Peace, a fragile new life
By Barbara Geary
In September 1993, the world watched,
mesmerised, as Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin came together
in Washington, D.C., on the White House lawn. The signing of
an agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and
the State of Israel heralded a long-awaited promise of peace
in the Middle East. How has this peace affected the lives of
those living in the occupied and now autonomous territories?
What does it mean for the work of the Movement in the region?
After years of refusing to recognise each other’s existence,
the State of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization
(PLO) came to an agreement in Oslo, Norway, in September 1993.
The agreement, known as the Declaration of Principles (DoP),
was designed as the first step on the path to a comprehensive
peace settlement and a lasting, peaceful co-exist-ence between
Palestinians and Israelis.
In May 1994, the PLO and Israel signed another agreement
in Cairo and in the same month Israeli troops redeployed in
the Gaza Strip and withdrew from the town of Jericho in the
West Bank. A Palestinian Authority was installed in these
two locations and, for the first time in too many years, Palestinians
were given some control over their own affairs. In practical
terms, these changes are far-ranging and they have had a significant
impact on the work of the International Red Cross and Red
Crescent Movement in the region.
Peace on the ground
For some people, particularly those who have always lived
in peaceful places, the word “peace” can be misleading.
It can conjure up images of calm, smoothly running, prosperous
places; of people who are living and working in harmony with
one another. What is not immediately obvious is that “peace”
often means change and change is almost always a difficult
and painful affair. It is certainly the case for the Palestinians
“Peace,” says Dr Fathi Arafat, President of the
Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS)*, “is like a premature
baby in an incubator. It needs a lot of special care. It needs
attention around the clock and depends on support from the
outside: oxygen, intravenous feeding, monitors.”
To sense the fragility Dr Arafat describes, one need only
go as far as Gaza. The Gaza Strip is a piece of land measuring
370 square kilometres. About one million Palestinians live
on two-thirds of the Strip. In Gaza City, population density
is estimated at 14,000 people per square kilometre. The other
one-third of the Strip is inhabited by a few thousand Israeli
settlers. Figures for gross domestic product per capita in
1991 were US$ 850 but, since the Oslo agreement, the standard
of living in Gaza has fallen by 25 per cent and unemployment,
while difficult to measure, is rising.
Unfortunately, these alarming economic indicators are a direct
result of the peace process. They are, in large part, a result
of the closures of the occupied and the autonomous territories
that followed repeated attacks on Israeli citizens inside
Israel carried out by groups opposed to the Oslo agreement
and to the continuing Israeli occupation of the West Bank
and parts of the Gaza Strip. Israel’s response to these
attacks has been to physically separate Palestinians from
The policy of separation has had a direct impact on the Palestinian
economy. An estimated 100,000 Palestinians from the occupied
territories travelled to work in Israel every day in 1993,
compared to 60,000 in December 1994 and 20,000 in April 1995.
In addition to the closures, new regulations for transporting
goods into Gaza have increased prices quickly and dramatically.
The price of cement, for example, doubled between February
and April and trucks wait a minimum of 10 hours to clear security
checks at the border. This translates to lost jobs, especially
in the construction industry. “This is the worst economic
situation Gaza has ever experienced,” says economist
Khaled Abdel Shafi.
The economics and demographics of the Gaza Strip have put
enormous pressure on politics that were delicate to begin
with. The peace talks have been deadlocked for months now
and the spirit of peace has been chiselled away by Israeli
fears of attacks and suicide bombings and Palestinian concern
about continued building in Israeli settlements. Key stipulations
of the DoP have not been fulfilled, namely the withdrawal
of the Israeli troops from the West Bank and the holding of
Palestinian elections. Some 20 months after the Oslo agreement,
peace is still the premature baby, very much in need of its
lifelines: money and time — neither of which seem to
be in great abundance.
opportunity for the Movement
Fortunately, the peace process has so far been more auspicious
for the Movement which has had an important part to play in
Israel, the occupied and the autonomous territories for many
years. For decades, the PRCS functioned in a unique way inside
and outside the occupied territories and the ICRC has maintained
a steady presence in the region since 1967 (see box).
