On May 16, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace International Migration Policy Program hosted a briefing on the humanitarian consequences of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The featured speaker was Mr. Werner Kaspar, Head of Operations for the Middle East and North Africa for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), based in Geneva. Kathleen Newland, co-director for the International Migration Policy Program, acted as moderator. Mr. Kaspar recently completed a mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories and spoke about ICRC's heightened efforts to provide emergency medical care and other assistance to civilians affected by the conflict, and to promote the observance of basic principles of international humanitarian law within the context of the current intifada (Palestinian uprising).

Kathleen Newland introduced the speaker and the topic of discussion. She noted that in Washington, D.C., the emphasis is more on the politics of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and less on the terrible human cost. She welcomed Mr. Kaspar, and invited him to give a description of the situation on the ground after his recent mission to the area.

Kaspar then described the scope of his position as Head of Operations for the Middle East and North Africa. In the region, ICRC has 9 delegations, 100 expatriates, and 600 locals on staff from Iran to Mauritania.

The new intifada brought many changes and challenges into ICRC's mission in Israel and the Palestinian territories. A year ago, ICRC's priority was dissemination of information about international humanitarian law. ICRC ran a sophisticated program which included classes in humanitarian law in schools and universities. They conducted a study called "People on War" in both societies to see what people knew about humanitarian law and found a high level of acceptance of violence in both societies. Also, in the last year, as in the last 30 years, ICRC regularly reminded the Israeli authorities that building Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is illegal under international law and creates more areas of tension. The Israeli authorities have always listened but continued settlement construction. A year ago, there were over 3000 Palestinian prisoners held in jails in Israel proper (within the pre-1967 borders), and ICRC conducted a program of family visits with 85,000 visits a year. In the territories, the Palestinian Authority held over 1000 detainees, and ICRC worked to help them and assist the emerging Palestinian political entity to act in accordance with humanitarian principles of respect for prisoners. ICRC also promoted cooperation between the Palestinian Red Crescent and the Israeli Magen David Adom (the Red Shield of David). Last year, ICRC was phasing out its medical emergency service program in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which included 44 ambulances and a staff ICRC trained for five years, successfully working toward the goal of self-sufficiency. The Palestinian Red Crescent was known and used for its high quality of medical services. Work with Magen David Adom focused on assisting inquiries related to World War II and how to incorporate the organization into the international federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, such as solving the issue concerning Magen David Adom's emblem.

However, in September 2000, the peace negotiations broke down and the new intifada began. Now ICRC is back to basics. The first response was to redeploy its delegates from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Gaza to staff additional offices in Jenin, Nablus, Tulkarm, Qalqilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho, and Khan Younis (in the Gaza Strip). ICRC doubled its expatriate staff from 23 to 44. The primary task is now daily monitoring of events on the ground, such as ensuring that ambulances are allowed through checkpoints and over roads and that the wounded are evacuated. ICRC reports its observations to the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

In light of the new intifada, ICRC has different priorities than during the peace process. First, ICRC wants to continue visits to detainees, whose numbers have increased. Given the current tense atmosphere, detainees are increasingly at risk of abuse. The family visit program with Palestinian prisoners detained in Israel broke down for seven months, due to more checkpoints, increasing difficulty passing through checkpoints, sand walls across roads, and new criteria for eligibility to visit prisoners. Two weeks ago, a family visitation program was re-implemented and, despite problems, is working.

Unfortunately, with the commencement of the intifada, ICRC's programs to educate people about humanitarian law slowed down. Now, the program consists mostly of explaining international rules to people on the ground. ICRC explains to Israeli soldiers that they must allow ambulances to pass through checkpoints and explains to Palestinian youths that they must not throw stones or shoot at Israeli ambulances. The operation has become operational rather than theoretical.

Cooperation between the Red Crescent society and Magen David Adom has changed. Phasing out assistance to the Red Crescent had to be stopped and aid increased. With the beginning of the intifada, the Red Crescent suddenly needed more ambulances and staff. Instead of 44 ambulances, they now operate 85. The Palestinian economy has suffered to the point where Palestinians cannot afford to pay for the necessary emergency medical services, so the ICRC has taken over all emergency medical services. The cost for providing those services is over $2 million, including maintenance costs for ambulances and salary for staff. ICRC has worked to ensure that both sides respect the immunity of ambulances and feels that respect has improved somewhat.

