UNRWA Gaza chief apologizes for saying IDF strikes ‘precise’ and ‘sophisticated’

Matthias Schmale says he in no way meant to exonerate Israel for civilian deaths, amid condemnation from Hamas and Palestinian groups for comments in an interview with Israeli TV

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. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
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. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The head of the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza apologized on Tuesday for comments he made to Israeli TV in which he said that IDF strikes on the Strip appeared to be “precise” and “sophisticated.”

UNRWA Gaza director Matthias Schmale’s interview on Sunday with Channel 12 prompted outrage from the Hamas terror group that rules Gaza and other Palestinian organizations, which accused him of exonerating Israel for the death of civilians in the 11 days of fighting that ended with a ceasefire on Friday.

In the interview, Schmale was asked about the IDF’s assertation that its military strikes were very precise. He responded: “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.”

He also said that there were not currently any shortages of food, medicine or water in Gaza as Israel had reopened the crossings.

In the interview, Schmale said that despite their accuracy, the strikes in the latest conflict were much more “vicious” than in the 2014 war.

“So yes they did not hit, with some exceptions, civilian targets, but the viciousness and ferocity of the strikes was heavily felt,” he said, adding that more than 60 children were killed, including 19 who went to an UNRWA school.

“So the precision was there, but there was an unacceptable and unbearable loss of life on the civilian side,” he said.

Despite his clarification, the remarks drew outrage from Palestinians.

Hamas said in a statement that his “comments are a complete distortion in favor 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.”

It called on UNRWA to investigate him and issue an apology.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza said at least 243 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children and teens, with 1,910 people wounded. It does not differentiate between terror group members and civilians. The Israeli military maintained that it killed some 225 terrorist operatives and that the Palestinian death toll was in fact considerably higher than was reported. It also said some of the civilian fatalities were caused by Hamas rockets falling short and landing in the Strip.

Palestinians ride past the Al-Shuruq building, destroyed by an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City on May 21, 2021, after a ceasefire has been agreed between Israel and Hamas. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Thirteen people were killed in Israel, all but one of them civilians, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl. Some 357 people in Israel were wounded. Terror groups in Gaza fired more than 4,300 rockets at Israel during the fighting.

Other Palestinian groups also protested Schmale’s comments.

In a joint statement on Tuesday, several Palestinian rights groups said the remarks “completely ignored the crimes committed during the latest Israeli offensive against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip.”

They accused Schmale of “indirectly praising the precision and sophistication of the Israeli army, when Israel is in fact constantly committing war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Palestinian people.”

Later Tuesday, Schmale issued an apology.

“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 tweeted.

“There is no justification whatsoever for killing civilians. Any civilian killed is one too many. It is simply unbearable that so many innocent people have paid with their lives,” he said, adding that “military precision and sophistication are never a justification for war.”

“Many people were killed or have been severely injured by direct strikes or collateral damage from strikes. In a place as densely populated as Gaza, any strike will have huge damaging effects on people and buildings,” he said.

Israeli military officials acknowledge that many Palestinian civilian casualties were indeed caused — directly or indirectly — by Israeli bombs. In one case, in which at least 10 people including eight children were killed in the Shati refugee camp, the IDF believes a missile strike on an underground bunker caused the ground above to give way, collapsing the homes of at least two families.

The military describes such civilian casualties as being the unfortunate result of Hamas’s strategy of intentionally operating within densely populated areas to use the residents as civilian shields. Human rights groups, however, regularly accuse Israel of using disproportionate force in such situations.

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