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Hamas Military Compound Found Beneath U.N. Agency Headquarters in Gaza – WSJ

Part of a tunnel that leads into what Israeli military officials say is a Hamas intelligence hub underneath the headquarters of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City. Dov Lieber/The Wall Street Journal
Subterranean complex had air-conditioned room with computer servers, office space. Part of a tunnel that leads into what Israeli military officials say is a Hamas intelligence hub underneath the headquarters of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City. Dov Lieber/The Wall Street Journal

Dov Lieber and David Luhnow, WSJ

GAZA CITY
Energiesnet.com 02 12 2023

Hidden deep below the headquarters of the United Nations’ aid agency for Palestinians here is a Hamas complex with rows of computer servers that Israel’s armed forces say served as an important communications center and intelligence hub for the Islamist militant group.

Part of a warren of tunnels and subterranean chambers carved from the Gaza Strip’s sandy soil, the compound below the United Nations Relief and Works Agency buildings in Gaza City appears to have run on electricity drawn from the U.N.’s power supply, Israeli officials said.

A Wall Street Journal reporter and journalists from other news organizations visited the site this past week in a trip organized by Israel’s military. A tunnel also appeared to pass beneath a U.N.-run school near the headquarters.

Tunnel Path Under the U.N. Relief and Works Agency’s Headquarters

Tunnel Path Under the U.N. Relief and Works Agency’s Headquarters
Israel’s military says subterranean base was important intelligence hub

Sources: Planet (satellite image); Israeli military and WSJ reporting (locations)
Sources: Planet (satellite image); Israeli military and WSJ reporting (locations)

The location of a Hamas military installation under important U.N. facilities is evidence, Israeli officials say, of Hamas’s widespread use of sensitive civilian infrastructure as shields to protect its militant activities. Tunnel complexes have also been found near or under some of Gaza’s largest hospitals.

Israel’s discovery of the Hamas operations below Unrwa offices is likely to put further pressure on the agency, which is facing international scrutiny after Israeli allegations that at least 12 of its employees had links to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which authorities say killed 1,200 people.

Israeli military officials assert that people working at Unrwa would have been aware of the tunnel complex, either from activities during its construction or by what they said would have been a jump in electricity usage when the complex started operating.

Unrwa said in a statement that reports of tunnels under its Gaza headquarters “merit an independent inquiry,” and said that it “does not have the military and security expertise nor the capacity to undertake military inspections of what is or might be under its premises.”

The agency, which evacuated from the Gaza City compound on Oct. 12, said Israel hadn’t officially informed it of any Hamas complex under its offices. It said that whenever a suspicious cavity has been discovered near an Unrwa facility, it has filed protest letters to authorities in Gaza as well as the Israeli government.

The Israeli military dug up a parking lot adjacent to a U.N. school to create its own entrance into the tunnel network that leads into what Israeli military officials say is a Hamas military hub underneath the headquarters of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City. Photo: Dov Lieber/The Wall Street Journal

An Unrwa spokeswoman said the agency is unaware of any electricity being siphoned from its facilities by Hamas.

Unrwa under pressure from donors

Unrwa provides housing, schooling, healthcare and other services to nearly six million Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The organization’s main donors, including the U.S., have frozen funding pending the outcome of an investigation into the allegations.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has pleaded with donor nations not to suspend aid for the alleged criminal acts of individual employees because Unrwa is playing the leading role in delivering aid to Gaza.

Unrwa is an unusual U.N. body, tasked with looking after just one group of people: displaced Palestinians. Some of Israel’s political leaders have argued that Unrwa should be abolished. Others say Unrwa would be difficult to replace given the breadth of services it provides, including the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Israel has come under intense international criticism for its conduct of the war in Gaza, which has included intense airstrikes and fighting in and around hospitals, U.N. buildings and other civilian sites. More than 28,000 Gazans have been killed, most of them women and children, according to Palestinian health authorities. The figures don’t distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Israeli military officials say that after the Oct. 7 attack, Israel has no choice but to destroy Hamas. They argue that they can’t accomplish that without striking Hamas installations protected by civilian infrastructure.

Some of the buildings inside the Unrwa headquarters were damaged by fighting around the compound. Plastic bottles, blankets and pillows littered the compound, where Palestinians had sought shelter earlier during the war. Photo: Dov Lieber/The Wall Street Journal
Some of the buildings inside the Unrwa headquarters were damaged by fighting around the compound. Plastic bottles, blankets and pillows littered the compound, where Palestinians had sought shelter earlier during the war. Photo: Dov Lieber/The Wall Street Journal

Unrwa’s Gaza City location last year; Unrwa is facing international scrutiny after Israeli allegations that at least 12 of its employees took part in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Photo: Ashraf Amra/Zuma Press
Unrwa’s Gaza City location last year; Unrwa is facing international scrutiny after Israeli allegations that at least 12 of its employees took part in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Photo: Ashraf Amra/Zuma Press

Israeli military officials say they have known about the complex under Unrwa’s headquarters for a few years but say they decided they couldn’t use airstrikes to target it because of the U.N. presence above.

Israel has long alleged that Hamas has penetrated Unrwa and radicalized the organization, particularly in Gaza, where Hamas came to power via a coup in 2007. Israeli military intelligence has estimated in recent weeks that roughly 10% of Unrwa’s 12,000 or so employees in Gaza, most of whom are Palestinian, have ties to the militant group, including nearly a quarter of its male employees—a percentage that Israel says is higher than the roughly 15% of Gaza males who are linked to the group, through either its military or political wings.

Unrwa has pushed back on the allegation and questioned how Israel came up with such a broad figure.

Underground lair

Journalists who accompanied the Israeli military to Gaza City’s heavily damaged al-Rimal neighborhood in northern Gaza were shown the Hamas tunnel network, which snaked for about a half-mile beneath U.N. and other buildings in the area.

