Even in the darkness, the utter devastation in northern Gaza is clear as day. The empty shells of buildings, illuminated by the last rays of light, emerge from the landscape on the dirt roads that cross the Gaza Strip. At night, the only signs of life are the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) vehicles that rumble across the landscape, strengthening military control over the northern sector.
On Saturday night, we traveled with the IDF to Gaza to view the newly exposed tunnel shaft discovered in the Al-Shifa Hospital complex, the largest medical center in the enclave.
After crossing the border fence around 9:00 p.m., our convoy of Humvees turned off its lights and relied on night vision goggles to traverse the Gaza Strip. We would spend the next six hours inside Gaza, and much of that time would be spent going to and from the tunnel shaft.
Along our path, virtually every building bore the scars of war damage. Many structures were completely destroyed, while others were barely recognizable as anything more than twisted metal. If there was life here, it was long gone. Residents had moved south or been killed during six weeks of war.
Shortly after crossing the border into Gaza, the Humvee convoy turned off its lights and traveled in the dark.
Our first stop was a spot on the beach where the IDF had set up a staging area. From there, along with other journalists, we boarded armored vehicles to travel the last kilometer to the hospital. The only view of the 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-rise buildings filled the otherwise empty city streets. Even if we could talk to Palestinians while embedded in the IDF, there was no one to talk to.
CNN reported from inside Gaza under IDF media escort at all times. As a condition for journalists to join this addition, the media had to send footage filmed in Gaza to the Israeli military for review and agreed not to reveal sensitive locations or the identities of soldiers. CNN retained editorial control over the final report.
When we exited the armored vehicle, we were enveloped in total darkness. We were only allowed to use our red lights 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 in charge of our group, Lieutenant Colonel Tom, said that this tunnel is significantly larger than others he had seen before. “This is a big tunnel,” he said. “I have encountered tunnels: in 2014, in [Operation] At 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 once we entered Gaza City itself. Instead, we heard almost complete silence. Only once during our approximately 45 minutes 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 seem even more oppressive.
The only view of the destruction in Gaza was through a small night vision monitor on an armored personnel carrier.
It was almost midnight as 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 as cover for what it called terrorist infrastructure below, including a command and control center.
Several days earlier, the IDF had 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 fell far short of proving that Hamas had a facility underneath, and a CNN investigation found that some of the weapons had been moved.
The discovery of the tunnel shaft the next day was more convincing, as it showed an entrance to something underground. But even then, it was unclear what it was or how far it had gone. This is what everyone has been trying to understand.
From the edge of the tunnel shaft, it was evident that the structure itself was substantial. Above, the remains of a ladder hung over the edge of the opening. In the center of the round pit, a central post looked like the center of a spiral staircase. The pit extended further than we could see, especially in the dim light of our headlights.
Video released by the IDF from inside the shaft showed what we couldn’t see from the top of the opening. The video shows a spiral staircase descending into a concrete tunnel. The IDF said the tunnel shaft extends downward approximately 10 meters and the tunnel has a length of 55 meters. At its end there is a metal door with a small window.
“We need to demolish the underground facilities we found,” said IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari. “I think the Hamas leadership is under great pressure because we found this facility and now we are going 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 beneath the hospital. It does not establish beyond doubt that there is a command center beneath Gaza’s largest hospital, but it is clear that there is a tunnel beneath it. Seeing what connects to that tunnel is absolutely critical.
For Israel, the stakes could not be higher. Israel has publicly claimed for weeks, if not years, that Hamas has built terrorist infrastructure beneath the hospital. The ability to continue the war in the face of growing international criticism depends largely on Israel being able to prove this point.
Hamas has repeatedly denied that a network of tunnels exists beneath the Shifa hospital. Health officials who spoke to CNN said the same thing, insisting it is just a medical center.
As is rarely the case in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this response is truly black and white. Or there are a series of underground tunnels under the hospital. Or there isn’t.