Even in the darkness, the utter devastation in northern Gaza is clear as day. The empty shells of buildings, lit by the last fragments of light, emerge from the landscape on the dirt roads that cross the Gaza Strip.
At night, the only signs of life are Israeli Defense Force (IDF) vehicles that roam the landscape, reinforcing military control over the northern sector.
On Saturday evening, we traveled with the Israeli military to Gaza to view the newly discovered tunnel shaft discovered in the Al-Shifa Hospital Complex, the largest medical facility in the territory.
After crossing the border fence, around 9 p.m. (local time), the Israeli convoy of Humvees turned off its lights, using night vision goggles to cross into the Gaza Strip. We would spend the next six hours inside Gaza, most of that time traveling to and from the tunnel shaft.
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Along our route, virtually every building bore the scars of war damage. Many structures were completely destroyed, while others were barely recognizable as anything other than twisted metal.
If there was life here, it’s long gone. Residents moved south or were killed during six weeks of war.
Our first stop was at a spot on the beach where the IDF had set up a staging area. From there, we boarded armored vehicles with several other journalists to travel the last mile to the hospital. The only outside view came from a night vision screen. But even in black and white, the level of destruction is shocking.
Inside Gaza City, the remains of apartment towers and skyscrapers littered the city’s otherwise empty streets. Even though we could talk to the Palestinians while we were integrated into the Israeli army, there was no one to talk to.
A CNN reported at any time from inside Gaza, under the escort of IDF media. For journalists to adhere to this incorporation, media outlets had to submit footage filmed in Gaza to the Israeli army for review and agree not to reveal sensitive locations or the identities of soldiers. A CNN retained editorial control of the final report.
When we got out of the armored vehicle, we were plunged into total darkness. We were only allowed to use red lights to head to a nearby building, where we waited for Israeli forces already on the ground to secure the area. The tunnel shaft was very close, but it was completely exposed.
The commander in charge of our group, Lt. Col. Tom, said that this tunnel is significantly larger than others he had seen before. “It’s a big tunnel,” he said. “I found tunnels – in 2014, in (Operation) Protective Edge, I was a company commander – and this tunnel is an order of magnitude larger than a standard tunnel.”
We expected to hear fighting as soon as we entered Gaza City. Instead, we hear almost complete silence. Only once during our 45 minutes or so at the hospital did we hear the distant sound of small arms fire, and it was impossible to tell how far away it was in the middle of an urban environment.
The rest of the time, the silence made the darkness even more oppressive.
It was almost midnight as we walked the last few meters to the exposed tunnel shaft. The Israeli military has promised “concrete evidence” that Hamas was using the above-ground hospital complex as cover for what it calls underlying terrorist infrastructure, including a command and control center.
Days earlier, the Israeli military released what it said was the first batch of evidence, including weapons and ammunition it said it found inside the hospital itself. But the images fall far short of proving that Hamas had facilities underneath, and an investigation by CNN discovered that some weapons had been moved.
The discovery of the tunnel shaft the next day was more convincing, showing an entrance to something underground. But even then, it wasn’t clear what it was or how far down it went. This is what everyone is trying to understand.
At the edge of the tunnel shaft, it was evident that the structure itself was significant. At the top, the remains of a ladder hung over the edge of the opening. In the center of the round pit, a central post resembled the center of a spiral staircase. The well itself extended further than we could see, especially in the dim light of our headlights.
The video released by the IDF from inside the well shows what we could not see from the top of the opening. The video shows a spiral staircase going down into a concrete tunnel. The Israeli military said the tunnel shaft extends downward about 10 meters and the tunnel extends 55 meters. At the bottom there is a metal door with a small window.
“We must demolish the underground facilities we found,” said IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari. “I think the Hamas leadership is under a lot of pressure because we found this facility and now we’re going to demolish it. This will take some time. We will do it safely, but we will do it.
This is arguably the most convincing evidence yet offered by the IDF that there may be a network of tunnels beneath the hospital. This does not establish beyond doubt that there is a command center under Gaza’s largest hospital, but it is clear that there is a tunnel underneath. Seeing what connects to that tunnel is absolutely important.
For Israel, the risks could not be greater. The country has publicly claimed for weeks, if not years, that Hamas built a terrorist infrastructure beneath the hospital. The ability to continue waging war in the face of growing international criticism depends, to a large extent, on Israel’s ability to prove this point.
Hamas has repeatedly denied the existence of a network of tunnels under Al-Shifa. Health officials who spoke to the CNN they said the same thing, insisting it was just a medical center.
As is rarely the case in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this response is truly black and white. Either there are a series of underground tunnels beneath the hospital or there aren’t.