ICRC has encouraged operational contact between the Israeli Magen David Adom and the Palestinian Red Crescent. Last December, the two presidents of the organizations met in Geneva and agreed to write to their respective authorities to demand that they respect medical missions; Magen David Adom did so, and the Red Crescent president supports the decision although his organization has not yet written a letter to the Palestinian Authority. ICRC, Magen David Adom, and the Red Crescent published an advertisement in Hebrew, Arabic, and English papers on May 8 advertising their cooperation.

For the first time in the Palestinian territories, ICRC has implemented an assistance program. It was the first time because ICRC observes that the Palestinians are not starving, although they are deeply impoverished. Also, the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) provides for Palestinian refugees, and it has recently sought additional funding to increase its aid to other Palestinian civilians. However, the deterioration of the economy and Israeli-imposed closures in the territories have had a severe impact on some villages. ICRC identified 60 of the most vulnerable villages, which are usually near Israeli settlements, and has provided very basic assistance, including hygiene kits, blankets, and tea and sugar. This aid does not begin to fully meet their needs, but it gives ICRC experience on the ground which they use to explain the level of need to the Israeli authorities. There have been challenges to distributing aid, including the closure of the Allenby Bridge, a key crossing between Jordan and the territories. The bridge was closed despite Israeli policy stating that humanitarian aid would have free access to the territories. After high-level intervention, the bridge was opened to ICRC again.

Kaspar raised protection issues with the Israeli Minister of Defense (Benjamin Eleazar) and other Israeli leaders and raised security problems on the Palestinian side with Mohammed Dahlan, Marwan Barghouthi, and other leaders of the Palestinian Authority. With Israeli leaders, Kaspar focused on the humanitarian consequences of Israeli settlement expansion. He emphasized that ICRC stands for international humanitarian law and has insisted over the past 30 years that Israeli settlements in the territories are illegal and contrary to the behavior required of occupying powers in the Geneva Convention. Increasing number and size of settlements means increasing the points of tension. Also, he drew attention to the number of Palestinian civilians, especially children, shot by Israeli forces. On the Palestinian side, he emphasized that although Israeli settlements are illegal, their residents are civilians and under the protection of international law. He also urged Palestinians to find ways to bar children from hot spots. Kaspar mentioned the example of the Palestinian mayor of Nablus who sent a letter with the electricity bill to all families in Nablus requesting that they do not allow their children to go to areas with frequent clashes.

Another important issue is the status of the Palestinian territories. There is an ongoing international debate as to whether or not the territories are "occupied," especially since some land was turned over to Palestinian sovereignty prior to the new intifada. ICRC states that the territories are occupied, and the occupying power has a responsibility to administer the territories in a way that allows for basically normal life. It is true that Israel has security concerns, but Israel should not use the current situation to deny its responsibilities toward the Palestinian people in the occupied territories. Kaspar emphasized that the international community also has responsibility to enforce international humanitarian law.


  • Kathleen Newland asked about other Palestinian civil society organizations and their cooperation with ICRC. Kaspar responded that the Red Crescent has many programs, such as primary health care, in addition to its emergency medical functions. ICRC is the lead agency for Red Cross-Red Crescent work; there are 29 national societies working in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, now including some societies from Persian Gulf countries. There are many other Palestinian organizations working in the territories with whom ICRC does not work. ICRC does an ongoing evaluation to assess where its work is most useful and to avoid duplication.

  • Michael Hoffman from the American Red Cross mentioned that his organization provided ambulances and medical supplied to the Red Crescent. They also have a close relationship with Magen David Adom and has provided aid to them and worked with them to promote international law.

