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UNRWA Gaza chief to take leave of absence amid uproar over Israeli airstrike remarks

Under pressure from Hamas despite issuing an apology, Matthias Schmale and his deputy were recalled to Jerusalem.

Matthias Schmale, Gaza director of UNRWA. Source: Twitter.
Matthias Schmale, Gaza director of UNRWA. Source: Twitter.

The Gaza director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) will be taking a “long leave of absence,” a spokesman for the agency said on Wednesday, according to Hebrew media reports. The announcement came after Matthias Schmale and his deputy were recalled to Jerusalem from the Gaza Strip amid Hamas anger at remarks made by Schmale during a May 22 Channel 12 interview.

Responding to a question about Israeli officials’ claims that Israel’s bombardments in Gaza during last month’s conflict with terror groups there were “very precise,” said Schmale, “I’m not a military expert but I would not dispute that.”

He said that he had the impression that there had been “huge sophistication” in the way the Israeli military conducted its strikes during the 11-day conflict and denied that there had been a lack of supplies in Gaza during the fighting.

Hamas was outraged, saying in a May 25 statement: “We remind Schmale that his primary job is to protect and aid Palestinian refugees and not to justify the Israeli aggression by killing their children and demolishing their homes.”

Schmale apologized the same day, tweeting: “Recent remarks I made on Israeli TV have offended & hurt those who had family members & friends killed & injured during the war that has just ended. I truly regret to have caused them pain, & reiterate following points I have made through countless interviews & tweets.”

He accused NGO UN Watch and the press on Wednesday of “blatantly manipulating” his comments in the Channel 12 interview.

The conflict in Gaza erupted on May 10 when Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem. The conflict was conducted virtually entirely in the air, as Hamas fired more than 4,000 rockets at Israeli population centers. Israel responded with targeted strikes meant to reduce the terror group’s infrastructure.

In April, the Biden administration announced it was restoring $150 million in funding to UNRWA, along with other economic aid to the Palestinians. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said U.S. assistance “supports Israeli-Palestinian understanding, security coordination and stability.”

The Trump administration had cut UNRWA’s funds in 2018, calling the agency an “irredeemably flawed operation,” and one that “has perpetuated and exacerbated the refugee crisis” it was meant to solve.

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