UN drops claim it was unaware of Hamas tunnels

Spokesman clarifies claim that the UN was unaware of ongoing tunnel construction by Hamas and lacked access to their building plans.

By Mike Wagenheim, TPS

After coming under fire for claiming that the United Nations had no knowledge of Hamas’ tunnel system in the Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the global body’s chief offered a clarification to the Tazpit Press Service.

Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, was asked on Wednesday whether, given the sizable U.N. presence amid a multitude of Gazan agencies, the organization had any indication the tunnels were being constructed.

“No is clearly the answer for that,” he said. “It seems to me that all this infrastructure was built in a highly secretive way.”

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, responded with a tweet containing two letters he personally wrote to Guterres documenting Hamas tunnels and their proximity to sensitive sites, including U.N. facilities.

The Israeli envoy also cited a 2022 statement by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) condemning the presence of a “man-made cavity” beneath one of its Gaza schools as a breach of neutrality and international law.

Additionally, Erdan claimed he had briefed UNRWA Commissioner-General Phillipe Lazzarini on the tunnels in 2021.

Still, Dujarric insisted on Wednesday that the United Nations was unaware of the sophisticated labyrinth of tunnels being dug and fortified throughout Gaza.

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“I mean, just to see it as an observer, to think that the U.N. had any understanding of what was,” he said, “any information about those operations, I think, is: No is clearly the answer for that.”

Dujarric told TPS on Friday that he meant to say that the United Nations was unaware of any building of tunnels going on at a given moment. Conceding that the body was aware of Hamas tunnels, Dujarric said the organization had no insight as to Hamas’ building plans, and therefore could not identify construction as it was happening.

Hamas and its war with Israel will take up much of the conversation in this coming Tuesday’s open quarterly U.N. Security Council debate on the Israeli-Palestinian file. The session will be held at the ministerial level, bringing many foreign ministers and other high-level diplomats to the council chambers.

Israel’s foreign minister will apparently not be among them. A spokesman for the Israeli mission to the United Nations told TPS that he is unaware of any plans for Israel Katz to fly in for the session.

Katz is scheduled to be in Brussels on Monday when the European Union’s 27 foreign ministers will meet to discuss the Israel-Hamas war and the situation in the Red Sea. The foreign ministers for the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia will also join, as will the secretary general of the Arab League.

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The last time Israel’s foreign minister traveled to the United Nations, a diplomatic war broke out. In late October, at the last quarterly debate, Guterres told the Security Council that Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre “did not happen in a vacuum,” going on to describe a laundry list of Palestinian grievances.

The statement was met with rage and indignation across the Israeli political spectrum, and then-Foreign Minister Eli Cohen canceled a meeting with Guterres scheduled for that afternoon.

It is unclear if Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian will make it to New York on Tuesday. The Islamic Republic’s top diplomat attempted to travel for a Security Council meeting on Gaza in late November, but claimed the U.S. State Department issued visas for him and his delegation to travel from Tehran only seven hours before the meeting was to get underway.

It is not unheard of for the State Department to play a game of chicken with diplomats from unfriendly countries in issuing last-minute visas, thereby fulfilling its duties as U.N. host country while making it inconvenient or unfeasible for delegations to arrive on time.