To show that the subterranean intelligence hub was underneath the Unrwa compound, an Israeli military officer, a lieutenant colonel who asked to be identified by his first name, Ido, placed a few small items belonging to the journalists in a white bucket, which he lowered deep into a well-like hole dug by the Israeli military.

The next time the journalists saw their things, they were in the same bucket inside the electricity room powering the Hamas base. “20 meters above us, it’s the U.N. headquarters,” the officer said, pointing up as he handed the items back.

The officer, a commander of the 401st Brigade, described the base as an intelligence hub that directed local military operations, and said that by placing it under the Unrwa headquarters, Hamas was clearly determined to keep Israel from finding it or bombing it.

Next to the room with computer servers, which was air-conditioned, was an electricity-supply room fitted with massive batteries, apparently to serve as a backup if power was disrupted.

The electricity room and server room were beneath the Unrwa compound’s own electrical supply room, the officer said. He said wires snaked down into the underground base from the Unrwa compound, allowing Hamas to steal electricity from the U.N. agency to power its underground facility.

Electrical wires from the room could be seen heading up, while electrical wires in the Unrwa electrical room headed into the ground. The Journal couldn’t independently determine whether they were the same wires.

A room containing around eight black server racks inside what Israeli military officials say is a Hamas intelligence hub located directly underneath the Unrwa headquarters in Gaza City. Photo: Dov Lieber/The Wall Street Journal
A room containing around eight black server racks inside what Israeli military officials say is a Hamas intelligence hub located directly underneath the Unrwa headquarters in Gaza City. Photo: Dov Lieber/The Wall Street Journal

A room containing office chairs and other supplies, including two computers, in what Israeli military officials say is a strategic Hamas intelligence hub underneath the Unrwa headquarters. Photo: Dov Lieber/The Wall Street Journal
A room containing office chairs and other supplies, including two computers, in what Israeli military officials say is a strategic Hamas intelligence hub underneath the Unrwa headquarters. Photo: Dov Lieber/The Wall Street Journal

To get to the server hub, the group of journalists first traveled to a location about half a mile from the U.N. headquarters, where the Israeli military had dug through a parking lot to access the tunnel network leading to the underground base. The parking lot was next to a bombed-out Unrwa school. Israel’s military said the underground network passed beneath the Unrwa school.

The group walked for some 10 minutes through the tunnel, whose ceilings were low enough that everyone had to hunch over while walking, before arriving at the heart of the underground compound. Along the way, there were several air-conditioning units. The Journal reporter hadn’t seen such units in other Hamas tunnels, which are normally hot, dusty and humid.

The compound consisted of a long, wide hall with a variety of rooms, all of which had white tiles on the floor and walls. Another room had a cluster of comfortable office chairs. An Israeli officer said that room was used as a command and control site.

Nearby, a few other rooms appeared to have been largely emptied. One room had a safe, which was closed, as well as an empty server rack. There had also been several computers in the room, said the officer, that had been taken away to be studied by the military.

Doug Madory, director of the internet firm Kentik, based in San Francisco, said the server racks could be used to process intelligence, such as phone data.

“This is a setup you might see in a small office years ago,” he said, adding, “It doesn’t mean it’s not doing something serious.” He said without knowing what was on the servers it would be hard to know what they were used for.

Near the electricity and server rooms were posters left by Hamas’s military branch, the Al-Qassam brigades, with special instructions for how the operatives should conduct themselves. One poster urged operatives to be careful to guard the site’s secrets.

“You must know that keeping secrets is a religious duty,” the poster begins in red.

Israeli military officials said they knew that Hamas was operating under Unwra’s headquarters at least as far back as spring 2021, the last time the two sides had a major conflict.

For years, Unrwa and the Israeli military have reported occasionally finding weapons caches at Unrwa schools or facilities.

In 2014, part of the parking lot at the Unrwa field office headquarters—perhaps a few hundred yards from where the Hamas tunnels now run—began sinking, likely because of Hamas tunnel work, according to a former top Unrwa official. Everyone at Unrwa knew what was happening, he said, but didn’t want to look too closely.

The Israeli military in a statement late Saturday said it had found large quantities of weapons, including rifles, ammunition, grenades and explosives, in rooms of the Unrwa buildings above the tunnel complex.

Documents discovered in the Unrwa offices indicated they were being used by Hamas, the military said.

In its Saturday statement, Unrwa said that since it evacuated its Gaza City offices in the early days of the war, it wasn’t in a position to know whether militants had entered the buildings.

The two dozen or so international staff at the Unrwa offices might have had no idea that a Hamas complex sat beneath the offices and were unlikely to check an electricity supply room, said James Lindsay, a former legal counsel for the agency.

Local staff were far more likely to know, but could have been either sympathetic to the militant group or afraid to denounce the activity. “Am I shocked that this would happen in a totalitarian state? No. People who lived under Communist rule were also afraid.”

A poster made by Hamas’s military wing, the Al-Qassam brigades, warns its operatives to maintain secrecy inside what Israeli military officials say is a Hamas hub underneath Unrwa headquarters in Gaza City. ‘You must know that keeping secrets is a religious duty,’ the poster begins in red. Photo: Dov Lieber/The Wall Street Journal
A poster made by Hamas’s military wing, the Al-Qassam brigades, warns its operatives to maintain secrecy inside what Israeli military officials say is a Hamas hub underneath Unrwa headquarters in Gaza City. ‘You must know that keeping secrets is a religious duty,’ the poster begins in red. Photo: Dov Lieber/The Wall Street Journal

Write to Dov Lieber at dov.lieber@wsj.com and David Luhnow at david.luhnow@wsj.com

wsj.com 02 11 2024

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