UNRWA Gaza Director Departs the Strip After Backlash for Saying Israel Did Not Target Civilians in Strikes Against Hamas
The Gaza director of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees on Wednesday departed the Strip and will be temporarily replaced, after he told Israeli media that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had engaged in “precise” targeting and had not deliberately attacked civilians during last month’s Operation Guardian of the Walls, prompting massive protests from UN employees and condemnation from Gaza authorities.
Matthias Schmale, head of Gaza operations at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), had told Israel’s Channel 12 on May 22 that he “would not dispute” the IDF’s claim that airstrikes during Guardian of the Walls were “very precise.”
“I’m not a military expert but I would not dispute that,” Schmale said. “I also have the impression that there is a huge sophistication in the way the Israeli military strikes struck, over the last eleven days, so that’s not my issue.”
“My issue is another one. I’ve had many colleagues describe to me, that they feel that in comparison to the 2014 war, this time, the strikes felt much more vicious, in terms of their impact. So yes, they didn’t hit, with some exceptions, civilian targets — but the viciousness, ferocity of the strikes was heavily felt,” Schmale contended.
The following Tuesday, in a series of tweets, the UNRWA official expressed regret for the remarks, which he said “offended & hurt those who had family members & friends killed & injured during the war that has just ended.”
“I express my utmost respect & solidarity with my UNRWA colleagues & their families & friends who suffered immense pain & loss,” he continued. “There is no justification whatsoever for killing civilians. Any civilian killed is one too many. It is simply unbearable that so many innocent people have paid with their lives … Military precision and sophistication are never a justification for war.”
UNRWA is the biggest employer in the Gaza Strip, and UPI reported Wednesday that agency employees in the enclave took to the streets outside UNRWA headquarters, demanding Schmale be removed.
In photos of the protests, signs can be seen with a hashtag telling Schmale to “go out” and reading “Are you here to relief [sic] refugees or urge killing them!” and “ONE WHO justifying [sic] a crime is an accomplice [sic]!!!”
Quds News Network tweeted that the protesters numbered in the thousands and that they were outraged at Schmale for what they considered “whitewashing the Israeli crimes and claiming they didn’t target civilians.”
Thousands of Palestinian UN employees and citizens in the #Gaza Strip demonstrated against the director of operations for UNRWA in the besieged enclave, Matthias Schmale, for whitewashing the Israeli crimes and claiming they didn't target civilians. pic.twitter.com/mqkuK7T76x
— Quds News Network (@QudsNen) May 31, 2021
Reuters reported Wednesday that Sami Mshasha, UNRWA’s spokesman in Jerusalem, said that Schmale and his deputy had been “called in for consultation and discussion at the Jerusalem headquarters over the latest developments in Gaza.”
An anonymous official added that UNRWA’s Deputy Commissioner-General Leni Stenseth will temporarily replace Schmale.
Hamas called Schmale “a spokesman for the Israeli military,” the news agency said.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian news agency Safa reported that Schmale and his deputy had been expelled from the Strip and declared persona non grata, which The Algemeiner could not immediately confirm.
The Follow-Up Committee of the National and Islamic Forces in Gaza said in a press statement that Schmale and his deputy “were a major cause of the suffering of thousands of Palestinian refugees and UNRWA employees in the Gaza Strip,” Safa claimed.
It said the committee demanded that UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini appoint a new Gaza director and deputy director.
An Algemeiner request for further information from UNRWA was not immediately returned.