The Israeli military says it has discovered tunnels underneath the main headquarters of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) 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, which it accuses of collaborating with Hamas.
Recent Israeli allegations that a dozen staff members participated in the Hamas attack on Israel on October 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 cancelled its tax benefits.
The army invited journalists to view the tunnel on Thursday.
It did not prove definitively that Hamas militants operated in the tunnels underneath the UNWRA 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 due to the ongoing war.
The unearthed shaft led to an underground passageway that an Associated Press journalist estimated stretched for at least a quarter 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 UNWRA facility.
That underground room bore a wall of electrical cabinets with multi-coloured 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.”
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 UN facilities.
Mr Lazzarini said the agency was unaware what lay beneath it, saying he had visited the facility multiple times and did not recognise the electrical room. In a statement, Mr Lazzarini wrote that UNWRA had conducted a regular quarterly inspection of the facility in September.
Also in the tunnel, journalists saw a small bathroom with a toilet and tap, 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 on Saturday night that the tunnel began at a UNWRA 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.
Mr Lazzarini said the agency has not revisited the headquarters since staff evacuated October 12, and is unaware of how the facility may have been used.
Israel has found similar primitive quarters in tunnels across Gaza over the course of its four-month-long 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 war planes and ground troops have killed over 27,000 Palestinians in the strip, unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe 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, crumpled-up UN vehicles were perched precariously atop building debris. Dogs roamed the area.
“The Israeli army is occupying our biggest UNRWA headquarters,” the agency said in response to Israeli allegations.
“That’s what’s outrageous.”