After developing Iron Dome to intercept rockets, Israel views the tunnels as the most immediate threat emanating from Gaza
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on Monday destroyed an underground tunnel that crossed into Israeli territory, in the process killing seven Palestinians. Two of them were high-ranking members of the Islamic Jihad, including Arafat Abu Murshad, the group’s commander in central Gaza.
Speaking to The Media Line, Dawood Shihab, a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad, explained that the “martyrs” were killed in the process of building “a defensive system that the Palestinian resistance is preparing to fight back against any Israeli attack.” Shihab contended that Islamic Jihad has a right to respond to all provocations by Israel, which he accused of oppressing the Palestinian people.
The head of Al-Aqsa hospital in Gaza, Kamal Khatab, confirmed to The Media Line that the deaths resulting from the tunnel demolition were caused by poisonous gas inhalation. “In all of the cases, the patients came with their upper bodies having already turned blue, which is a unique reaction to poisonous gas,” he stated.
Khatab could not identify the specific toxin as he had never before witnessed the exact symptoms, but revealed that one person who remains in critical condition in the hospital could barely see.
The incident follows the discovery of a tunnel earlier this month under a school financed and operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a body tasked with providing aid to Palestinian refugees until such time that a solution to their plight is reached within the context of a peace agreement with Israel.
Thereafter, the agency strongly condemned whoever was behind the tunnel’s construction, citing the security risk to the institution’s students and staff.
A senior UNRWA official, who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, confirmed that classes had resumed after the agency sealed off the passageway’s opening. In a corresponding statement, UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness wrote that his organization had “robustly intervened with relevant parties to protest the violation of the sanctity and disrespect of the neutrality of UN premises.”
He suggested that the presence of a tunnel underneath the installation constituted a violation of international law.
In June, UNRWA uncovered a separate tunnel built under another of its properties—where both the The Maghazi Elementary Boys A&B School and the Maghazi Prepatory Boys School are located.
The Media Line could not reach a Hamas spokesperson to discuss the matter, but over the summer the group denied building that particular tunnel and strongly condemned UNRWA for revealing its existence, arguing that Israel would exploit the occasion to “justify its crimes”.
Omar Abdallah, head of the United Nations file at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stressed to The Media Line that the government of President Mahmoud Abbas is “committed to the Geneva Convention and its rules.” Schools are places for education only, he asserted, adding that “nobody is allowed to use them for any other reason, especially military operations.”
Abdallah further noted that it is forbidden for Israel to attack any Palestinian school, which he said would amount to a war crime.
Israel has long been at odds with UNRWA, regularly criticizing the agency for its “handling of relations with Hamas.” Israeli officialdom has accused UNRWA’s employees of supporting Hamas and spreading anti-Semitism on social media.
“I think it’s a great thing that UNRWA has stood up for what is right, it’s a good step,” Colette Avital, a former Israeli parliamentarian, told The Media Line. “It’s very important to know that people have started to recognize how dangerous the tunnels are and how much they [negatively] impact the peace process.”
“I had a meeting [this week] with Abbas and he was very firm about disarming Hamas, so as to have one authority, one gun,” she affirmed.
Meanwhile, Avital slammed Hamas for using foreign aid to build tunnels, a reality which is well understood within the Israeli security establishment. “It should be focusing on developing education in Gaza’s schools instead of building tunnels underneath them,” she concluded.
The first recorded discovery of a tunnel by Israel was in 1983, when they were used primarily to smuggle a wide range of goods into the Palestinian territories, including fuel, gas, cement, food, medicine and even car parts. However, during the First Intifada—a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli military occupation that began in 1987—the tunnels were increasingly used by various groups to bring in both money and arms.
By 2015, a UN report estimated that more than 1,500 subterranean cross-border tunnels had been built to circumvent the blockade that was placed on Gaza.