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Teamwork in Lebanon

From the first moments of the Lebanese–Israeli conflict, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement was widely mobilized and has played a pivotal role ever since.

‘‘I LOVE life… I hate war!” insists Khaled Bazzi, a Lebanese Red Cross official in Bent Jbail, a small town in southern Lebanon partially destroyed by Israeli bombardments. Perched on a hill, the building which houses the Lebanese Red Cross regional committee is more or less intact, except for the northern façade, which is riddled with shrapnel. The burnt-out shell of an ambulance in the parking lot is evidence, if needed, of the recent hostilities.

During the 34 days of the war, the Lebanese Red Cross first-aid teams who stayed to run the clinics in the neighbouring villages of Hanine and Rmaich did everything they could to save and evacuate the wounded. Since the cease-fire of 14 August, the residents of Bent Jbail have gradually been returning, many of them hard at work amid the ruins of their homes.

With the aid of a team from the Qatar Red Crescent Society, the Lebanese Red Cross clinic is up and running again. Three ambulances, medicines, generators and other equipment were donated to enable medical care to resume in the worst-hit villages of the district.

The emergency phase is now over, but public health needs are still immense, especially in terms of access to clean water. During this period of uncertainty, as the country begins to get slowly back on its feet — and prepares for the major reconstruction effort ahead — the Movement has a number of projects under way to ease the transition and the return to normality, itself a relative concept in a region characterized by constant tension. The most pressing task is to clear the ground of unexploded ordnance, which claims new victims every day.

In Saida, the country’s second largest city and logistical hub of southern Lebanon, the war has left few visible traces, other than destroyed bridges. A Qatar Red Crescent medical team works from the third floor of the hospital serving some of the city’s poorest districts, including the Ain El Helwa Palestinian refugee camp. The consulting room has been besieged by hundreds of people, mainly women and children. Abdul Fawzi, a Jordanian who has no social security and is suffering from respiratory problems, is there to pick up medicines which are free of charge to everyone. “When the poor are sick, they die,” says one nurse simply.

In Beirut, Movement efforts are concentrated in the heavily bombarded Shiite suburb. The ICRC and young Lebanese Red Cross volunteers are working to improve access to drinking water, while substantial amounts of assistance — notably family parcels donated by the Kuwait Red Crescent Society — are still being distributed to the devastated population.

A stone’s throw away is the headquarters of the Lebanese branch of the Palestine Red Crescent Society, which runs five hospitals and nine health centres for the 400,000 or so Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. More than half of the Palestinians in Lebanon still live in refugee camps; some have been there since 1949. “In general, the Palestinian community has only been mildly affected by this conflict. In fact, some Palestinian camps have given refuge to Lebanese civilians fleeing the more dangerous areas,” explains Dr Mohammad Osman, secretary general of the Lebanese branch of the Palestine Red Crescent. “The ICRC has helped us to transfer medical supplies to the camps in the south, and the coordination has worked well.” He adds that since the Palestine Red Crescent Society’s recognition as a National Society in June (see pp. 26–27), “we are now invited to Movement meetings in Lebanon and we feel accepted into the family”.

For its part, the Saudi Red Crescent Society is deployed in the centre of the Lebanese capital, in the grounds of the racecourse, where it has set up a field hospital dispensing free medical care to several hundred patients a day. The hospital is subdivided into 18 consulting units, with more than 100 employees and cutting-edge equipment. “Following an initial wave of displaced people, most of whom have returned to their homes, we are now mainly treating people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure,” says Dr Saud Al Omani, a surgeon with the Saudi Red Crescent.

Throughout the 34 days of war, the Lebanese Red Cross with its 6,000 volunteers was the main humanitarian actor and sometimes the only one operational on the ground, a central role it continues to play today. Its performance can be attributed to two basic factors: one, the experience and internal cohesion the National Society has gained over the past 30 years — in particular during the civil war; and two, the powerful support of the Movement, whose combined forces are impressive.

Indeed, the early, rapid decision to launch a coordinated Movement response with the ICRC as ‘lead agency’, in accordance with the Seville Agreement, has paid dividends. Cooperation between the Lebanese Red Cross, the ICRC, the International Federation and National Societies present in Lebanon has enabled all the partners to benefit from substantial information on the most urgent needs and logistical support for their operations. One crucial element was the ICRC’s coordination of security procedures with the parties to the conflict to facilitate evacuations and the safe passage of aid convoys. Despite the ICRC’s unceasing efforts, Lebanese Red Cross ambulances were targeted, a first-aider was killed and others were wounded while carrying out their medical mission.

The emergency assistance provided by the National Societies of the region has been considerable. The efforts of the Red Crescent Societies of Syria, Egypt, Iran and Turkey, as well as those of the Gulf region, have made an enormous difference. The immediate outpouring of solidarity from Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar was just the initial phase of the massive support pledged for the reconstruction of Lebanon by the Gulf states. Images of the conflict relayed by Arab satellite channels prompted a host of humanitarian initiatives backed by commercial companies and governments.

Some National Societies have opted for a coordinated approach within the Movement, others not. “People in the Middle East and in Turkey want to help the Lebanese, they want to make a gesture of solidarity,” says Andreas Wigger, head of the ICRC delegation in Beirut. This generosity, often in kind, can at times disrupt coordinated action founded on predetermined needs. The challenge, therefore, is to find a meeting point between a spontaneous gift and a planned and considered approach, which inevitably requires time for assessment and consultation but which can be frustrating for donors that are keen to act fast.

