Matthias Schmale, the Gaza director of the controversial United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians (UNRWA), had to resign after threats against him and flee the Gaza Strip – because he had said in an interview that the Israeli airstrikes on Hamas were “very precise”.
As a result, Hamas declared Schmale and his deputy David de Bold “undesirable persons.” Already in 2018, when there was a conflict over the salaries of UNRWA employees, Schmale and his staff had to temporarily flee Gaza out of fear for their safety.
What does Hamas’ reign of terror mean for the functioning of UNRWA? Stefan Frank spoke about this for Mena-Watch with David Bedein, director of the Bedein Center for Near East Policy Research, which has been conducting research on UNRWA since 1987in order to inform the public.
Mena-Watch (MW): Until Schmale’s flight from Gaza, had there been anything in his tenure that could have given the observer an indication that he might one day fall into displeasure with Hamas – or did it come out of the blue?
David Bedein (DB): That came completely out of the blue. Every person has a moment of integrity, no matter who they work with. Schmale had this moment of integrity in May when he was asked on television: What about the Israeli counterattacks? He replied: They are precise, as precise as possible.
This contradicted the propaganda that Israel bombed civilians indiscriminately. This moment of integrity got him into trouble.
MW: And had he been in any way different from his predecessors at the head of UNRWA’s administration up to that moment?
DB: I have been involved with UNRWA for 33 years. There is no difference between Schmale and any other.
The actual takeover of UNRWA by terrorists occurred in 1988. This coincided with the beginning of the first intifada. The intifada essentially began in the refugee camps. And the people who ran UNRWA were all suddenly replaced by Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) terrorists.
Instead of following social criteria in the selection of UNRWA personnel, the only criterion became whether or not they obeyed the guidelines of the PLO – and later Hamas. Since 1988, UNRWA has essentially acted in accordance with the revolutionary guidelines of the PLO. This applies to all UNRWA operations, whether in Gaza, the West Bank or Jerusalem.
MW: What’s behind it? Do the local employees make this policy or is it decided centrally by the UN in New York? Or is it perhaps the result of external pressure?
DB: It’s much easier. Since 1988, the PLO has ruled over the Arab population in Judea and Samaria, Gaza and Jerusalem. It is a totalitarian rule, a dictatorship, and everyone bows to it, especially UN agencies.
MW: When you talk about Schmale’s “moment of integrity,” what exactly do you mean by that? Was it an awakening of conscience, a moment of moral clarity, or rather a mishap, a kind of slip of the tongue?
DB: He had a moment of honesty. He simply said that he did not see any exaggerated attacks and that Israel was making great efforts to avoid civilian casualties. This is not the statement that the PLO and Hamas want to hear. They spread the idea that Israel is an entity that wants to commit war crimes and murders.
Schmale certainly had no intention of being a hero, someone who showed courage – he simply named the facts. It was not at all clear to him at that moment that he was making a momentous statement.
MW: And after Schmale told the truth, UNRWA Deputy President Lenny Stenseth had to apologize for Schmale’s statement and patch things up with Hamas.
Stenseth even thanked Hamas for its “positive attitude” and its “desire to continue cooperation by continuing the agency’s work in the Gaza Strip.” She now manages UNRWA’s operations in Gaza.
DB: Yes. Everyone who works in this system is afraid of being killed because there are so many firearms in Gaza and Judea and Samaria. And yet Western countries continue to send money.
Austria almost quadrupled its payments to UNRWA last year, to eight million US dollars. I suspect that a large part of this money is cash, which cannot be traced. No one knows whether it will end up in the hands of organized crime or terrorists.
MW: Do you know anything about the channels through which UNRWA funds flow?
DB: No one gets a clear answer to this question from UNRWA, no one. And hardly anyone asks this question at all. I don’t know a single diplomat who has ever asked how the money is turned into salaries and how it gets to the terrorists. Not a single diplomat asks this question.
MW: Although it is obvious. Whenever money is sent from outside to pay the salaries of teachers and nurses in an area ruled by an armed gang – be it ordinary criminal rackets, so-called war lords, or a terrorist organization…
DB: You are the first journalist in years to use the term “terrorist organization” to describe the entity that governs the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA. You are absolutely right. Oops – everyone had forgotten that!
There is a book called “Double Vision” from 1984. It tells of the intimidation of those reporters in Lebanon who reported on how terror took over Lebanon in the 1980s. The author was the head of the press department of the Israeli government. The book describes very openly the death threats against diplomats and journalists.
Nowadays there are people who want to be threatened, and they too are diplomats and journalists.
MW: So it’s pretty clear that an armed gang that dictates its rules – in Gaza, for example – also decides who gets the well-paid jobs provided by UNRWA. So UNRWA’s teachers, doctors and nurses wouldn’t have their jobs if they didn’t submit to Hamas or maybe even be members of Hamas.
DB: Or the PLO. The PLO and Hamas use a good cop bad cop tactic. They work together with other terrorist organizations in a coalition. In the Palestinian textbooks used by UNRWA, there is a single theme: war against the Jews. This topic dominates the entire school system.
Show me a diplomat denouncing this, and I’ll invite him to dinner at the King David Hotel – for a week.
MW: Do you have any hope that the current state of affairs can be changed? Are there any promising efforts to abolish UNRWA?
DB: UNRWA cannot be abolished without the consent of the United Nations General Assembly. However, UNRWA can be improved. That is why we launched the UNRWA Reform Initiative.
MW: Among other things, you call for transparency in UNRWA funds. You demand that the descendants of the refugees of the 1948 war be given a new permanent home. You call for “peace education” in UNRWA schools instead of calls for the murder of Jews, glorification of “martyr” death, and paramilitary training. And you are calling for the dismissal of all UNRWA staff associated with Hamas. How realistic is it that this will be implemented?
DB: Our agency had six meetings with the senior staff of the UN Secretary-General António Guterres – and they were very encouraging for us. UNRWA operates on its own without caring about United Nations guidelines. The UN does not trust UNRWA. The UN does not receive any information or reports from UNRWA, about which it is very concerned. The UN is very supportive of our work.
MW: That’s actually encouraging.
DB: UNRWA does what it wants. We presented UNRWA’s report on education to the UN Secretary-General and received a royal reception. As I said, we had six meetings. So the UN is interested.
A wind of hope also came from the United States two weeks ago when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken released an unprecedented list of requirements that UNRWA must meet. This is a very positive development and, I may say, unexpected. So the Biden administration surprises us in a positive way by saying that UNRWA won’t get any money unless it gets its accounting in order. This is something new.