image Photo: Reuters

UNRWA admits tunnel found under Gaza school

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has revealed the discovery of a terror tunnel was discovered beneath one of its schools in the Gaza Strip.

The agency complained in the same statement that the school had been targeted by the IDF during the 11-day Operation Guardian of the Walls conflict in May.

According to an UNRWA statement issued on 4 June, two Israeli Air Force (IAF) strikes caused damage to its Zaitoun “A” Preparatory and Boys’ Schools between 13 and 15 May. The Agency claimed there had been no advanced warning, and that the attacks were “contrary to the inviolability of UNRWA premises and despite the schools being designated as an emergency shelter for civilians,” even though “no displaced persons were inside the school at the time of the strike and no physical injuries were caused.”

“What appears to be a cavity and a possible tunnel, at the location of the missile strike” with a depth of “approximately 7.5 meters below the surface of the school” was later discovered, said UNRWA, during a “detailed assessment” on 31 May 2021 while “investigating how to secure the building” from future strikes.

Critics of the Islamist Hamas regime that controls the enclave have long asserted that the Islamist group uses civilians as “human shields” by embedding infrastructure and launching attacks against Israel from densely-populated areas. UN schools have been used in the past as cover for such activity.

The IDF has continually maintained that it launches precise air strikes on terrorist targets in Gaza, and takes extraordinary precautions to minimize casualties among non-combatants, including telephone calls, flyers and ‘roof-knocking’ techniques to alert civilians to evacuate intended targets.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry has said the military acted “in accordance with international law, in defending our citizens from Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket fire.”

During the conflict, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) fired over 4,400 missiles at Israeli cities and towns, including Jerusalem. At least 90% of the rockets that penetrated Israeli air space were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system; while about 30% misfired or fell short onto Gaza territory.

The UNRWA statement said it “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.”

Stressing that it “is deeply concerned about actions by parties to the conflict during recent hostilities in Gaza that caused damage to its installations and violated its inviolability and neutrality,” the statement said that “UNRWA demands that all parties desist from any activities or conduct that put beneficiaries and staff at risk and undermine the ability of UNRWA staff to provide assistance to Palestine refugees in safety and security.  UNRWA installations are inviolable, and their neutrality must be respected at all times.”

The UN Agency added that “letters of protest regarding this incident have been sent to both parties.”

The Palestinians are also the world’s only people to which a singular UN agency is exclusively devoted. The United States has historically been its biggest donor nation.

US President Joe Biden has resumed funding to the organization, which had faced a massive budgetary crisis after former President Donald Trump cut off aid of more than $300 million in 2018 after Washington deemed UNRWA as an “irredeemably flawed operation.”

According to a statement from the US State Department at the time, “the fundamental business model and fiscal practices that have marked UNRWA for years – primarily UNRWA’s endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries – deemed as “simply unsustainable.”

The US criticism was based on UNRWA’s practice enabling Palestinians to pass “refugee” status down through the generations – unlike any other group in the world.

In 1949, the United Nations estimated there were 726,000 Arabs in pre-State Israel, who were registered as “refugees.” That number ballooned to 5 million in 2014, and there are now 5.7 million Palestinians in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza entitled to UNRWA benefits.

Meanwhile in related developments, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini issued a strongly-worded statement on Thursday, expressing serious concern at the “magnitude of attacks directed against the senior management of UNRWA in the Gaza Strip over the past week, including the assembly of a very large protest in front of the UNRWA Field Office” last Monday.

According to the UN News online website, the Commissioner-General noted with concern that some “slogans, statements and parodies circulated in the last two days in particular” directly targeting the Director and Senior Deputy Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza, Matthias Schmale and David de Bold,” which he said “are unacceptable and tantamount to threats to the safety and security of UNRWA staff members.”

Palestinians in Gaza were enraged when Schmale told an Israeli television news channel on 22 May that he did not dispute the assertion from the IDF that its airstrikes during Operation Guardian of the Walls had been “precise.”

Protests against the UN agency erupted and Hamas ridiculed Schmale as “a spokesman for the Israeli military,” despite an attempted “apology” on 25 May when Schmale declared “There is no justification whatsoever for killing civilians…. Military precision and sophistication are never a justification for war.”

There were news reports that “two senior officials in Gaza had had been declared persona non grata on Thursday by ‘Palestinian factions,’” said UN News, in apparent reference to both Schmale and his deputy. Both men were then recalled to the Agency’s headquarters in east Jerusalem for “consultations over the situation and steps to take to enable the continuation of all UNRWA services,” said Commissioner-General.

He added that UNRWA “strongly protested and contested the position conveyed by the De Facto authorities in Gaza that they could no longer guarantee the safety and security of our staff. Regrettably, such a position left the Agency with no other choice than to ask the staff to leave the Gaza Strip as their security is of paramount priority to UNRWA.”

The UNRWA chief said the agency would now focus on rehabilitating homes that have been destroyed, ensuring adequate cash and food assistance to those hit hardest by the conflict, and resume all its critical services, including a COVID vaccination program.

“This is a time for a strong UNRWA, and any attempts to tarnish the reputation of the agency or its staff can only undermine its ability to deliver critical services to a population whose needs are immense, and only growing, after the recent hostilities,” he said.