On June 9, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) announced that on June 1, it had discovered a tunnel built by Hamas under some of its schools located in Gaza. Specifically the tunnel was found under the Maghazi Elementary Boys A&B School and the Maghazi Preparatory Boys School, both located in a compound containing additional schools.
Following the discovery, UNRWA committed to sealing the tunnels under the premises and not allowing anyone to enter the area until the work is completed. Additionally, UNRWA has lodged a complaint with the Hamas leadership. Hamas is of course recognised as a terrorist organisation by Australia, the United States and most of Europe.
In the statement that UNRWA released condemning the tunnels, spokesperson Chris Gunness said:
“UNRWA condemns the existence of such tunnels in the strongest possible terms. 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. The sanctity and neutrality of UN premises must be preserved at all times.”
The recently discovered tunnel reportedly stretched into the Gaza Strip, as well as towards the border with Israel. Building such terror tunnels is not a new tactic for Hamas, and reports have long alleged their construction has often been completed using funds and resources originally meant for humanitarian purposes.
Responding to the tunnel discovery, Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon called on the UN to condemn Hamas and for the international body to finally formally classify Hamas as a terrorist organisation. In a letter sent to the President of the Security Council and to the Secretary General of the UN, Danon stated, “despite the repeated efforts of my delegation, our reports of Hamas’s military build-up and use of children in military campaigns have fallen on deaf ears.”
This is not the first time that Hamas has used schools to try and protect its fighters and attempt to hide its terrorist activity. It was found to have hidden weapons in three Gaza schools, and also during Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 summer war between Hamas and Israel was likely to have fired rockets in at least two instances from these UN run schools. Hamas also has made the construction and use of tunnels a priority. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, Israeli forces found and neutralised at least 32 terror tunnels. These tunnels have been explicitly referred to by Hamas representatives as more than just a defence mechanism, but as a way of fighting Israel.
Danon’s letter also stated that the discovery of the tunnels was not an “isolated incident, but rather the latest of deeply concerning attempts by Hamas terrorists to systematically exploit the organs of the UN.”
This calls into focus ongoing problems with UNRWA. UNRWA is a unique body created to deal only with what it classifies as Palestinian refugees, using a unique multi-generational definition, which applies to no other group of refugees in the world. The rest of the world’s refugees are handled by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
For years, it has been argued that the very existence of UNRWA serves as an impediment to lasting peace. Middle East scholar, leading expert on UNRWA and former Member of Knesset Dr. Einat Wilf, has proposed that a restructuring of UNRWA is, “essential in order to keep the notion of the two-state solution alive.” Wilf argues that the inheritability of refugee status sends a false message of hope for the descendants of refugees to return to what is currently Israel. Meanwhile, she says, changes in the UNRWA definition of refugee to align with UNHCR would change the number of Palestinian refugees from being in the millions to the thousands. Wilf has also described UNRWA as functioning effectively as a political organisation advocating on behalf of the Palestinians.
UNRWA also has a controversial history in Gaza of alleged bias and corruption. A report from the watchdog group UN Watch released in February 2017 found 40 cases of UNRWA teachers inciting terrorism and anti-Semitism on their social media pages. A now former UNRWA employee was reportedly elected to Hamas leadership. Most recently, official UNRWA website and social media accounts misused a photograph of a girl who was the victim of a bombing in Syria to try and raise money and sympathy for Gaza.
The Israeli government appears to be hoping that the tunnel discovery, just another in a long string of incidents, is enough to change international perspective and support for UNRWA. In a recent meeting with his cabinet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu relayed a conversation that he had with American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. He called for the dismantling of UNRWA, and the merger of all its elements with UNHCR.
Beyond the condemnations that could reasonably be expected, the Jerusalem Post reported that Okaz, one of Saudi Arabia’s leading newspapers wrote a scathing critique of Hamas’ actions in Gaza. The paper reportedly has close ties with the Saudi royal family. According to Okaz, Hamas has spent more than $210 million over the past few years to construct these tunnels.
This response by Saudi Arabia’s semi-official media comes amidst the diplomatic crisis created by the cutting of diplomatic ties between several Gulf nations and Qatar – a key Hamas sponsor – with Saudi Arabia leading the charge. Amongst the reasons for the split was Qatar’s ties to terrorist entities like Hamas. Qatari officials still refuse to acknowledge that Hamas is a terrorist entity.
AIJAC has written on the impact this split will have on the region, and is watching the situation closely, especially as it is likely to affect the status of Hamas.