Hamas said to block UN team from inspecting school where tunnel was found

Bomb disposal experts, tasked with ensuring site is safe for opening of academic year, hustled away by terror group; UNRWA warns it won’t let students back until check completed

A painting adorns a wall at a closed United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school during a general strike by UN staff, in Gaza City, Sept. 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Illustrative: A closed United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) school in Gaza City, September 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Hamas has prevented UN bomb disposal experts from inspecting a Palestinian refugee agency school in the Gaza Strip under which a tunnel dug by the terror group was uncovered during fighting in May, the Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday.

The team was asked by the UN Relief and Works Agency to make sure that its Zaitoun Preparatory Boys’ School was safe for students to return to with the upcoming start of the new academic year. The experts were to ensure that no unexploded munitions were in the compound, left over from the fighting between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas.

Sources in the Gaza Strip said that the experts arrived at the compound, but when Hamas learned of the development, it swiftly sent police to block them and order them to immediately leave.

The team was also supposed to check another UNRWA school in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, where it is suspected that Hamas dug another tunnel. Following the disruption at the first site, the UN team canceled the second inspection as well.

As a result of the developments, UNRWA told Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, that it will not permit the 4,000 students who attend the schools to return to studies until the sites are properly checked, Kan reported.

Hamas has dug an extensive network of tunnels under Gaza, which are used to move its forces or store weapons, including rockets and launchers.

In the wake of the Kan report, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan asked the UN director-general and UNRWA director-general to carry out a thorough review of all UNRWA sites in the Gaza Strip.

“The international community cannot ignore Hamas’s heinous human rights violations & the state of terror it inflicts on Gazans. Hamas is a terror organization that uses innocents & children as hostages & human shields,” Erdan tweeted Tuesday.

A ball of fire erupts from a building in Gaza City’s Rimal residential district on May 20, 2021, during Israeli strikes on the Hamas-controlled enclave in response to rocket fire (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

According to UNRWA, Israeli attacks on the Zaitoun compound in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood took place on May 13 and 15 when the complex was empty. After the 11 days of fighting ended, investigators were sent to the school and discovered what appeared to be a tunnel underneath the compound that was revealed by a missile strike.

UNRWA announced the discovery of the tunnel in June while condemning the Israeli bombings and the Hamas construction of the tunnel.

“A detailed assessment on 31 May 2021 revealed what appears to be a cavity and a possible tunnel, at the location of the missile strike. The depth of the cavity is approximately 7.5 meters below the surface of the school. UNRWA discovered the existence of a possible tunnel in the context of the investigation of the fired missiles,” the agency said.

According to UNRWA, the tunnel did not appear to originate or end at the school, but instead passed underneath it.

UNRWA officials were said to be deliberating whether to make a more public issue of the spat over the schools, Kan reported. However, the UN agency was reluctant to clash with Hamas, having recently installed a new director in Gaza after the previous chief was recalled for saying that IDF airstrikes during the May fighting were “precise.”

Matthias Schmale’s remarks to Israeli television news led to accusations from Hamas that he was exonerating Israel for the deaths of Palestinian civilians, prompting Schmale to apologize. An UNRWA spokesperson later told Channel 12 that Schmale had been called back to Jerusalem for consultations and had decided to take an extended leave of absence.

Between May 10 and 21 Hamas fired thousands of rockets at Israeli towns and cities. Israel responded with intense airstrikes against Hamas targets until a ceasefire was reached.

UNRWA schools in Gaza have been used in the past to store and launch rockets at Israel, particularly during the 2014 Gaza war.

In 2017, the agency also said it had found a Hamas tunnel dug underneath one of its schools.

In one case during the latest round of fighting, the IDF determined that the courtyard of at least one school — it was not immediately clear if it belonged to UNRWA — housed 14 underground rocket launchpads, which it said were used during the fighting.

As schools in Gaza have regularly been used as refugee centers during times of conflict, the IDF’s official policy is to avoid striking them unless necessary.

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