Israel destroys largest Hamas tunnel found yet, nabs gunmen hiding among civilians

WHO says one in six children under age 2 in north Gaza are acutely malnourished; UNICEF warns diseases also now spreading among young kids in Palestinian coastal enclave

Workers pour concrete in a Hamas tunnel in northern Gaza in an undated photo released by the military on March 5, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF troops destroy the largest Hamas tunnel found yet in northern Gaza in an undated video released by the military on March 5, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Israel Defense Forces announced Tuesday that it had completed destroying and sealing the largest Hamas attack tunnel found in Gaza, which the military initially revealed in December during its offensive against the Palestinian terror group.

In recent weeks, the IDF said, it worked to complete its investigation of the tunnel and then destroy it. The large passage was part of Hamas’s vast network of tunnels under Gaza, which the IDF has been working to uncover during the ongoing war that began with the terror group’s devastating October 7 attack on Israel.

Parts of the tunnel were blown up by combat engineers, with the IDF and Defense Ministry later pumping concrete into the remaining underground passages.

The tunnel, of which around four kilometers (2.5 miles) were uncovered by the IDF, goes down some 50 meters (165 feet) underground in some areas and appeared to have been wide enough for vehicles to pass through. It did not enter Israeli territory, but officials described it as designed for use in attacks rather than as a defensive position or for use in transporting officials.

One of the shafts was found just 400 meters (a quarter mile) from the Erez Crossing, which until Hamas’s October 7 onslaught facilitated the movement of Palestinian civilians into Israel for work and medical care.

The IDF said the tunnel project was led by Muhammad Sinwar, the commander of Hamas’s southern brigade, and brother of Hamas’s Gaza leader, Yahya Sinwar.

In its December announcement, the military released footage obtained from the Gaza Strip showing Muhammad Sinwar in a car driving through the tunnel.

The destruction of the tunnel came as the IDF continued to battle against Hamas fighters amid a dire humanitarian crisis for the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza caught up in the war, with the World Health Organization saying malnutrition in northern Gaza is “particularly extreme.”

The IDF said its 98th Division, operating at the Hamad Town residential complex in southern Gaza’s Khan Younis, captured dozens of terror operatives over the past day.

The division’s Commando Brigade had been raiding Hamas sites in the neighborhood, where troops seized a large amount of weapons.

The military said in a statement that over the past day, troops facilitated the evacuation of civilians from the area, during which the soldiers nabbed dozens of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group operatives who tried to flee with the civilians. The IDF has in the past reported similar incidents of Hamas fighters concealing themselves among fleeing civilians, underlining Israel’s accusations that the terror group embeds within the civilian population, using them as human shields, and increasing the casualties among non-combatants.

Meanwhile, in central Gaza, the IDF said the Nahal Infantry Brigade killed some 20 gunmen over the past day, including with sniper fire and by calling in tank shelling and airstrikes.

In northern Gaza’s Beit Hanoun, the IDF said troops called in an airstrike against a Hamas cell operating a drone against soldiers.

An Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip aims a rifle in a photo released for publication by the military on March 5, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

Across Gaza, the Israeli Air Force carried out strikes against more than 50 Hamas targets over the past day, the statement said. The targets included rocket launching positions, weapon depots, tunnel shafts, and other infrastructure.

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry said that 97 people in the Strip were killed over the past day, raising the toll since the war started to 30,631 Palestinians. It said that a further 72,043 have been injured.

The numbers cannot be verified and do not differentiate between combatants and civilians. They are thought to include those killed by errant Palestinian fire within the Strip.

Aside from the danger of relentless combat, Gazans are also facing acute shortages of basic resources, including food.

Richard Peeperkorn, the WHO representative for Gaza and the West Bank, said that one in six children under two years of age were acutely malnourished in northern Gaza as of earlier this year.

“This was in January. So the situation is likely to be greater today,” Peeperkorn added.

Palestinians cook communal meals on a makeshift outdoor wood stove in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 5, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

UNICEF spokesperson James Elder said malnutrition rates for children under five in northern Gaza, where access to aid has been highly limited since the start of the war, were three times higher than those in Rafah in the south.

Elder said this showed that “when that trickle of aid can come in, it does make a life-saving difference.”

Calls for Israel to do more to address the humanitarian crisis have grown louder since an incident last week during which Palestinians lining up for aid in Gaza were killed.

Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health authorities said over 100 died, attributing the deaths to Israeli fire and calling it a massacre. Israel says many people were trampled or run over in a stampede to get to food trucks and has pledged to investigate.

Adding to hunger, there is a growing risk from infectious diseases, with nine in 10 children under the age of 5 — around 220,000 — falling sick over the last weeks, according to Elder.

“That becomes the spiral that we are so fearful of: infectious diseases, lack of food, a desperate lack of clean water and ongoing bombardment and incredulously still discussion of an offensive into Rafah, which is a city of children,” Elder told reporters in Geneva, referring to Israel’s stated aim of rooting out Hamas battalions it says are hiding there.

“Rafah has about three-quarters of a million children living there,” Elder said.

A picture taken from Rafah shows smoke billowing over Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip during an Israeli bombardment on March 4, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Israel last month intensified its bombardment of Rafah, along Gaza’s border with Egypt, where about 1.5 million people are estimated to be crammed, most of them having fled their homes further north to escape fighting.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that a quarter of the Gaza population — 576,000 people — is one step from famine.

The delivery of aid to Gaza has been a point of contention in the devastating five-month war, triggered by the unprecedented shock Hamas attack on October 7, when thousands of terrorists rampaged through southern Israeli communities, killing some 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages.

Israel, which checks all trucks entering Gaza from both the Kerem Shalom and Rafah crossings, has blamed the United Nations for not delivering the aid fast enough after they are cleared, and for leading to a general fall-off in deliveries over the past month.

The UN has said it is becoming more difficult to distribute aid inside Gaza. The flow of aid from Egypt has almost dried up in the past two weeks, and a collapse in security has made it increasingly difficult to distribute the food that does get through, according to UN data and officials.

While more trucks have arrived from Israel through the Kerem Shalom crossing, they have, of late, been disrupted by relatives of Israeli hostages and protesters seeking to block deliveries. Israel has repeatedly said it is prepared to speed up the clearance of aid.

A United Nations car drives past trucks delivering humanitarian aid that entered Gaza by truck through the Kerem Shalom border crossing in the southern part of the Strip on February 17, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Before the war with Hamas, Gaza relied on 500 trucks with supplies entering daily.

“The sense of helplessness and despair among parents and doctors in realizing that lifesaving aid, just a few kilometers away, is being kept out of reach, must be unbearable,” said Adele Khodr, UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Negotiations via international mediators for at least a temporary lull in the fighting that would see hostages released while humanitarian aid flows in have faltered, with a Hamas official on Tuesday saying that a round of talks with Egyptian officials in Cairo had ended with no breakthrough.

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