There was not much dialogue with Israel Defense Forces contacts prior to this integration. After four months of this war, they came up with a system and the Israeli army had something that they wanted to show to the outside world.
We boarded Humvees. A soldier stood in the front seat, one hand on the roll bar, the other on a hood-mounted automatic weapon. At my left elbow was an Israeli version of a shoulder-mounted rocket along with a spare rifle.
For the first 10 minutes of the trip, we were still in Israel. We traveled on the sidewalk. The closer we got to the Gaza Strip, the more difficult the road became, as the sides had been breached by heavy armored vehicles. Camps began to appear, where soldiers waited outside the fence for the order to return to battle.
Once the barrier was crossed into Gaza, the landscape showed only destruction. I did not see a building or structure that was not damaged. Most were flattened.
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The drivers sped along winding, rutted sand roads until we arrived at the 401st Armored Division camp in the Gaza Strip. The soldiers waited on plastic chairs between their vehicles. A few had gone to the beach to take photos. Some carried out maintenance on the large Merkava tanks.
We didn’t stay long. We were transferred to an Israeli Namer armored personnel carrier to travel to the Shati refugee camp, just north of the population center of Gaza City. Reports of Hamas fighters gathering in Gaza City have created a reasonable risk of ambush, despite Israel’s firm control over the area.
When we got off the armored vehicle at Shati, I could see the destruction in 360 degrees. Piles of dirt and broken concrete. All the roads and sidewalks were destroyed. Everywhere we went we had to climb piles of sand, either the remains of an explosion or tanks. Some of the large apartment buildings were still standing, but patches of black smoke were coming out of most of the windows. Sometimes we heard the loud noise of new airstrikes in the area or machine gun fire.
The first place reporters were taken was a kindergarten, highlighted by paintings of SpongeBob and other cartoons on the walls. Lt. Col. Idor of the 401st Armored Brigade showed reporters maps of where the tunnels stretched beneath us. We then reloaded the armor and traveled to UNRWA headquarters, where the soldiers had dug a shaft to one of the rooms that served as a hub for electricity in the tunnel. The lieutenant colonel removed the Velcro ID from my body armor and dropped it into the hole. “You’ll get it later,” he said.
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We were shown two rooms in UNRWA headquarters where the wiring for computers, communications equipment and electricity was directly underground. Then finally taken back through the kindergarten area to the safest tunnel entrance.
We had to get on all fours and crawl a bit at the beginning of the tunnel. Once inside we could get up and walk around. Sometimes, when the ceiling wasn’t high enough, we squatted down. Sometimes, when it was bad enough, we would crawl again. In a few places we crossed probably dirty water.
The tunnels are radically different from the ones I crawled through under the Egyptian border more than a decade ago. The modern ones are reinforced with concrete. There is concrete underfoot. In some places, Hamas has made efforts to tile the tunnels and rooms built on the side. They had working plumbing and modern toilets. The tile work was good. In one place it looked like Hamas had built a cafe where they could take a break, as the decorative tiles were all about the cafe.
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We walked probably less than half a mile, arriving under the UNRWA headquarters, where I picked up my press ID. Lt. Col. Idor showed us a 25-foot-deep room filled with computer servers, another room with communications equipment, and yet another that served as an electrical junction for the tunnels. All connected to the headquarters building above by extensive cabling.
The soldiers argued that it was impossible for Hamas to install all of this, make noise about the construction, and move truck after truck of dirt out of the tunnels without UNRWA employees being involved. realize.
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“Our problem is Hamas,” Lt. Col. Idor said. “Hamas works at and under UNRWA.”
UNRWA issued a statement saying it is a humanitarian organization without the capacity or expertise to conduct “military inspections” of what may be on its premises.