UNRWA: Tunnel found under Gaza school hit by Israel in last month’s conflict

Announcement comes after head of the UN group is thrown out of the Strip for saying IDF launched ‘precise’ strikes in recent battle; school was empty when IDF hit

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A man stands outside his heavily damaged home, next to the rubble of a building that was hit by airstrikes during an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Illustrative. A man stands outside his heavily damaged home, next to the rubble of a building that was hit by airstrikes during an 11-day war between Gaza's Hamas rulers and Israel, in Gaza City, Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

The United Nations’ Palestinian refugee agency has condemned the construction of a tunnel under a school it operates in the central Gaza Strip, which was apparently targeted by the Israel Defense Forces during last month’s 11-day battle between Israel and the Hamas terror group.

In its statement, the UN Relief and Works Agency also denounced the Israeli strikes on the tunnel.

According to UNRWA, the Israeli attacks on the compound in Gaza City’s Rimal neighborhood — home to UNRWA Zaitoun Preparatory Boys’ School “A” and Elementary Boys’ School “A” — took place on May 13 and 15 when the complex was empty.

“Thankfully, no displaced persons were inside the school at the time of the strike and no physical injuries were caused,” the UN agency said in a statement on Friday.

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.

A photograph by an Israeli drone showing 14 underground rocket launchpads in the yard of a school in the Gaza Strip that were used by Palestinian terror groups during May’s conflict between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces)

In one case during the latest round of fighting, the Israel Defense Forces 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.

However, 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.

“The Agency’s installations, like all United Nations facilities, are marked as such and fly a United Nations flag on the roof. UNRWA shares the coordinates of all of its installations periodically with relevant Israeli authorities and in times of conflict, the coordinates of designated emergency shelters are shared daily,” UNRWA said.

According to the UN agency, after the fighting ended, investigators were sent to the school and discovered what appeared to be a tunnel underneath the compound.

“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.

Neighbors gather in a clearing strewn with debris from an airstrike during an 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, May 26, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

In its statement, UNRWA denounced the construction of the tunnel, but did not identify the group responsible for it.

“UNRWA condemns the existence and potential use by Palestinian armed groups of such tunnels underneath its schools in the strongest possible terms. It is unacceptable that students and staff be placed at risk in such a way,” the agency said.

The UNRWA announcement came days after the head of the agency in Gaza, Matthias Schmale, was recalled from his post amid an uproar in the coastal enclave over an interview he gave to Israeli TV during which he said that IDF strikes during the war appeared to be “precise” and “sophisticated.”

Matthias Schmale, UNRWA’s director in Gaza, speaks during a news conference in front of the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City, May 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Schmale, along with his deputy David de Bold, left the Hamas-run coastal enclave last Wednesday, according to Channel 12, the network to which the UNRWA director made the original comments last month. The interview led to accusations from Gaza rulers Hamas that he was exonerating Israel for the deaths of Palestinian civilians, prompting Schmale to apologize.

A spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency told Channel 12 that Schmale had been called back to Jerusalem for consultations and had decided to take an extended leave of absence.

De Bold was also deemed persona non grata by Hamas, according to Palestinian media, which said the terror group was demanding that both he and Schmale be fired.

The UNRWA spokesman told Channel 12 that de Bold would continue his job remotely from Jerusalem and that Deputy Commissioner-General Leni Stenseth would run the Gaza office on-site in the interim.

In the May 23 interview, Schmale was asked about the IDF’s assertion that its military strikes were very precise. He responded: “I’m not a military expert but I would not dispute that. I also have the impression that there is a huge sophistication in the way the Israeli military struck over the last 11 days.”

He also said that there were not at the time any shortages of food, medicine or water in Gaza as Israel had reopened the crossings.

In the interview, Schmale said that despite their accuracy, the strikes in the latest conflict were much more “vicious” than in the 2014 war.

“So yes they did not hit, with some exceptions, civilian targets, but the viciousness and ferocity of the strikes were heavily felt,” he said, adding that more than 60 children were killed, including 19 who went to an UNRWA school.

“So the precision was there, but there was an unacceptable and unbearable loss of life on the civilian side,” he said.

Despite his clarification, the remarks drew outrage from Palestinians.

A soldier from the Israeli military’s Home Front Command walks outside a house in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon that had been struck by a Hamas rocket on May 20, 2021. (Edi Israel/FLASH90)

Hamas said in a statement that his “comments are a complete distortion in favor of the Zionists, including an attempt to exonerate the Occupation of the murder of 254 Palestinians, more than 40% of them children, women and the elderly.”

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza. which does not differentiate between terror group members and civilians, said at least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and teens, with 1,910 people wounded. The Israeli military maintained that it killed some 225 terror operatives and that the Palestinian death toll was in fact considerably higher than was reported. It also said some of the civilian fatalities were caused by Hamas rockets falling short and landing in the Strip.

Thirteen people were killed in Israel, all but one of them civilians, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl. Some 357 people in Israel were wounded. Terror groups in Gaza fired more than 4,300 rockets at Israel during the fighting.

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