Even in the dark, the utter devastation in northern Gaza is clear as day. The empty shells of buildings, illuminated by the last bits of light, meander out of the landscape on the dirt roads across the Gaza Strip. At night, the only signs of life are the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) vehicles rumbling across the landscape, tightening the military’s grip on the northern sector.
On Saturday night, we traveled with the IDF into Gaza to see the newly exposed tunnel shaft found at Al-Shifa Hospital, the enclave’s largest medical facility.
After crossing the border fence around At 9:00 in the evening, our convoy of Humvees turned off the lights, relying on night vision goggles to cross the Gaza Strip. We would spend the next six hours inside Gaza, much of that time spent getting back and forth from the tunnel shaft.
Along our way, almost every building bore the scars of wartime damage. Many structures were completely destroyed, while others were barely recognizable as anything but twisted metal. If there was life here, it was long gone. Residents had either moved south or been killed during six weeks of war.
Shortly after crossing the border into Gaza, the convoy of Humvees turned off its lights and traveled in darkness.
Our first stop was a place on the beach where the IDF had set up a gap. From there, we moved into armored personnel carriers with several other reporters for the last kilometer to the hospital. The only view outside came through a night vision screen. But even in black and white, the level of destruction was shocking.
Inside Gaza City, the skeletal remains of apartment towers and high-rises filled the otherwise empty city streets. Although we could talk to Palestinians while embedded in the IDF, there was no one around to talk to.
CNN reported from inside Gaza under IDF media escort at all times. As a condition for journalists to join this embed, media outlets had to submit footage filmed in Gaza to the Israeli military for review and agreed not to reveal sensitive locations and the identities of soldiers. CNN retained editorial control over the final report.
Stepping out of the armored vehicle, we were enveloped in total darkness. We had to use only our red light to navigate to a nearby building where we waited until Israeli forces already on the ground secured the area. The tunnel shaft was very close, but it was completely exposed.
The commander of our group, Lt. Col. Tom said that this tunnel is considerably larger than others he had seen before. “This is a big tunnel,” he said. “I have come across tunnels – in 2014 i [Operation] Protective Edge, I was a company commander – and this tunnel is an order of magnitude larger than a standard tunnel.”
We had expected to hear fighting when we entered Gaza City itself. Instead we heard almost complete silence. Only once during our roughly 45 minutes at the hospital did we hear the sound of small arms in the distance 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 feel even more oppressive.
The only view of the destruction in Gaza was through a small night vision monitor in an armored personnel carrier.
It was nearing midnight when we walked the last few meters to the exposed tunnel shaft. The IDF had promised “concrete evidence” that Hamas was using the hospital complex above ground as cover for what it called terror infrastructure below, including a command and control center.
Several days earlier, the IDF had released what it said was the first batch of evidence, which included weapons and ammunition it said it found inside the hospital itself. But the images fell far short of proving that Hamas had a facility underneath, and a CNN investigation found that some of the weapons had been moved around.
The discovery of the tunnel shaft the next day was more convincing and showed an entrance to something underground. But even then it was unclear what it was or how far down it went. This is what everyone has been trying to understand.
Standing on the edge of the tunnel shaft, it was clear that the structure itself was substantial. At the top, the remains of a ladder hung over the lip of the opening. In the center of the round shaft, a central bar resembled a hub for a spiral staircase. The shaft itself extended further down than we could see, especially in the dim light of our headlamps.
Video released by the IDF from inside the shaft showed what we could not see from the top of the opening. The video shows a spiral staircase leading down into a concrete tunnel. The IDF said the tunnel shaft extends downwards approximately 10 meters and that the tunnel runs 55 meters. At the end is a metal door with a small window.
“We have to demolish the underground facility that we found,” Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said. “I think the leadership of Hamas is under a lot of pressure because we found this facility and we now want to demolish it. It’s going to take us time. We will do it safely, but we will do it.”
It is arguably the most convincing evidence yet that the IDF has offered that there may be a network of tunnels under the hospital. It does not establish without a 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 that tunnel is absolutely essential.
For Israel, the stakes could not be higher. Israel has publicly claimed for weeks, if not years, that Hamas has built terrorist infrastructure under the hospital. The ability to continue to prosecute the war in the face of mounting international criticism depends largely on Israel being able to prove this point.
Hamas has repeatedly denied that there is a network of tunnels under the Shifa hospital. Health officials who spoke to CNN have said the same, insisting it is only a medical facility.
As is so rarely the case in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this answer is truly black and white. Either there is an underground series of tunnels under the hospital. Or there isn’t.