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UNRWA uncovers suspected Hamas tunnel under school

What happened: The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has revealed they found a Hamas tunnel underneath one of their schools in the Gaza Strip.

  • According to UNRWA, they found what “appears to be a cavity and a possible tunnel, at the location of the missile strike,” at  Zaitoun Preparatory Boys’ School “A”.
  • In their statement, they noted “the depth of the cavity is approximately 7.5 meters below the surface of the school”.
  • The organisation condemned both Palestinians who built the tunnel and the IDF for its attacks: “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.”
  • “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.”
  • Also in Gaza, last night Al Jazeera released a recording of a man speaking in Hebrew and asking whether Israel’s leaders were committed to the release of the captive Israelis. At the end of the recording, he is heard saying, “please save me”. The name of the speaker was not given.
  • Intelligence Affairs Minister Eli Cohen told Army Radio, “We know exactly what is happening in Gaza. This is simply another cheap manipulation. We will not lend a hand to rebuilding Gaza until the issue of the MIAs and hostages is resolved. The State of Israel is committed to that and we have made this clear.”
  • The mother of Avera Mengistu, who is being held by Hamas since 2014, said she was certain that the voice heard in the recording is not her son.

Context: The exposure of the tunnel creates further friction between UNRWA and Hamas. Their director of operations, Mathias Schmale, has been declared persona non grata and is not allowed to the Gaza Strip after he gave an interview to Channel 12 News saying, “I have the impression there is a huge sophistication in the way the Israeli military struck over the 11 days,” and referred to the “precision” of Israeli strikes.

  • Hamas currently holds Avera Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent, and Hisham Al-Saye, an Israel-Bedouin as captives inside Gaza. They both crossed into Gaza independently in 2014 and 2015 respectively. According to their families they both suffer from mental health.
  • Hamas also holds the bodies of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, who were killed and their bodies captured during Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014, shortly after the ceasefire agreement came into effect that was violated by Hamas.
  • The Al Jazeera report also included previously unseen footage of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was released from Gaza in 2011 after being held for five years. To secure his freedom, Israel released 1,027 Palestinian prisoners – about a third of whom were serving life sentences for terrorist attacks. Among those released, the current leader of Hamas Yahya Sinwar.
  • A security official told Walla News that whereas Hamas needs to rebuild the Gaza Strip, Israel has insisted that progress on that front be linked to progress in resolving the issue of the soldiers who are missing-in-action and the captive civilians. The security official added: “Hamas is showing signs of stress, realising that it is going to have to be accommodating on the issue of the Israeli MIAs and captives if it wants to reach a political arrangement that will facilitate Gaza’s reconstruction.”
  • Israel’s current approach is to only allow “basic” humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip until the captives are returned. As part of the new Israeli policy, Israel has allowed only medical equipment, food, medicine and fuel for the private sector to enter the Gaza Strip via the Kerem Shalom crossing. Only patients who require life-saving treatment are allowed out of Gaza into Israel via the Erez crossing.
  • The new policy is based on the assessment by experts within the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Office that there is no humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of Operation Guardian of the Walls.
  • UNRWA is considered by many in Israel as an obstacle to peace as it perpetuates the conflict by registering millions of Palestinians who would not be considered refugees by international standards and in any other conflict.

Looking ahead: The release of the Israeli captives is being negotiated as part of Egyptian mediation to allow for the rehabilitation of Gaza.

  • Israel is currently refusing to allow financial aid from Qatar into the Gaza Strip in the same format that was in place up until Operation Guardian of the Walls. Israel is demanding that the money be transferred via the Palestinian Authority or via international organisations and not as cash delivered in suitcases as it has until now. The Qatari money is due to be transferred to Gaza this week.
  • Other security sources have cautioned that tensions in southern Israel have not yet calmed down and that the IDF is maintaining a high state of alert.

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