Matthias Schmale, Gaza director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is in hot water with Hamas.
Normally, I wouldn’t take pity on anyone associated with UNRWA, whose entire existence is based on a false premise: that millions of Palestinians who are not refugees by any measure get to be categorized as such. The semantic trick has kept the NGO in clover since 1949, with its coffers filled and replenished for decades by the international community, in spite of its outdated mandate.
But Schmale deserves at least some sympathy for the wrath that he aroused in Gaza this week. In an interview with Channel 12’s Arad Nir, he had the gall to tell the truth about Operation Guardian of the Walls and the situation in Gaza following last Friday’s ceasefire.
Nir had to try hard to hide his surprise. Bashing Israel in general, and in the wake of a war in particular, is a no-brainer for UNRWA representatives. Yet Schmale actually attempted to portray a complex reality, not merely launch into the kind of tirade that would have matched the footage of Gaza selected to illustrate the three-minute Zoom conversation.
Asked about the “humanitarian situation” in the Strip, Schmale said that though at least 1,000 residential units were destroyed, leaving “a couple of thousand people who don’t have a home they can go back to,” he considers the “biggest damage [to be] psychological,” because “building and rebuilding buildings is easy, and easy to plan for.”
Nir’s attempt to goad him into bemoaning the Gazans’ lack of basic needs also flopped.
“During the 11 days of war, we did not run out of food, water and supplies, [though] we would have if Kerem Shalom and the border would have stayed closed,” he stated. “So, from my point of view, there is no acute or serious shortage of medical supplies, food or water, as long as this now starts – continues – to come in.”
Nir then wanted to know Schmale’s opinion on “claims by Israeli officials that the IDF bombardments were very precise.” Shockingly, the bigwig replied: “I’m not a military expert, but I would not dispute that. I also have the impression that there is a huge sophistication in the way the Israeli military struck over the last 11 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, the ferocity, of the strikes was heavily felt.”
For example, he went on, “I’ve been to one office of a colleague where underneath her desk, there was big rock that was hurled through the… roof from the power of the explosion. And if she had sat at her desk, she would be dead by now. So, we hope there will never be a war again. You will know that more than 60 children were killed, 19 of whom went to UNRWA schools. So, I think the precision was there, but there was unacceptable and unbearable loss of life on the civilian side.”
In answer to Nir’s final question, about the extent to which Hamas is “shar[ing] the burden of reconstruction and rehabilitation,” Schmale was both honest and diplomatic. Or so he thought.
“You cannot work in a place like Gaza without coordinating with the local authorities; that’s true for any autocratic regime of this nature,” he said. “My hope is that as our plans become clear and resources come in, [Hamas] will give us – or allow us – the humanitarian space we need to get our work done.”
In other words, he was acknowledging that all the money that’s about to flow into the Strip will be handled and distributed by Hamas as it sees fit. Stripped of euphemism, Schmale’s statement indicated that cash earmarked by the United States and Europe for the restoration of Gaza will fall promptly into the hands of the terrorists. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (pun intended) to know what that means.
No wonder Hamas was furious. It has always used UNRWA as a collaborator and cover.
Indeed, the 19 dead kids whom Schmale mentioned as having attended his organization’s schools were undoubtedly killed in a strike aimed at missile-launchers purposely placed in and around those institutions – where students are taught the value of dying as martyrs in the pursuit of jihad against the Jews. For him to go off script, then, was a betrayal.
“We were shocked by the statements of Mr. Matthias Schmale… where he installed himself as a military analyst or spokesman for the occupation army,” Hamas, calling itself the “Islamic Resistance Movement,” declared, according to a tweet by its official mouthpiece, Al-Aqsa TV.
This announcement came a day after former IDF spokesman Lt. Col. (res.) Peter Lerner heaped praise on Schmale for his “candid interview.”
“Thank you for sharing your opinion that Israeli strikes were indeed precise, conducted with a huge sophistication, and huge ferociousness, but mostly not civilian targets,” he tweeted, adding, “Indeed, all loss of civilian life is tragic.”
Oops. Being lauded by Israel is not the way make friends and influence people in Hamastan.
“Allow me to underline that all loss of civilian life (on both sides) is not ‘tragic’ but unacceptable!” Schmale quickly retorted on Twitter. “And military precision & sophistication is no justification for war. Violence will not solve the underlying root causes, namely occupation and blockade.”
Sadly for Schmale, neither this little clarification nor subsequent ardent retractions on social media that he claims were not coerced wouldn’t and didn’t cut it with Hamas and its supporters, who are calling for him to be ousted.
It was, however, a good reminder of where UNRWA really stands.
It’s not for nothing that former US president Donald Trump ceased funding to the “flawed” body “in need of serious reform.” More aptly put, all UNRWA has been good for is perpetuation a “refugee crisis” of its own making.
Not to worry, though. The new administration in Washington recently announced a reversal of that decision. Yes, US President Joe Biden is restoring all aid to the Palestinians that Trump had cut off, including that which goes to UNRWA.
Bravo for scoring Hamas a financial windfall. The group’s got tunnels to renovate and rockets to refurbish, after all, ahead of the next assault. So much for Schmale’s “hope there will never be a war again.”
In the meantime, he would do well to focus on less lofty aspirations with greater personal and immediate concern: keeping his job and staying alive. Getting on the wrong side of Hamas is only wise when you’re on the right side of history and have a moral army to fight your battles.
UNRWA certainly isn’t the former. Nor does it believe in the latter.
Still, it’s hard not to feel somewhat sorry for Schmale. He’s probably engaged in self-flagellation for having lost the plot and initially failing to stay on message, especially when his Israeli interviewer gave him ample rope with which to hang the Jewish state out to dry.