the UN agency’s main office in Gaza City

The Israeli military said it had discovered tunnels under the headquarters of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees in Gaza City, claiming that Hamas activists had used the place as an electricity supply room.

The discovery of the tunnels represents the latest chapter in the campaign launched by Israel against the embattled agency, which it accuses of cooperating with Hamas.

UNRWA says it has no knowledge of underground facilities, but the findings merit an “independent investigation,” which the agency is unable to do due to the ongoing war.

Recent Israeli allegations that ten of its employees participated in a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 have plunged the agency into a financial crisis, prompting an official investigation and prompting some donor countries to suspend its funding. The agency says Israel also froze her bank account, blocked aid shipments, and revoked her tax benefits.

The army invited journalists to visit the tunnel on Thursday.

It has not been conclusively proven that Hamas fighters are operating in the tunnels under the UNRWA facility, but it has shown that at least part of the tunnel passes under the facility’s courtyard. The army claimed that the headquarters was supplying electricity to the tunnels.

The army dug to locate the tunnel

The headquarters on the western edge of Gaza City has now been completely destroyed. To locate the tunnel, troops replicated an Israeli tactic used elsewhere in the Strip, turning over mounds of red dirt to create a crater-like hole that makes way for a small entrance to the tunnel. The discovered shaft led to an underground passage that an Associated Press journalist estimated extended at least half a kilometer and had at least 10 doors.

An Israeli soldier enters a building inside the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City.
An Israeli soldier enters a building inside the UNRWA compound in Gaza City. The photo was taken under the supervision of the Israeli army. (Ariel Shalit/The Associated Press)

At one point, journalists were able to look up from the tunnel, through an opening, and make eye contact with soldiers standing in a courtyard inside the UNRWA facility.

Inside one of the UNRWA buildings, journalists saw a room full of computers with wires extending to the floor. The soldiers then showed them a room in the underground tunnel where they claimed the wires were connected.

This underground room held a wall of electrical cabinets with multi-colored buttons and lined with dozens of cables. The army claimed that the room served as a hub for supplying tunnel infrastructure in the area.

“The UNRWA headquarters is twenty meters above us,” said a lieutenant colonel named Ido, whose last name was withheld by the army. “This is the electricity room, you can see everywhere here. The batteries, the electricity on the walls, everything is fed from here, all the power for the tunnels you walked through is fed from here.”

An Associated Press journalist was able to see the tunnel extending beyond the area beneath the facility.

Israel seeks to destroy the tunnels

Hamas admitted to building hundreds of kilometers of tunnels through Gaza. One of the main goals of the Israeli attack was to destroy that network, which it says Hamas uses to move fighters, weapons and supplies throughout the region. Hamas is accused of using civilians as human shields, and has uncovered many tunnels extending near mosques, schools, and United Nations facilities.

Israeli tanks were seen parked near the UNRWA compound in Gaza City.
Israeli tanks stand next to the UNRWA compound in Gaza City on Thursday. The photo above was taken under the supervision of the Israeli army. (Ariel Shalit/The Associated Press)

UNRWA Communications Director Juliette Touma said the agency was not aware of what lay beneath, saying she had visited the facility several times and did not recognize the electrical room. Touma wrote in a statement that UNRWA conducted a regular quarterly inspection of the facility in September.

The statement stated, “UNRWA is a human development and humanitarian organization that does not have military and security expertise nor the ability to conduct military inspections of what is or may be under its buildings.”

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 cars, which the soldiers said the gunmen used to cross the tunnel network.

The army said on Saturday night that the tunnel started from an UNRWA school, and was 700 meters long and 18 meters deep. The army said forces found rifles, ammunition, grenades and explosives at the facility, claiming they were being used by Hamas activists. Touma said the agency has not visited the headquarters since staff were evacuated on October 12, and is not aware of how the facility is being used.

Israel found similar rudimentary neighborhoods in tunnels throughout Gaza during its four-month campaign. The attack was launched after Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7, killing about 1,200 people and taking 250 hostages to Gaza. Since then, Israeli warplanes and ground forces have bombed targets across the Strip, creating a humanitarian catastrophe and causing widespread damage. Gaza health officials say more than 28,000 Palestinians have died.

Upon leaving the facility, a single window that remained completely intact was nearly unrecognizable. Bullet holes appeared on the walls. Splinters were everywhere, and shattered UN vehicles lay precariously atop the rubble of buildings. Dogs were roaming the area.

In response to the Israeli accusations, Touma said, “The Israeli army occupies the largest UNRWA headquarters.” “That’s what’s outrageous.”

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