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Exploring a vast Hamas tunnel complex where hostages were reportedly held captive: Reporter's notebook

Aboard the shockingly loud Leopard APC, the Israeli army took us through the ruins of eastern Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip.

The military vehicle deposited us in a neighborhood that had been partially bulldozed. You could hear tank and machine gun fire in the distance. Beyond what has become a tank parking lot was the neighborhood, with every building severely damaged. A hole had been blown through one of the homes revealing an anteroom to a tunnel shaft. Inside the tunnel: a set of stairs, a landing, then another set of stairs. It was somewhere between 45 to 60 feet deep, the soldiers said.

PHOTO: The Israel Defense Forces took ABC News inside a Hamas tunnel complex where they say 20 hostages were held. (ABC News)
PHOTO: The Israel Defense Forces took ABC News inside a Hamas tunnel complex where they say 20 hostages were held. (ABC News)

The warren of tunnels beneath contained, said the Israel Defense Forces, something more sinister than they had found in the past -- a set of cells where hostages were kept.

Several flights of stairs cut down into the clay, leading us to a steel padlocked gate -- from there, the tunnel zigs and zags for dozens of yards. Each off-shoot is connected by a joint, many of which had been booby-trapped, that one has to crab walk to get through.

Israeli soldiers still guarded the unexplored tunnel off-shoots. Everything appears to be connected to something down there.

MORE: Israel-Gaza live updates: Death toll passes 25,000 in Gaza, health ministry says

The tunnels were suffocatingly hot and damp. The lack of oxygen makes even walking strenuous. Our camera instantly fogged up and the concrete walls and arches beaded sweat. There were bunches of wires attached to the walls, apparently connecting electricity, data and other wires into the deepest parts of the tunnels. Most of the tunnel was high enough to walk in with ease. After a straightaway of hundreds of yards, the tunnel jagged past a caved-in section where the IDF said Hamas tried to booby-trap the tunnel.

There were multiple tunnel off-shoots, with one of them leading us to a large room with a vaulted ceiling plastered white, walls colored with tiled walls and carpeted with artificial grass. The soldiers said they believed it was used to hold women and children hostages, showing us a child's drawing they said a 5-year-old hostage said they drew. Among the litter of bedding, first aid kits and diapers were empty tubes marked RPG and what appeared to be Hamas' logo.

PHOTO: The Israel Defense Forces took ABC News inside a Hamas tunnel complex where they say 20 hostages were held. (ABC News)
PHOTO: The Israel Defense Forces took ABC News inside a Hamas tunnel complex where they say 20 hostages were held. (ABC News)

Just beyond the common area was a kitchen. Beyond that, bathrooms and boilers for hot water. The room split into two tunnels (we really got a sense of why Israeli officials call it "the metro," with its bewildering number of turns and side tunnels, and the immense amount of investment that went into building it.)

To the left was another long tunnel, plastered white, that hooked right and revealed a row of what the IDF called hostage cells. They were fully tiled, white with a band of purple tiles and had bathrooms. They were about 12 feet long and 5 feet wide. A mattress or two was left on the floor. It's there the IDF says Hamas held several hostages.

PHOTO: The Israel Defense Forces took ABC News inside a Hamas tunnel complex where they say 20 hostages were held. (ABC News)
PHOTO: The Israel Defense Forces took ABC News inside a Hamas tunnel complex where they say 20 hostages were held. (ABC News)
PHOTO: The Israel Defense Forces took ABC News inside a Hamas tunnel complex where they say 20 hostages were held. (ABC News)
PHOTO: The Israel Defense Forces took ABC News inside a Hamas tunnel complex where they say 20 hostages were held. (ABC News)

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IDF Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said they found the DNA of hostages there and articles of clothing like bras and underwear.

The cells had cage-like doors that opened into the tunnel. It took 10 minutes to make our way all the way in, and as long to head back out. Hagari said there are still hundreds of unexplored shafts, including ones where hostages could be held barely a half mile from where we were.

I asked Hagari whether the apocalyptic destruction we saw above ground was necessary, and whether Israel wanted all Palestinians to suffer for Hamas' Oct. 7 terror attack on Israel.

"We do not see collective punishment," he said. "We seek only to rescue hostages and to take down Hamas. Kill the leadership team. Kill the industries of rockets and ruin the industries of rockets ... So we do the necessary thing in order to minimize the collateral damage."

MORE: 'The situation is catastrophic': Gaza's largest functioning hospital operating at 300% capacity

More than 25,000 people have been killed in Gaza and over 62,000 others injured, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry. In Israel, at least 1,200 people have been killed, mostly civilians, and 6,900 others injured, according to the Israeli prime minister's office. Israeli officials say 532 IDF soldiers have been killed, including 195 since the ground operations in Gaza began.

The IDF has said it is only targeting Hamas and other militants in Gaza and alleges that Hamas deliberately shelters behind civilians, which the group denies.

I asked Hagari about Israeli Cabinet ministers like Itamar Ben Gvir calling for the reoccupation of Gaza. He said Israel's goal is "to dismantle Hamas so it cannot be the sovereign in Gaza and there cannot be another 10/7 ... There is no mission of controlling the population, no mission of shoving the population to another country."

Exploring a vast Hamas tunnel complex where hostages were reportedly held captive: Reporter's notebook originally appeared on abcnews.go.com