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Israel says it discovered tunnels under U.N. agency's Gaza headquarters

An Israeli soldier standing in front of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) building in Gaza City. This photo was taken during a controlled tour by the Israeli army on Feb. 8 and subsequently edited under the supervision of the Israeli military.
Jack Guez
/
AFP via Getty Images
An Israeli soldier standing in front of a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) building in Gaza City. This photo was taken during a controlled tour by the Israeli army on Feb. 8 and subsequently edited under the supervision of the Israeli military.

The Israeli military said on Saturday that it has found a network of tunnels under the Gaza headquarters of the United Nations agency that provides aid to Palestinians, also known as UNRWA. It said that Hamas stored electrical supplies in the tunnels and that the UNRWA headquarters supplied the tunnels with electricity.

The Israeli military also said that it had discovered weapons inside the rooms of the UNRWA building, including rifles and explosives.

UNRWA head Philippe Lazzarini said on Saturday that UNRWA did not know what was underneath its headquarters and that it had evacuated the building on Oct. 12 when Israel ordered people to leave Gaza City.

These are the latest allegations by Israel against UNRWA. Last month, Israel presented the agency with evidence that 12 people who worked for the organization took part in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel that killed some 1,200 people. UNRWA said of the 12 people implicated, nine were fired, one was confirmed dead, and it was looking into the identity of two others.

Lazzarini said that the recent allegations of the tunnels "merit an independent inquiry that is currently not possible to undertake given Gaza is an active war zone."

A number of countries including the United States said they were pausing funding while looking into the Oct. 7 allegations. As of Jan. 27, UNRWA said nine countries had temporarily suspended its funding.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told NPR on Friday that while the U.S. was working with the U.N. to investigate Israel's allegations of UNRWA staff involvement in the Oct. 7 attacks, the U.S. was continuing to "look for paths to provide needed humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people."

She added: "UNWRA is the only international organization with the capacity, with the infrastructure to provide that assistance. So whether it's through funding from the U.S. or funding from others, we will work to ensure that assistance continues to flow into the people of Gaza."

UNRWA said that it would run out of funding by the end of February if countries did not resume donations, and that it could put almost 1.7 million people who are sheltering in or near its facilities at risk.

UNRWA was established in 1949 by U.N. resolution and it is mandated to provide direct relief to Palestinians who were displaced by the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

For over 70 years, the U.N. General Assembly has continued to renew UNRWA's mandate, instructing the agency to provide health care, housing and financial assistance to Palestinian refugees throughout Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.