'Digging a tunnel takes longer than 4 months'

UNRWA head says agency was in dark about Hamas center under Gaza HQ; Israel: ‘You knew’

Philippe Lazzarini says allegations should be probed, any other ‘suspicious’ activity reported to UN; COGAT says officials ignored information; Katz calls for agency chief’s ouster

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers capture a subterranean Hamas data center underneath UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza City, February 8, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers capture a subterranean Hamas data center underneath UNRWA’s headquarters in Gaza City, February 8, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, denied Saturday any knowledge of a Hamas data center found by Israeli troops underneath its Gaza headquarters, with the Israeli military and Foreign Minister Israel Katz immediately casting doubt on his claim.

In a tweet shortly after the findings were published by The Times of Israel and other media outlets, Lazzarini said his organization, UNRWA, “did not know what is under its headquarters in Gaza.”

He said that the reports “merit an independent inquiry that is currently not possible to undertake given Gaza is an active war zone.”

He also said Israel has “not informed UNRWA officially about the alleged tunnel.”

The subterranean data center, seen by The Times of Israel’s military correspondent on Thursday during an Israel Defense Forces media tour, included an electricity room, industrial battery power banks, and living quarters for alleged Hamas terrorists operating the computer servers.

The allegation that Hamas was running a data center under UNRWA’s nose has added to growing concerns over the level of Hamas infiltration in the agency, which is already probing claims that at least a dozen staffers took part in Hamas’s October 7 killing spree across southern Israel. Some 1,200 people were killed in the massacre and another 253 kidnapped, over half of whom remain hostage in Gaza. Most of the atrocities carried out by Hamas on October were against civilians.

Related: Directly beneath UNRWA’s Gaza headquarters, IDF uncovers top secret Hamas data center

Jerusalem has long argued that UNRWA should be disbanded, and the recent allegations have led several donor countries to announce funding freezes, leading to concerns that the agency, which says it is the main conduit for aid for millions in the Strip amid the Israel-Hamas war, could stop operating in Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East within weeks.

“Oh, you knew, ” Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, known by its acronym COGAT, tweeted at Lazzarini Saturday night, after the UN agency chief pleaded ignorance.

Lazzarini said UN staff had left the Gaza headquarters on October 12, as Israel’s military campaign in Gaza began ramping up in the wake of Hamas’s killing spree in southern Israel five days earlier.

The commissioner-general of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Philippe Lazzarini, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the UNRWA headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2023. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

“We have not used that compound since we left it nor are we aware of any activity that may have taken place there,” he claimed.

UNRWA, he said, “is a human development and humanitarian organization that does not have the military and security expertise nor the capacity to undertake military inspections of what is or might be under its premises.”

He said any previous “suspicious” activity was promptly dealt with and “consistently reported in annual reports presented to the General Assembly and made public.”

In a response posted to Twitter, COGAT said that UN officials had been informed of the terror group utilizing the Gaza City headquarters and that the data center had been there before the agency’s staff decamped for elsewhere.

“Digging a tunnel takes longer than 4 months. We invited senior UN officials to see, and during past meetings with you and other UN officials, we stated Hamas’s use of UNRWA’s headquarters,” it wrote in a tweet.

“You chose to ignore the facts so you can later try and deny them,” it added.

The foreign minister dismissed Lazzarini’s claim that he was unaware of the presence of the Hamas facility as “not only absurd but also an affront to common sense” and reiterated calls for the UNRWA head to step down.

“His prompt resignation is imperative,” Katz wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

He claimed the discovery showed UNRWA’s “deep involvement” with Hamas.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan claimed that Lazzarini “refused” an Israeli request to search UNRWA facilities in Gaza after handing over evidence showing Hamas had been using schools, and accused him of trying to avoid hearing about such allegations.

File: Israel Katz arrives to a government meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on December 10, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As an ostensibly neutral party, UNRWA facilities are deemed off-limits for military operations, with tens of thousands sheltering in UNRWA schools across the Strip, according to the agency. Israel’s military has been condemned for operating near the facilities and other civilian infrastructure, but Jerusalem blames Hamas for embedding fighters, weapons and bunkers deep within Gaza’s civilian population, including under hospitals.

Hamas has previously denied Israeli claims that it has dug an extensive network of tunnels under schools, hospitals, and other civilian infrastructure as cover for terror activities.

Israel’s army and the Shin Bet security agency said the data center was uncovered after military operations in Gaza City in recent weeks led to the discovery of a “tunnel shaft” near a school run by the humanitarian agency.

An electrical room serving an underground Hamas data center, beneath the UNRWA headquarters, uncovered by the IDF in Gaza City, February 8, 2024. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

“The shaft led to an underground terror tunnel that served as a significant asset of Hamas’s military intelligence and passed under the building that serves as UNRWA’s main headquarters in the Gaza Strip,” they added in a statement.

“Electrical infrastructure” in the tunnel — 700 meters (765 yards) long and 18 meters underground — was connected to the agency’s HQ, “indicating that UNRWA’s facilities supplied the tunnel with electricity,” they said.

Documents and a stash of weapons in the UN compound itself “confirmed that the offices had in fact also been used by Hamas terrorists,” the joint statement said.

The UN has launched two separate probes into UNRWA, the first into Israeli claims that 12 of its staff may have participated on October 7, and the other a review of its overall political neutrality.

This picture taken during a media tour organized by the Israeli army on February 8, 2024, shows Israeli soldiers inside an evacuated compound of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Gaza City. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

UN chief Antonio Guterres has spoken out in defense of the agency, calling it the “backbone” of Gaza aid.

Despite the US freezing funding, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says UNRWA plays an “absolutely indispensable role in trying to make sure that men, women, and children who so desperately need assistance in Gaza actually get it.”

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