  • Kerry Boyd from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace asked about the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem. Kaspar said that Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem benefit from Israeli services and social benefits. However, it is not easy for the Red Crescent to operate in the area. It is one of the points on the agenda for cooperation between the Red Crescent and Magen David Adom. For example, if a Palestinian in the West Bank is injured and needs to go to a hospital in East Jerusalem, there are major obstacles. The West Bank Palestinian ambulances do not have the necessary licenses to drive in Israel, so the ambulance cannot cross the checkpoint into Jerusalem. Therefore, a back-to-back transfer is necessary, meaning that the West Bank ambulances stops at the checkpoint and evacuates the injured person to a Jerusalem ambulance on the other side of the checkpoint. However, that requires coordination, and a Jerusalem ambulance is not always at the checkpoint when needed, so the wounded person waits. East Jerusalem is a very complicated issue at the center of what ICRC is trying to clarify and improve.

  • A representative from Human Rights Watch asked about the differences in humanitarian protection between the first months of the intifada and today. Kaspar responded that at the beginning, the type of violence was easy to identify. It was confined mostly to hotspots, such as the borders between zones of Palestinian and Israeli control and the entrances to major Palestinian towns. Now, the situation is blurry. There is a higher degree of violence. The Israeli army has gone into Area A (areas under Palestinian control according to the peace process). It raises the question, is this occupation or conflict? The definition is important. Israel defines the situation as "conflict short of war," which means that any Palestinian civilian suspected of attempting to kill an Israeli is a combatant and can be killed at any time. This can lead to the interpretation that Israeli soldiers may kill any Palestinian at any time, since any Palestinian may be suspected of threatening an Israeli. Kaspar noted that from the Palestinian perspective, if Palestinians are truly combatants, then they have the right to shoot at Israelis and their prisoners are prisoners of war, which is not what Israel wants. The concept of "conflict short of war" does not exist in humanitarian law. ICRC opposes this definition and calls for a clearer definition in line with international law. It says that every Palestinian is a civilian and has the right to protection, unless he or she commits an act of violence. However, if Israel suspects a Palestinian of committing an act of violence, the Palestinian is still a civilian. The Palestinian police are also civilians. Armed Israeli settlers are civilians. ICRC wants clear definitions and rules of engagement and inquiries when an incident occurs.

  • Immigration attorney Denise Sabaglt asked if Israel gives feedback after ICRC submits a report of an incident. Does Israel conduct an inquiry and inform ICRC of results? Kaspar said that ICRC takes a confidential approach toward government authorities, so it does not reveal the results of inquiries. ICRC has a long-standing, good relationship with Israeli authorities, but that does not mean they receive satisfactory answers. The important thing to ICRC is to know that improvements are made.

  • Patricia Weiss Fagron from Georgetown University asked about the operational definition of confidentiality. If ICRC staff see abuse at a checkpoint or elsewhere, do they say anything at that time or simply report the incident and ask both sides for help? Kaspar replied that ICRC intervenes on the spot when it can, such as assisting a pregnant woman ready to give to birth in an ambulance at a checkpoint to reach a hospital. Israel has provided officers ICRC can call anytime and ask them to intervene. ICRC tries to gather information on incidents. Sometimes they conduct active inquiries on specific cases, and other times people bring information to ICRC. They choose cases carefully, focusing on those that are well-documented and illustrate principles of international law. They submit a report to the authorities, but it is up to the authorities to decide what to do next. ICRC does not exchange information with other organizations; its emphasis is on working with the authorities.

  • A representative from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society asked about ICRC efforts to assist four Israelis held in Lebanon by Hizbollah. Kaspar said the Israelis were abducted in October, 2000. ICRC's delegation in Beirut immediately requested access to the prisoners, but Hizbollah refused access and refused to provide any information about their welfare. Israel is carrying out intense negotiations to obtain their freedom, but it is frustrating because no one has access to the prisoners. Kaspar was not hopeful for a solution until Hizbollah and Israel reach an agreement. Activists in the Middle East often employ the logic of reciprocity and exchange rather than complying with international law. In exchange for the Israeli prisoners, Hizbollah demands the liberation of certain detainees in Israel. Also, Israel has refused ICRC access to two Lebanese detainees who are being held like hostages for exchange for missing Israelis. International law requires that ICRC have access to them and that they be liberated. Israel has told ICRC that the Lebanese detainees are alive and well-treated, although due to lack of access there is no guarantee of the latter. Sixteen other Lebanese detainees were sentenced to prison in Israel; Israel should have returned them to Lebanon to complete their sentences after it withdrew from southern Lebanon. Israel believes that in the Middle East it knows best how to deal with these situations. ICRC does not link the Hizbollah and Israeli detainees, but Hizbollah has linked the two. Kaspar emphasized that ICRC is not involved in negotiations; it is a facilitator, not a mediator.

