Los Angeles Times

Israel says tunnels found under U.N. refugee agency

Military alleges that Hamas fighters are using the Gaza City facility as an electrical supply room.

- By Ariel Schalit Schalit writes for the Associated Press. AP writer Julia Frankel contribute­d to this report.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Israeli military says it has discovered tunnels underneath the main headquarte­rs of the U.N. agency for Palestinia­n refugees in Gaza City, alleging that Hamas militants used the space as an electrical supply room.

The unveiling of the tunnels marked the latest chapter in Israel’s campaign against the embattled agency, known as UNRWA, which it accuses of collaborat­ing with Hamas.

Recent Israeli allegation­s that a dozen staff members participat­ed in the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7 plunged the agency into a financial crisis, prompting major donor states to suspend their funding as well as twin investigat­ions. The agency says that Israel has also frozen its bank account, embargoed aid shipments and canceled its tax benefits.

The army invited journalist­s to view a section of tunnel on Thursday.

It did not prove definitive­ly that Hamas militants operated in the tunnels underneath the UNRWA facility, but it did show that at least a portion of the tunnel ran underneath the facility’s courtyard. The military claimed that the headquarte­rs supplied the tunnels with electricit­y.

UNRWA Commission­er-General Philippe Lazzarini said the agency had no knowledge of the facility’s undergroun­d, but the findings merit an “independen­t inquiry,” which the agency is unable to perform because of the ongoing war.

The headquarte­rs, on the western edge of Gaza City, are now decimated. To locate the tunnel, forces repeated an Israeli tactic used elsewhere in the strip, overturnin­g mounds of red earth to produce a crater-like hole giving way to a small tunnel entrance. The unearthed shaft led to an undergroun­d passageway that an Associated Press journalist estimated stretched for at least an eighth of a mile, with at least 10 doors.

At one point, journalist­s were able to gaze upward from the tunnel, through a hole, and make eye contact with soldiers standing in a courtyard within the UNRWA facility.

Inside one of the UNRWA buildings, journalist­s saw a room full of computers with wires stretching down into the ground. Soldiers then showed them a room in the undergroun­d tunnel where they claimed the wires connected.

That undergroun­d room bore a wall of electrical cabinets with multicolor­ed buttons and was lined with dozens of cables. The military claimed the room served as a hub powering tunnel infrastruc­ture in the area.

“Twenty meters above us is the UNRWA headquarte­rs,” said Lt. Col. Ido, whose last name was redacted by the military. “This is the electricit­y room, you can see all around here. The batteries, the electricit­y on walls, everything is conducted from here, all the energy for the tunnels which you walked though them are powered from here.”

The AP journalist could see the tunnel stretching beyond the area underneath the facility.

Hamas has acknowledg­ed building hundreds of miles of tunnels across Gaza. One of the main objectives of the Israeli offensive has been to destroy that network, which it says is used by Hamas to move fighters, weapons and supplies throughout the territory. It accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields and has exposed many tunnels running near mosques, schools and U.N. facilities.

Lazzarini said the agency was unaware what lay beneath it, saying he had visited the facility multiple 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 undertake military inspection­s of what is or might be under its premises,” the statement read.

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 vehicles in it that soldiers said the militants used to traverse the tunnel network. The military said Saturday night that the tunnel began at a UNRWA school, and was 765 yards long and 20 yards deep.

The military said forces uncovered rifles, ammunition, grenades, and explosives in the facility, claiming it has been used by Hamas militants. Lazzarini said the agency has not revisited the headquarte­rs since staff evacuated Oct. 12, and is unaware of how the facility may have been used.

Israel has found similar primitive quarters in tunnels over the course of its four-month-long campaign in Gaza. The offensive was launched after Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and dragging 250 hostages back to Gaza. Since then, Israeli warplanes and ground troops have killed more than 27,000 Palestinia­ns in the strip and wreaked widespread damage.

Leaving the facility, it was nearly impossible to identify one window left fully intact. Bullet holes pockmarked the walls. Shrapnel was everywhere, and crumpled U.N. vehicles were perched precarious­ly atop building debris. Dogs roamed the area.

“The Israeli army is occupying our biggest UNRWA headquarte­rs,” Touma said in response to Israeli allegation­s. “That’s what’s outrageous.”

 ?? Ariel Schalit Associated Press ?? SOLDIERS guard a crater-like hole leading to a small tunnel in the headquarte­rs of UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinia­n refugees. The Israeli military says Hamas militants used the space to attack its forces in Gaza.
Ariel Schalit Associated Press SOLDIERS guard a crater-like hole leading to a small tunnel in the headquarte­rs of UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinia­n refugees. The Israeli military says Hamas militants used the space to attack its forces in Gaza.

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