The DoP and Cairo agreement have brought considerable changes
and opportunities to the Movement. First of all, the creation
of autonomous territories has meant a change in the ICRC’s
mandate in those areas. Secondly, the agreements have paved
the way for various branches of the PRCS to work together
for the first time and, finally, PRCS unification gives the
International Federation a chance to offer its support in
“Our work in the Gaza Strip and in Jericho has changed,”
explains Andreas Wigger, head of the ICRC’s delegation
in Tel Aviv. “The Palestinian Authority is now in charge
of most of these areas and we are focusing our work on visiting
detainees in the custody of the Palestinian police. This activity
is outside the scope of the Geneva Conventions and is ruled
by a bilateral accord, like our other activities in the autonomous
areas, such as the support to medical facilities and the PRCS,
and the dissemination of international humanitarian law.”
In July 1994, the ICRC signed a Memorandum of Understanding
with the PLO to formalise its presence in the self-rule areas
and in August it began visiting prisoners in Jericho and Gaza.
Another important development is the Federation’s new
role in the occupied and the autonomous territories. The Federation
began working closely with the PRCS in January 1994. It issued
a request for assistance for some one million Swiss francs
in June 1994 to help build the PRCS’s organisational
structure, and in April Federation delegate Archie McCarron
moved from Amman to Jericho and Jerusalem. Because of the
ICRC’s long history and experience in the region, McCarron
will be working in close co-ordination with the ICRC.
“I welcome Archie’s arrival,” says Darcy
Christen, head of the ICRC’s sub-delegation in Jerusalem.
“We very much need the Federation’s expertise
in the field of National Society development, and Archie’s
presence here means we are truly working together as a Movement.”
Work in the occupied and the autonomous territories is a
good example of how the Movement is working together. Under
the auspices of the ICRC, National Societies from Finland,
France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Norway
have been supporting programmes for Palestinians in the fields
of emergency services, dissemination, family visits and primary
health care. In addition, the Australian Red Cross is involved
in a project for rehabilitating released detainees in the
West Bank and Gaza.
Of all the opportunities and challenges that the Oslo and
Cairo accords have provided the Movement, the greatest by
far pertains to the PRCS itself. In the late 1960s the PRCS
was founded outside the territories and mandated by the PLO
to take care of all social and health needs of Palestinians.
Inside, in the West Bank which was annexed by Jordan in 1951,
PRCS branches grew out of the Jordanian Red Crescent. In the
Gaza Strip, the PRCS also emerged in the late 1960s. For years
then, the PRCS functioned outside as well as inside the occupied
territories, but occupation meant that the two components
had little direct contact with one another and even those
branches in the occupied territories worked independently
of each other.
PRCS, getting together
“Now that the PRCS can finally work together as a unified
Society, their potential is tremendous,” says Archie
McCarron. As a first step towards unification, a workshop
was held in Cairo in July 1994 and a temporary headquarters
was opened in Jericho last September. With the ICRC’s
support, the temporary headquarters has launched a dissemination
project designed to help member branches inform the public
about the ideals and work of the Movement. In addition to
educating the public, the project will also provide a concrete
forum for branches to work together.
The ICRC has also supported a communications network that
will link the PRCS’s emergency services throughout the
West Bank and Gaza. The wireless radio network centred in
Al Bireh will have sub-stations at branches in Gaza, Hebron,
Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and Tulkarem and will greatly facilitate
coordination of the PRCS’s emergency medical care.
There are certain obstacles to be overcome on the path to
unification. Nearly 30 years of separation forged ways of
working that are not changed overnight. Practically and psychologically,
occupation lent itself to fragmentation and the Palestinians
will have to make a conscious effort to break old habits.
