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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel invites journalists into car-width tunnel beneath Gaza

Israeli soldiers and international journalists exit what Israel says is the largest Hamas tunnel they have discovered so far in Gaza, located a few hundred meters from the Erez border crossing, during an escorted tour by the military for international journalists to view the tunnel on Dec. 15, 2023. The tunnel comes within walking distance of the border with Israel, according to the Israeli military. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

By Ronen Bergman

The tunnel in the northern Gaza Strip is wide enough for a large car to pass through, reinforced with concrete and fitted with electrical wiring. And at least one section of the tunnel — which Israel says is the largest it has discovered in Gaza so far — is within walking distance of an Israeli border crossing.

Israel’s military took a group of reporters, including two journalists from The New York Times, into the tunnel Friday. Its size and complexity, three Israeli defense officials say, show the scale of the challenge they face as they try to meet their goal of wiping out Hamas, which they say has built a network of tunnels throughout Gaza to allow it to evade and attack Israeli forces.

Israel arranged the tour while under increasing pressure from the United States to wind down the most intense phase of the war within weeks to try to limit a death toll from Gaza that has already reached nearly 20,000. The Biden administration envisions Israel transitioning from its large-scale ground and air campaign to one that would involve smaller groups of elite forces that would conduct more precise, intelligence-driven missions to find and kill Hamas leaders, rescue hostages and destroy tunnels, U.S. officials say.

The size of this tunnel and its location — coming within about 400 meters, or a quarter of a mile, of the border, the Israeli military said — also underscored Israel’s failure to identify and prevent such a structure from being built. But the Israeli military’s chief spokesperson, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, who was among the officials who conducted the tour, said that the tunnel was proof that Hamas had diverted building materials, especially concrete, meant to be used to ease the lives of Palestinians in Gaza.

“This tunnel had been built for years,” he said. “Millions of dollars have been spent on this tunnel, hundreds of tons of cement, a lot of electricity — instead of spending all of them — the money, the cement, the electricity — on hospitals, schools, housing and other needs of the Gazans.”

The Times agreed to wait until Sunday to publish details of the tour, but there were otherwise no restrictions placed on how the visit would be reported. The journalists were accompanied the whole time and were not allowed to wander farther into the tunnel, with the Israeli forces stopping journalists at about 150 to 200 meters.

But even in that short section, it was possible to see that the tunnel continued a great distance ahead and that underfoot, vertical shafts extended down from the main tube, which Israeli officers said suggested the tunnel connected to a larger network.

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