Three Italians who Hamas reportedly suspected of being an undercover Israeli special forces unit operating in Gaza were on Tuesday allowed to exit a UN building where they had sought refuge, after their identities were confirmed.
According to reports, the men drove to the offices of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) after Hamas terror group forces manning a checkpoint in the enclave became suspicious of their vehicle.
Hamas reportedly cordoned off the complex and demanded the right to question the occupants of the car. After negotiations, a team of investigators was said to have been allowed into the building where they discovered the men all had Italian passports.
Initially, Hamas still doubted the identity of the men, but following contacts between Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh and the Italian ambassador, their identities were confirmed.
A spokesman for the Hamas-run Gaza Interior Ministry, Iyad al-Bozm, said that contrary to some reports, the Italians’ vehicle was not involved in a shooting incident.
“In recent hours, an investigation was carried out into a suspicious vehicle in which three Italians were traveling that coincidentally was in the same area as a shooting in the Gaza Strip on January 14, 2019. Following the incident, the car went to the UNSCO headquarters in Gaza City,” he said.
“During the investigation, the identity of three Italians and their proper entry into Gaza was confirmed. It also became clear that the car was not connected to the shooting.”
The men were security guards who were in Gaza to prepare for a visit to the Palestinian enclave by the Italian ambassador Gianluigi Benedetti on Wednesday, China’s Xinhau news agency reported, citing sources familiar with the developments.
Some reports suggested there may have been four Italians held.
Few hours ago, there was a stand off at @UN HQ in Gaza. An Italian diplomatic vehicle refused to stop at a checkpoint, a chase ensued with the 4 Italians rushing into the UN building. Hamas thought fleeing vehicle was Israel special forces. Standoff ended after UN intervention pic.twitter.com/rHy7VjOYz4
— Edward (@DonKlericuzio) January 16, 2019
In November an IDF special forces unit was discovered operating deep in Gaza. An ensuing gunfight, in which an Israeli lieutenant colonel was killed, along with seven Palestinian gunmen, escalated into major exchange of fire between Israel and Hamas.
The IDF unit was later reported to have been in Gaza for several weeks hiding under the guise of a non-government medical equipment charity.
After the special forces operation and subsequent gun battle, Hamas and the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group launched the largest-ever bombardment against Israel from the Gaza Strip, lobbing some 500 rockets and mortar shells in a day at Israeli communities surrounding the coastal enclave and pushing Israel and terror groups to the brink of war.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.