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He was the top U.N. official in Gaza. An Israeli TV interview cost him his post

Matthias Schmale, serving as director of operations in Gaza for UNRWA, speaks during a news conference in front of the agency's headquarters in Gaza City, in May.
Adel Hana
Matthias Schmale, serving as director of operations in Gaza for UNRWA, speaks during a news conference in front of the agency's headquarters in Gaza City, in May.

JERUSALEM — Matthias Schmale was the highest-ranking international representative based in the Gaza Strip before his tenure ended with a jolt.

During the 11-day conflict this May between Gaza militants and Israel, Israeli warplanes bombed the roads surrounding his United Nations relief agency headquarters, targeting alleged underground militant tunnels, and sending part of a car flying into the courtyard of the U.N. compound.

Then after the war, Schmale angered Gazans with an interview with Israeli TV in which he was perceived to be praising the "huge sophistication" and "precision" in Israel's strikes. His Palestinian employees protested outside the headquarters, and Hamas, the hard-line Islamist group that governs the territory, said its officers would no longer guarantee his safety. He left for Jerusalem at the beginning of June, never to return to Gaza.

Schmale, 59, is familiar with upheaval. The son of a Lutheran missionary from Germany, he spent his childhood in South Africa, where he witnessed the pivotal Soweto uprising against apartheid, before moving to Germany and seeing the Berlin Wall fall. His four years directing Gaza operations for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, brought him to the heart of yet another geopolitical conflict, navigating between sworn enemies.

Gaza's Hamas rulers, committed to armed conflict against Israel, are designated terrorists by Israel, the United States and the European Union. Israel and Egypt impose a tight blockade on the territory's 2 million inhabitants. Palestinians describe it as an open-air prison, with travel and exports curtailed, poverty and unemployment high, and humanitarian conditions dire. Following the May war, Israel has relaxed some restrictions on Gaza as it negotiates a long-term truce with Hamas.

Schmale had to communicate with both Hamas and Israel to ensure UNRWA could continue its mission providing food, schooling and health care to a large portion of Gaza's population who are descendants of Palestinian refugees from Israel's founding 1948 war.

Israel claims UNRWA's very mandate, which bestows refugee status to generations of Palestinians rather than resettling them, perpetuates Palestinians' aid dependence and their dream of returning to lands lost to Israel. Schmale says UNRWA must continue its services until Israelis and Palestinians resolve their conflict through a political solution that settles questions around refugees and the future of Gaza.

The Trump administration stopped funding the agency, President Biden restored it, but international donations to UNRWA are low as countries focus on other global hot spots.

Now UNRWA has a new Gaza director, and Schmale is heading to his next job coordinating U.N. humanitarian work in Nigeria. Hours before departing Jerusalem on Tuesday, Schmale sat down with NPR to discuss some of the sensitive issues he handled, from his controversial Israeli TV interview to the question of Hamas tunnels allegedly used to protect militants and move rockets around Gaza, to criticism of UNRWA's mission.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The remains of a building are seen after an Israeli airstrike destroyed it in Gaza City, May 22.
Khalil Hamra / AP
The remains of a building are seen after an Israeli airstrike destroyed it in Gaza City, May 22.

Do you regret what you said about the "precision" of Israeli strikes?

Yes and no. The controversial interview you are referring to on Israeli television happened a day after the war stopped. So I was tired, you know, I had given, I think, 70 interviews by then, and I wish I had put the points I was trying to make more clearly. I don't think the substance of what I said was wrong, but I should have articulated it more clearly.

What I had in mind was one image: ... There was one house leveled to the ground in a sea of houses. You can hardly put a millimeter between the houses. The remaining houses around this one that was bombed were more or less intact.

It's incredible how they could take down a house in a sea of houses with such precision. But in that house were 10 civilians, eight children and two women, including five children who went to one of our schools. So how could anyone think that I was justifying that by calling that a precise strike?

All three roads around your compound were bombed by Israel. Does that not mean militants may have been running tunnels under your U.N. compound?

We don't know that for sure.

One of our schools...less than half a kilometer from our compound, you can see it from our compounds very close, the [Israeli] military bombed, put two missiles into the courtyard of that school.

They destroyed a tunnel going underneath that school. And again, with precision. They struck exactly at one end of the tunnel and the other end of the tunnel. So they closed it off, basically. Very clear. They knew exactly what they were hitting.

Many people told me through my four years, there's tunnels everywhere and it's a safe assumption.

Whether there are tunnels under our main compound, I cannot say, you know, that's speculative at this point. But yes, why would they hit so close if there is not something there?

To many observers, Gaza appears to be constantly on the brink of disaster, and critics accuse UNRWA of maintaining this untenable status. Is that true?

One way of putting this would be, are we Band-Aids?

We educate, at the moment, 290,000 children. That is enormously gratifying. ... That just gives them a basis for a life and a chance for change.

We don't want to continue providing basic services that do not lead to a ... political solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]. It's that constant balance that one has to grapple with.

Children play at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, where many displaced Palestinian families sought refuge in Gaza City amid daily airstrikes and bombardment by Israeli forces, on May 19.
Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Children play at a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA, where many displaced Palestinian families sought refuge in Gaza City amid daily airstrikes and bombardment by Israeli forces, on May 19.

Some things are better in Gaza now than before the war. Israel has granted Palestinians more work permits and relaxed other restrictions. As a Gazan, one could come to the conclusion that violence gets results.

That's part of the sad reality, is that I think for the people of Gaza, lived experience is: crisis gets you attention.

Another thing that stayed with me is hearing people who I experienced as moderate, pragmatic Palestinians, say to me, "You know, we've never agreed on anything with Hamas. But on this particular situation, we agree that something had to be done," in terms of a response to what happened in Al-Aqsa Mosque, what's happening in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Sheikh Jarrah.

Post the May conflict, we should all be worried if moderate people start saying, we don't like Hamas, but on this one, we agree they're at least doing something. That should worry all of us and should lead to a rethinking in terms of: the solution has to be a proper political process.

Can you imagine Israel and Egypt lifting their blockade on Gaza while Hamas is still there?

That seems quite a remote possibility. As you know, [Israel and Egypt] both argue in security terms ... that it's the security situation and concerns don't allow for that.

Having said that, you know, I grew up in apartheid South Africa, and if as a 15-year-old, someone would have said to me, "The guy that most of the world thinks is a terrorist sitting in prison on Robben Island will one day walk out and become President Mandela," I would have said, "Get real."

I lived in Berlin when it was divided, and if six months before the wall came down, someone would have said, this wall would be gone within the next year, again, I'm sure I would have laughed and said, you know, come on.

Sometimes I said this to colleagues in Gaza, "Who am I? I have never lived under a blockade like you to really know what you're going through. But the one thing I can tell you is don't give up. You know, you never know."

What are you going to miss most about Gaza?

There is excellent food in Gaza and there are great fish restaurants indeed. The people, you know, I've met amazing people.

A 14-year-old kid has experienced four wars now, with all this psychological trauma. And yet you go to our schools and you find — you will think you're in school anywhere in the world. You know, passionate teachers, children eager to learn.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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