Protest, Threats Prompt U.N. Aid Agency to Recall Gaza Director to Jerusalem

The Gaza director for the U.N.'s agency for Palestinian refugees was recalled on Thursday due to death threats for his comments praising Israel's "huge sophistication" in carrying out precision strikes in the last month's round of Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Matthias Schmale, director of the Gaza arm of UNRWA, which provides essential health, education and other services, and Schmale's deputy were recalled to UNRWA's east Jerusalem headquarters for "consultations," the Associated Press reported.

Schmale was asked by Israel's Channel 12 TV last month about Israeli claims that airstrikes against Gaza during the 11-day conflict with Hamas were "very precise."

UNRWA said late Thursday that it was "seriously concerned" about the threats, including a "very large protest" outside its Gaza headquarters on Monday.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Matthias Schmale, UNRWA's director in Gaza, speaks during a news conference in front of the UNRWA headquarters in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Adel Hana/AP Photo

"I'm not a military expert but I would not dispute that," Schmale replied, adding that there was "huge sophistication" in how Israel struck targets. But he also said 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 on Gaza during the 11-day war, in which Hamas and other 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. Hamas has acknowledged the deaths of 80 militants. Twelve civilians, including two children, were killed in Israel, along with one soldier.

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 seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. Most of Gaza's population of 2 million are registered refugees. At the height of the war, some 70,000 Gazans sheltered in UNRWA schools.

Palestinian children participate in a psychological therapy session on the Mediterranean seashore in Gaza City on June 3, 2021. - The World Health Organization (WHO) Wednesday warned of "staggering health needs" in the occupied Palestinian Territories after last month's conflict between Israel and Islamist group Hamas. "WHO is scaling up its response to provide health aid for almost 200,000 people in need across the occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT)," which includes the West Bank, WHO's Eastern Mediterranean regional office said in a statement. MOHAMMED ABED / AFP/Getty Images