Also, practically speaking, the occupation has not ended.
Palestinians are still not able to move freely from one place
to another and closures prevent people from travelling between
the two autonomous areas.
Also, all components of the PRCS are facing such critical
financial difficulties that much of their daily effort is
dedicated to staying afloat. At the same time, the cash crisis
underscores for them the urgency of working closely with each
other and rationalising existing services. Nablus is a good
example. Hatem Anabtawi, President of the PRCS in Nablus,
explains that the branch income covers only 45 to 50 per cent
of its expenses. “We were recently informed by the Minister
of Social Welfare that we cannot count on the Palestinian
Authority for funds, so we know that a united PRCS is for
our benefit. We need it.”
To further complicate matters, PRCS unification coincides
with what Dr Rafiq Husseini describes as an internal “divorce”.
Dr Husseini is Deputy Vice Minister of the Ministry of Health,
Director of the Palestine Council of Health for the West Bank
and a long-time PCRS volunteer.
“In the past, the PRCS was entirely responsible for
the health care of Palestinians,” Dr Husseini explains.
“Now we have the Ministry of Health, the Palestine Council
of Health, a police medical service and a health planning
and research centre. The tasks covered by the Society now
have to be redirected to these bodies, and the management
of this change is not easy. In essence, the whole Palestinian
community is in transition.
“Because the PRCS was so focused on providing health
care, many traditional activities found in other National
Societies were non-existent or marginalised. This adds to
the difficulties of change as does the fact that for so many
people peace hasn’t changed anything. People still feel
mentally and physically trapped, which creates reluctance
“I have been a volunteer for the PRCS since I was a
teenager. What we have to remember now, I think, is that the
spirit of voluntarism built this Society. That was its strength.
We have to find a way to rejuvenate that spirit and to begin
will to be one
In spite of years of dispersal and occupation and of the
pain that change brings, the will to succeed runs high in
the PRCS. It is also something that all members share. “What
is important,” says Dr Haider Abdel Shafi, PRCS President
in Gaza, “is for us to unite and work as a united people.”
Dr Salim Matuk, Vice President of PRCS and President of the
Jerusalem branch, emphasises that “our past differences
do not matter, as long as the will to unite is there”.
It is. Throughout the West Bank and Gaza, PRCS leaders affirm
that they are working towards a strong, ideal National Society.
“We are all working for peace and we all need each other,”
says Dr Matuk.
One forum in which the PRCS has been working together for
some time is the “Central Committee of the Red Crescent
Societies”. Made up of member branches and led by Dr
Matuk, the Central Committee is responsible for coordinating
visits of family members to Palestinian detainees. In the
course of 1994, close to 200,000 people took advantage of
Besides the undaunted will, the PRCS has another distinct
advantage when looking to the future: youth. According to
estimates for age distribution of Palestinians in the occupied
and the autonomous territories, about 50 per cent of the population
is 16 years old or younger. In addition, one positive by-product
of the intifada was that young people learned to
organise themselves very effectively. Using the energy and
talents of its youth will probably play a key role in shaping
the strong, ideal National Society towards which the PRCS
Of course, it is important to remember that changes in the
PRCS must necessarily be commensurate with the political realities
in which it operates. PRCS unification and institutional development
cannot go more quickly than the peace process itself and the
fragility of the process will keep PRCS leaders working overtime
in the near future.
“But the baby will survive,” says Dr Arafat.
“No matter how fragile this life might seem at times,
it will make it out of the incubator. Yes, there is much that
the baby depends on from the outside, but we can’t lose
sight of the fact that this baby, this peace, is full of hope.
And hope is an important part of health. In the meantime,
the PRCS must continue to fulfil its two primary roles: to
build new structures and to meet the needs of the Palestinian
people to the best of its ability. I am very optimistic.”
Barbara Geary travelled to Lebanon, Israel, the occupied and
the autonomous territories in April.
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