Australia/Israel Review

How Hamas took UNRWA hostage

Jul 1, 2021 | Alexander H. Joffe, Asaf Romirowsky

The exiled UNRWA head in Gaza Matthias Schmale (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The exiled UNRWA head in Gaza Matthias Schmale (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Truth is a rare commodity when it comes to international organisations, all the more so when it comes to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the internationally funded welfare organisation for Palestinians. For UNRWA employees, truth-telling can be a career killer, or worse.

Consider the case of Matthias Schmale, UNRWA’s Director of Operations for the Gaza Strip, who is now persona non grata and forbidden to return to Hamas-ruled Gaza. Schmale’s crime was telling Israel’s Channel 12 that Israeli attacks on Hamas installations were precise: “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” [Ed Note: He also said something similar on ABC Radio National on May 20]. Schmale also denied that there were shortages of food and medical supplies in Gaza.

Despite his also saying that “So yes they did not hit, with some exceptions, civilian targets, but the viciousness and ferocity of the strikes was heavily felt,” Schmale’s remarks produced outrage among Palestinian factions, including Hamas, which stated his “comments are a complete distortion in favour of the Zionists including an attempt to exonerate the Occupation of the murder of 254 Palestinians, more than 40% of them children, women and the elderly.” 

Other Palestinian factions quickly argued that Schmale was “a major reason for the suffering of thousands of Palestinian refugees and UNRWA employees in the Gaza Strip.”

Of course, Schmale apologised via Twitter: “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…”

UNRWA superiors then recalled Schmale and his deputy to Jerusalem for “consultations”. UNRWA’s Deputy Commissioner Leni Stenseth quickly took over as temporary head of operations in Gaza. Her first move was to meet with Hamas, where she “thanked the head of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Al-Sinwar, for his positivity and desire to continue cooperation.” She also added that Schmale’s comments “cannot be defended.”

Previous episodes of truth-telling about UNRWA have produced similar results. Back in 2010, during a speech to an Arab American group, Andrew Whitley, the outgoing head of UNRWA’s New York office, stated the obvious, “We recognise, as I think most do, although it’s not a position that we publicly articulate, that the right of return is unlikely to be exercised to the territory of Israel to any significant or meaningful extent.”

UNRWA’s reaction was swift, saying, “UNRWA unequivocally distances itself from the statements made by the director of its office in New York, Andrew Whitley… These statements in no way reflect the policies or positions of the agency and are the personal views of Mr. Whitley.”

UNRWA’s code of silence can be explained in several ways. For one thing, too much money and too many careers are at stake – US$806 million (A$1.07 billion) in 2020 and some 30,000 employees. Its leaders, therefore, cannot in any way jeopardise the narrative of UNRWA’s indispensability to perpetual Palestinian “refugees” who are allegedly faced with unrelenting Israeli violence.

UNRWA’s role in promulgating the destructive myth of the “right of return” is a way to perpetuate Palestinian grievance and thus its own existence.

But at another level, UNRWA, including both its international and Palestinian employees, are simply hostages, partly of their own making. Like other totalitarian governments, the atmosphere of harassment and intimidation created by Hamas is real and palpable. Having seen Hamas throw its political opponents off buildings and drag their bodies through the streets is highly instructive. 

For this reason, Western media had little to say when observing Hamas operatives digging up water pipes for conversion into missiles or constructing miles of tunnels under Gaza. Antagonising the hosts with the truth can be self-destructive.

When access is everything, Westerners willingly make themselves hostages. And when the truth slips out, access is lost and apologies flow. Schmale’s accidental candour cost him a job, but fortunately not his life, but Leni Stenseth seems to have smoothed things over with Hamas. With US$150 million (A$200 million) of renewed US funding and yet another “emergency appeal” from UNRWA, the stakes are high, but truth seems unlikely to reappear soon.

Alexander H. Joffe is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior non-resident fellow at the BESA Centre at Bar Ilan University. Asaf Romirowsky is a fellow at the Middle East Forum, Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and a senior non-resident fellow at the BESA Centre. This piece originally appeared in The National Interest. © Middle East Forum (, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved. 

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