UN agency withdraws Gaza director following Israel praise

UN agency for Palestinian refugees withdraws Gaza director following Israel praise
3 min read
UNRWA, which provides essential health, education and other services in the territory, said Gaza director Matthias Schmale and his deputy have been recalled to UNRWA’s headquarters in east Jerusalem for "consultations".
Gaza director Matthias Schmale and his deputy have been recalled to UNRWA’s headquarters in east Jerusalem. [Getty]

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees says it has recalled its Gaza director after remarks he made in which he appeared to praise Israel’s "huge sophistication" in carrying out precision strikes during last month’s Gaza war.

UNRWA, which provides essential health, education and other services in the territory, said late on Thursday that it was "seriously concerned" about threats he subsequently received and a “very large protest” outside its Gaza headquarters on Monday.

It said Gaza director Matthias Schmale and his deputy have been recalled to UNRWA's headquarters in east Jerusalem for "consultations". 

The agency cited media reports that "Palestinian factions" had declared Schmale and his deputy persona non grata in Gaza but said it received no formal notification to that effect.

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 TV last month, Schmale was asked about Israeli officials' assertions that airstrikes carried out during the 11-day bombardment of the besieged enclave were "very precise".

"I'm not a military expert but I would not dispute that," Schmale replied, adding that there was "huge sophistication" in how Israel struck alleged targets. He also added that colleagues told him the strikes were "much more vicious in their impact" than in the 2014 Gaza war.

Schmale later expressed regret over the remarks and said any civilian deaths were unacceptable.

"Many people were killed or have been severely injured by direct strikes or collateral damage from strikes," he tweeted. "In a place as densely populated as Gaza, any strike will have huge damaging effects on people and buildings."

His original remarks were widely circulated in Israeli media and online, where they were seized upon by Israel's supporters as an endorsement of its conduct and provoked outrage among Palestinians.

Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes relentlessly on Gaza last month, during which militant groups fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israel.

At least 254 people were killed in Gaza, including 67 children and 39 women, according to the Gaza health ministry.

UNRWA provides essential services to some 5.7 million refugees in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. They include Palestinians who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation and their descendants.

It provides food aid and other vital services in Gaza, which has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas won elections in the enclave in 2007. Most of Gaza's population of 2 million are registered refugees. At the height of Israeli violence, some 70,000 Gazans sheltered in UNRWA schools.