Israeli forces have discovered a tunnel network hundreds of meters long extending partly under UNRWA's Gaza headquarters, the military says, calling it new evidence of Hamas militants burrowing under the main relief agency for Palestinians.
Israeli Army engineers took reporters with foreign news outlets through the tunnel passages. They entered a shaft next to a school on the periphery of the United Nations compound, descending to the concrete-lined tunnel.
After 20 minutes of walking through the hot, narrow and occasionally winding passage, they got underneath UNRWA headquarters, according to an army lieutenant-colonel leading the tour.
The military said the tunnel was 700 meters long, 18 meters deep - bifurcated at times - and it revealed 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 photo, taken during a Feb. 8, 2024, media tour organized by the Israeli military, shows an Israeli soldier inside a tunnel that the army claims is a 'Hamas command tunnel' under a compound of the UNRWA in Gaza City.
Ido said Hamas militants appeared to have evacuated when Israel Defense Forces, also known as IDF, were advancing. He said they preemptively cut communications cables, which he showed, that ran through the floor of the UNRWA headquarters' basement.
It appeared that heavy Israeli barrages and sustained winter rains also may have played a part in the militants' departure. Several stretches of the tunnel were clogged with dislodged sand and knee-high water.
Call for UNRWA official to resign
After the discovery of the tunnel, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz called for the resignation of UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini on a post on social media platform X.
Katz dismissed Lazzarini's claim that he was unaware of the tunnel's existence as 'not only absurd but also an affront to common sense.'
In a statement, UNRWA said it had vacated the headquarters on October 12, five days after the terror attack occurred, and was therefore 'unable to confirm or otherwise comment' on the Israeli finding.
'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.
This is a time of internal crisis for the U.N. relief agency, which is facing Israeli allegations that some of its staff were working for Hamas. The agency has launched its own internal probe into the claims, and several donor countries have frozen their funding.
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 humanitarian agency runs schools, primary health care clinics and other social services, and it distributes aid.
'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.
Hamas has denied numerous and longstanding accusations that it operates in and underneath civilian facilities, such as schools and hospitals.
The Israeli military did not allow journalists to take photographs of military intelligence, such as maps or certain equipment in the convoy of armored vehicles they traveled in. It also requested approval before transmission of photographs and video footage taken during the trip.
This photo, taken during a Feb. 8, 2024, media tour organized by the Israeli military, shows Israeli soldiers inside a tunnel that the army claims is a 'Hamas command tunnel' under a compound of the UNRWA in Gaza City.
Israel targets Rafah
Israeli airstrikes targeted the Gaza city of Rafah Saturday after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered an evacuation plan for civilians from the southern border city ahead of an expected ground invasion creating widespread panic.
More than half of Gaza's 2.3 million people are packed into Rafah, many after evacuating two-thirds of Gaza's territory. It's not clear where these people could find shelter next.
The Associated Press, citing health officials and eyewitnesses, reported at least 44 people were killed - including more than a dozen children - when airstrikes hit several homes in the Rafah area.
Netanyahu's office said Friday the military was ordered to develop a plan to evacuate civilians in Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it said were deployed there.
Hamas has been designated a terror group by the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
Rafah borders Egypt and officials there have warned that any ground operation in the area or mass displacement across the border would undermine its 40-year-old peace treaty with Israel.
It is also the main humanitarian aid entry point to Gaza and intense fighting could further hamper relief efforts.
Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, warned that any Israeli ground offensive on Rafah would have 'disastrous consequences,' claiming that Israel aims to eventually force the Palestinians out of their land.
The dire humanitarian situation has sparked Arab and U.N. concerns that Palestinians may eventually be driven over the border. Egypt has sent about 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers to northeastern Sinai within the past two weeks as part of a series of measures to bolster security on its border with Gaza, two Egyptian security sources said.
UN warns of risk of 'gigantic tragedy'
Netanyahu's announcement came hours after U.S. President Joe Biden delivered some of his strongest criticism yet of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, calling Israel's conduct in the military operation 'over the top' during a news conference late Thursday.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said there would be the risk of a 'gigantic tragedy' if the IDF expanded its offensive into the town.
'We would not support in any way forced displacement, which goes against international law,' Guterres' spokesperson told reporters Friday about a potential evacuation of Rafah.
'An escalation of the fighting in Rafah, which is already straining under the extraordinary number of people who have been displaced from other parts of Gaza, will mark another devastating turn in a war that has reportedly killed over 27,000 people - most of them women and children,' Catherine Russell, the executive director of UNICEF said.
Some information for this story was provided by The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.
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