  • Anna Mary Portz of the U.S. Office for Refugee Resettlement asked about women in conflict. Kaspar answered that women in war is a key issue for ICRC. They are working to raise awareness of women's issues in conflict situations, although they do not have a specific program in the Palestinian territories other than raising awareness. In Algeria, they have sponsored a program with the Red Crescent and the Minister of Social Affairs to provide psychological treatment for women and children traumatized by violence. Newland added that the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children is sending a delegation to the Palestinian territories in August.

  • An audience member asked about the confidential mode of operation by ICRC and the issue of deploying a protection force in the occupied territories, specifically an unarmed monitoring force such as the Temporary International Presence (TIP) in Hebron. TIP is a team of international monitors who observe events in Hebron to report to authorities, but they do not make public reports. Kaspar noted that TIP has a pro-peace mandate to support confidence-building measures under the Oslo peace process, and it was not set up to operate in the current violent situation. Many organization have recommended an increase of observers, but Kaspar said he cannot say if it would help or hurt the situation; ICRC abstains from making a decision on that issue. Israel opposes an increase in observers, and the Palestinians want it very badly. The ICRC focuses on trying to convince the actors on the ground to respect international humanitarian law.

  • Another question regarded Palestinian prisoners in Palestinian Authority jails. The ICRC has a memorandum of understanding with the Palestinian Authority. Cooperation between ICRC and the Authority is good except for the Palestinian security forces in Gaza.

  • Newland asked about Israel's position on stone throwers. Are stones considered deadly weapons that justify retaliation with lethal force? Kaspar explained that the debate on stone throwers was more intense at the beginning of the intifada. Israel's position has been that stones can endanger a soldier's life, and there is a standing order that a soldier may shoot if he or she believes his or her life is in danger. So, it is a complicated situation. There needs to be a discussion on the range of means of oppression. What is a disproportionate use of force?

  • Newland asked if Israel accepts ICRC's interpretation of the Palestinian territories as occupied? Kaspar said they do not. Israel says the Fourth Geneva Convention is not applicable to the territories, but the authorities say they are willing to apply the humanitarian provisions of the Convention to the residents of the West Bank and Gaza.

  • Kerry Boyd asked about humanitarian protection when facing missiles and tank fire. The ICRC's basic position is that civilians are protected, so shelling within the occupied territories or on settlements and other areas is illegal under international humanitarian law.

  • Darla Silva from the Women's Commission asked about the characteristics of detainees, such as age and gender, and are they tried? Kaspar said the vast majority are male adults. There are minors in detention, and in the past there was a debate over whether or not minors should be held with adults, although now there are agreements to keep them separate. There is also an issue of whether detainees are held for security or common law violations, as Israel defines them. Shooting someone can be a political and security act or a criminal act (under common law). ICRC considers all detained Palestinians as protected civilians, and it is a violation of humanitarian law for Israel to hold them on Israeli territory. The length of detention varies from a few months to life.

  • Mark Hetfield, from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, commented that under Israeli law people from enemy states must be detained. This creates a problem for asylum seekers from states Israel considers enemies, such as Syria. UNHCR has found a number of such cases that have valid asylum claims. While the asylum seekers are still detained, some of the them have been moved from prisons to more comfortable detention on kibbutzim. Kaspar responded that while this issue is a bit out of the scope of ICRC's mandate, it is a very important issue to them. They need access to the prisoners, since they are from countries with no diplomatic representation in Israel to assist them. ICRC visited Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, and other asylum seekers. UNHCR has difficulty finding a solution.

Summary by Kerry Boyd, Junior Fellow in the International Migration Policy Program.