NORTHERN GAZA — As Israel says it has almost destroyed Hamas’ brigades in northern Gaza, its forces are preparing to blow up some of the hundreds of tunnels it says belonged to the militant group — including one large enough to drive a car through.
NBC News was invited into Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday to take a look at what it says is the largest tunnel discovered so far.
The entrance is roughly a quarter-mile or a 10-minute walk from the destroyed Erez border crossing, which was breached by Hamas terrorists as they launched multipronged attacks on Israel on Oct. 7.
The IDF said the tunnel is roughly 2.5 miles long and extends all the way to Gaza City, the enclave’s largest city, although NBC News could not independently verify this claim.
As Israeli tanks occasionally rolled past, a vast wasteland of mangled steel, concrete blocks and dusty mounds of sand could be seen along the way. Workers on cherry-pickers were repairing the border barrier damaged during the Hamas incursion.
Fairly close by, gunshots and artillery explosions could be heard, as well as the buzz of Israeli drones overhead, although no Palestinians were seen during the roughly two-hour visit.
Reinforced with concrete, the tunnel has shafts in the floor that extend vertically down below to what the IDF said was a sprawling network of offshoots and other levels. Although Israel’s military said it believed it had cleared any Hamas presence from the tunnel, troops with weapons drawn stood guard inside.
The Israeli military announced the tunnel’s discovery earlier this month and released its own video from inside.
In the past, Israel has said that the tunnels have been used to conceal hostages, weapons and fighters who can travel across the Gaza Strip without exposing themselves to airstrikes and to ambush invading ground forces, and that they are also a hiding place for the group’s leaders.
But the country came under particular scrutiny last month over its allegations of Hamas command and control facilities in tunnels and bunkers under Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, the site of an Israeli onslaught that a number of rights groups said violated international protections for hospitals. At the time, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also said that he was “deeply disturbed by the horrible situation and dramatic loss of life” reported in Gaza’s medical facilities.
Although the IDF released videos and photographs showing tunnels and some weapons in the compound, several independent analyses of the evidence raised questions about whether Israel had compellingly proven its claims. Hamas called the allegations that it used the hospital to wage war “blatant lies,” and medical staff at the hospital also disputed the IDF's claims.
Asked Wednesday whether Israel was showing tunnels to the media to justify the huge numbers of Palestinian deaths, Maj. Doron Spielman, an IDF spokesman, said it was instead to justify that Israel has “no choice but to be in Gaza fighting Hamas.”
“Those civilians were condemned the moment that Hamas built those tunnels underneath them, because it was clear there was going to be a war here,” he said in an interview outside the tunnel’s entrance as nearby tanks kicked up dust from Gaza’s sandy earth.
The tunnel near the Israeli border enters the ground at a diagonal angle, which the IDF said enabled Hamas to drive vehicles through it.
Spielman said that Israel had known about the tunnel’s entrance, but not that it extended so close to its territory.
“These are the big questions Israel’s going to ask when this war is over,” he said.