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Israeli military claims an underground tunnel links Hamas with the UNRWA


Israel's military is showing what it says is a lengthy Hamas tunnel beneath the Gaza headquarters of the U.N. aid agency that serves Palestinians. Israel released a video and took journalists into the tunnel, which appears to be a communication center. This is the latest accusation Israel has made about Hamas and the United Nations agency. For more, we're joined now by NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv. Good morning, Greg.


ELLIOTT: So tell us more about what's known about this tunnel.

MYRE: Yeah, the tunnel is about 60 feet deep and about a half-mile long, and it runs under the Gaza City headquarters of this U.N. aid agency known as UNRWA. This is according to both Israel and a group of Israeli and Western journalists who were taken inside the tunnel.

The Israeli military drilled a hole from the courtyard of the U.N. compound, and then when the journalists went down in the tunnel, they could look up and see that hole - evidence that the U.N. compound was directly above them. And as you noted, it appears to be a communications center. It had rooms with computer servers, electrical systems. Israel says this electrical power comes from the U.N. compound, showing a direct connection, quite literally, between Hamas and the aid group.

ELLIOTT: Has there been any response yet from the U.N. agency or Hamas?

MYRE: UNRWA says it did not know what was beneath its headquarters, and it said it evacuated the building three months ago when Israel ordered people to leave Gaza City. But it does say an investigation is warranted. Hamas has not commented, but it said previously that it built 300 miles of tunnels in Gaza.

And it's important to understand - just a quick bit of history here - UNRWA has been supporting Palestinians - providing food, medicine, schooling for more than 70 years. The group has international staffers at the top. Then it has 13,000 workers, most all of them Palestinians. It's actually the single largest employer in Gaza.

Many people in Gaza, as we know, support Hamas, and this undoubtedly includes some hired at UNRWA. What we don't know precisely is how many are active Hamas members or may have exploited these ties with UNRWA. But Israel says the group should have known what was happening even if it was 60 feet underground.

ELLIOTT: What might this mean for U.N. aid operations in Gaza?

MYRE: Yeah, Debbie, it's potentially very problematic. The U.S. and other Western countries are the leading donors, but they recently suspended that money after Israel accused a dozen employees of taking part in the October 7 Hamas attack in Israel. Now, UNRWA says this suspension of funding has already created a crisis. It only has enough money to cover the rest of this month. Then it will be broke. Even in normal times, most Palestinians in Gaza receive some aid from the group, and it's needed more than ever as many Gaza residents have been driven from their homes and are facing this humanitarian crisis.

ELLIOTT: Which brings us to the fighting in Gaza. What's the latest there?

MYRE: Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, says the military is making preparations for a possible offensive on the town of Rafah. This is the last Hamas stronghold, and it's on Gaza's southern border with Egypt. There's well over a million Palestinians seeking refuge, living in tents in and around Rafah, overwhelming the town. Now, Netanyahu says he's ordered the military to come up with an evacuation plan, and he says the civilians will have safe passage. But it's just not clear how this would work. And meanwhile, the Biden administration, along with many other countries, are warning that an Israeli assault on Rafah could lead to a huge loss of civilian lives.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Greg Myre in Tel Aviv, thanks.

MYRE: Sure thing, Debbie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.