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UNRWA finds tunnel underneath schools in Gaza, Hamas denies involvement

June 10, 2017 1:45 P.M. (Updated: June 11, 2017 5:22 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- At the start of the month, UNRWA -- the UN agency responsible for providing services to some five million Palestinian refugees -- discovered part of a tunnel under two UNRWA schools in the besieged Gaza Strip, UNRWA said in a statement on Saturday, while Hamas, the de facto leading party in Gaza, denied the allegations.

UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness released a statement saying that part of a tunnel was found underneath two adjacent schools -- Maghazi Elementary Boys A&B School and the Maghazi Preparatory Boys School -- in Maghazi refugee camp while construction was being carried out during the summer vacation.

He added that UNRWA was able to confirm that the tunnel did not have any entry or exit points on the school’s premises and was not at all connected to the schools or other buildings.

Gunness went on to condemn “in the strongest possible terms” the existence of the tunnels.

“It is unacceptable that students and staff are placed at risk in such a way. The construction and presence of tunnels under UN premises are incompatible with the respect of privileges and immunities owed to the United Nations under applicable international law, which provides that UN premises shall be inviolable.”

Gunness noted that UNRWA had already taken the issue to Hamas and informed them that UNRWA would be sealing the tunnel in the camp and has prohibited students or staff from entering the building.

Gunness concluded with a plea to “all parties” to respect the “neutrality and inviolability of the UN.”

“We demand they desist from any activities or conduct that put beneficiaries and staff at risk and undermine the ability of UN staff to provide assistance to Palestine refugees in safety and security.”

Hamas released a statement in response, denying that the movement had any involvement in the tunnel.

Fawzi Barhum, the movement’s spokesperson, said that Hamas had requested clarification from all factions and resistance groups active in the besieged Palestinian territory, all of which claimed they did not have any resistance-related activities in the area.

All factions stated that in their policies the groups’ “respect UNRWA’s institutions and public and vital sites by avoiding any resistance actions there in order to maintain them and for them to keep providing services to Gazans.”

Barhum also expressed his worry over the potential for the UNRWA statement to be used by the Israeli government to encourage more attacks against civilian targets in Gaza and to “justify its crimes,” referring to the numerous times when the Israeli army targeted UNRWA schools during airstrikes in the 2014 Israeli offensive on Gaza.

While the tunnels are used by Hamas as a source of tax revenue and inflow of weapons, they also supply highly demanded necessities for Gazans -- who have been trapped under an Israeli siege for a decade -- including food, medicine, and much-needed infrastructure materials. Israeli authorities have accused Hamas of using their tunnel network to plan attacks against the Israeli state.

However, hundreds of Hamas' tunnels on Gaza's southern border with Egypt have been destroyed by the Egyptian government, while Egypt has strictly enforced the blockade on the Gaza Strip since Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi's rise to power.

The majority of the nearly two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are sealed inside the coastal enclave due to the continuation of the military blockade imposed by Israel and upheld by Egypt on the southern border.

The destruction from three Israeli offensives since 2008, including damage to the enclave’s water, sanitation, energy, and medical facilities, coupled with slow reconstruction due to the blockade, led the UN in 2015 to warn that Gaza could be “uninhabitable” by 2020.
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