GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Israeli military says it has discovered tunnels beneath the headquarters of the U.N. Agency for Palestinian Refugees in Gaza City, claiming Hamas militants were using the space as an electricity supply.
The unveiling of the tunnels marked the latest chapter in Israel’s campaign against the controversial agency, which is accused of collaborating with Hamas.
Recent Israeli allegations that a dozen personnel took part in the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 plunged the agency into a financial crisis, prompting major donor countries to suspend funding and duplicate investigations. The agency says Israel has also frozen its bank account, embargoed aid shipments and withdrawn its tax benefits.
The army invited journalists to view the tunnel on Thursday.
It did not definitively prove that Hamas militants were operating in the tunnels beneath the UNRWA facility, but it did show that at least part of the tunnel ran under the facility’s courtyard. The army claimed that the headquarters provided electricity to the tunnels.
Commissioner General of UNRWA Philippe Lazzarini said the agency had no knowledge of the facility’s subsurface, but the findings merit an “independent investigation,” which the agency cannot conduct because of the ongoing war.
The headquarters, on the western edge of Gaza City, has now been completely decimated. To locate the tunnel, troops repeated an Israeli tactic used elsewhere in the strip, knocking over mounds of red earth to create a crater-like hole that gave way to a small tunnel entrance. The excavated shaft led to an underground passageway that, according to an Associated Press estimate, was at least half a kilometer long, with at least ten doors.
At one point, journalists were able to look up from the tunnel, through a hole, and make eye contact with soldiers standing in a courtyard of the UNRWA facility.
In one of the UNRWA buildings, journalists saw a room full of computers with wires reaching into the ground. Soldiers then showed them a room in the underground tunnel where they claimed the wires were connected.
That underground room had a wall of electrical boxes with multicolored buttons and was lined with dozens of cables. The military claimed that the chamber served as a hub for the area’s tunnel infrastructure.
“Twenty meters above us is the UNRWA headquarters,” said Lt. Col. Ido, whose surname has been redacted by the military. “This is the electricity room, which you can see everywhere here. The batteries, the electricity on the walls, everything is run from here, all the energy for the tunnels you walked through is fed from here.
The Associated Press journalist could see the tunnel extending beyond the area beneath the facility.
Hamas has admitted to building hundreds of kilometers of tunnels throughout Gaza. One of the main objectives of the Israeli offensive was to destroy that network, which Hamas says it uses to move fighters, weapons and supplies across its territory. It accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields and has uncovered many tunnels running near mosques, schools and UN facilities.
Lazzarini said the agency did not know what lay beneath, saying he had visited the facility several times and did not recognize the electrical room. 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 conduct military inspections of what is or could be beneath its buildings,” the statement said.
Also in the tunnel, journalists saw a small bathroom with a toilet and a tap, a room with shelves and a room with two small vehicles inside that soldiers said were used by the militants throughout the tunnel network. The military said on Saturday evening that the tunnel started at an UNRWA school and was 700 meters long and 18 meters deep.
The military said troops discovered guns, ammunition, grenades and explosives at the facility and claim they were used by Hamas militants. Lazzarini said the agency has not revisited the headquarters since staff were evacuated on Oct. 12, and is unaware of how the facility may have been used.
Israel has found similar primitive neighborhoods in tunnels in Gaza during its four-month campaign in Gaza. The offensive was launched after Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and dragging 250 hostages back to Gaza. Since then, Israeli warplanes and ground forces have killed more than 27,000 Palestinians in the strip, unleashing a humanitarian catastrophe and causing widespread damage.
Upon leaving the facility, it was nearly impossible to identify one window that remained completely intact. Bullet holes pockmarked the walls. Shrapnel was everywhere, and crumpled UN vehicles sat precariously on top of construction rubble. There were dogs roaming the area.
“The Israeli army is occupying our largest UNRWA headquarters,” Touma said in response to the Israeli accusations. “That’s outrageous.”
Associated Press writer Julia Frankel in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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