Whether operating alone or in concert, neighbouring Red Crescent Societies offer a proximity and a shared culture that can only be of benefit to the Movement. “We know people from the very highest to the lowest rungs of Lebanese society,” says Mohammed Al-Ali, secretary general of the Qatar Red Crescent. Scores of young volunteers are rallying to the appeals of these National Societies. “We systematically include young people in our activities abroad,” says Sadiq Al Shehabi, secretary general of the Bahrain Red Crescent. “As long as I see people smile, I am not tired.” affirms Anwar Ghadhanfari, a young volunteer of the Kuwait Red Crescent who came to Lebanon with a convoy of trucks laden with family parcels.

Clearly, unilateral action is still occurring. Certain National Societies consider cooperation with the ICRC to offer too little visibility and to be too costly and constraining. Despite this, the desire to work in operational cooperation within the framework of the Movement is gaining ground everywhere. “Each one of us needs to make the effort to understand how the other works,” says Jean-Michel Monod, ICRC regional delegate in Kuwait. It is a concern that is not lost on Mohammed Al-Ali, according to whom: “The Movement must be there for the benefit of all.”

The Movement is likely to be engaged in Lebanon for some time to come. The work of the neighbouring Red Crescent Societies is complemented by that of the National Societies of Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, United Kingdom and other countries. Rehabilitation projects, which are now getting under way in the key areas of health and education, offer a golden opportunity to boost the efficacy of the Movement’s action in a field where, if peace holds, other actors — both humanitarian and military — will become more involved.

Jean-François Berger

ICRC editor of Red Cross Red Crescent.

Chamaa village, south of Tyre. ICRC delegates and a volunteer from the Lebanese Red Cross look for a free passage for an ICRC convoy.

Saudi Arabian
Red Crescent Society

Saudi Arabia population: 16 million
Headquarters: Riyadh
At home: Emergency services with national coverage; first aid during the hajj in Mecca.
Abroad: Projects in many countries, including field hospitals in Afghanistan and Sudan; food parcels and water/habitat projects in Palestine; food, medical assistance and Beirut field hospital in Lebanon.

Volunteer paramedics from the Lebanese Red Cross branch in Tyre preparing to go out in the field.

Qatar Red Crescent Society
Qatar population: 500,000
Headquarters: Doha
At home: Primary health care; first aid; training in disaster management; hosting of Lebanese families temporarily staying in Qatar.
Abroad: Donations to and projects in many countries including distribution of relief and construction of houses in Pakistan (earthquake); medical programmes in Somalia, Sudan and Palestine; ambulances, food, fuel, hospital support and mobile clinics in Lebanon; and support to the ICRC/Lebanese Red Cross Appeal for Lebanon.

Saida hospital, Qatar Red Crescent medical unit. A receptionist signs in patients on the first day of operations.

Bahrain Red Crescent Society
Bahrain population: 500,000
Headquarters: Manama
At home: Blood donation campaign; first aid; health education, training in hairdressing for women; sewing training for needy families; donations to people in need, in particular during Ramadan; visits to the elderly by the youth section.
Abroad: Orphanage in the Maldives; health centre in Indonesia (tsunami); relief and school reconstruction in Pakistan (earthquake); food parcels in Hebron (Palestine); response to the ICRC/Lebanese Red Cross Appeal for Lebanon through cash and in-kind donations.

Following war damage to the water supply, ICRC’s top priority in Lebanon is to restore access to safe drinking water.

Kuwait Red Crescent Society
Kuwait population: 3 million
Headquarters: Kuwait City
At home: First aid; donations to needy families, in particular during Ramadan; assistance to detainees, visits to patients in hospitals.
Abroad: Donations to and projects in 58 countries, including assistance, equipment and house building in Indonesia and Sri Lanka (tsunami); relief in the United States (Hurricane Katrina); aid in Pakistan (earthquake) and in Iraq; in Lebanon, donations of over 2,000 tonnes of bulk food, family parcels, materials and medical items to the Lebanese Red Cross, the High Commission for Relief and the Ministry of Health.

Saudi Red Crescent field hospital in Beirut. A wounded child receives medical attention.

Red Crescent Society
of the United Arab Emirates

UAE population:
1.9 million
Abu Dhabi
At home: HIV/AIDS campaigns; food distribution to needy people during Ramadan; social sponsorship to students, assistance to prisoners and the disabled.
Abroad: Donations and projects in 40 countries including relief programmes in Iraq; orphanage in Jordan; reconstruction and a hospital in Jenin (Palestine), cash and equipment to Palestine Red Crescent Society; donations of medicines, food, generators, 24 ambulances and cash for helmets and flak jackets to the Lebanese Red Cross in response to ICRC/Lebanese Red Cross Appeal for Lebanon.

The road to Damascus

“There are no refugees,” declared Dr Abdul Rahman Attar, president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society. “We have approximately 160,000 guests, and it is our pleasure and duty to welcome them to our country.” Such sentiments typified the swift and effective response to the crisis in Lebanon by more than 900 Syrian Red Crescent volunteers and staff. Day and night, Red Crescent personnel, many of whom gave up their summer holidays to assist the evacuees, manned border crossings and reception centres. They provided much-needed food, water and medical and psychosocial assistance, as well as the means to restore links between families separated as a result of the conflict. Evacuees were concentrated mainly in Damascus and Homs, but ten of the Syrian Red Crescent’s 14 branches throughout the country were engaged in the operation, which lasted for more than a month. Activities were conducted in both communal shelters and private homes, which were made available to evacuees, often complete strangers.

Syrian Red Crescent involvement in the crisis was not limited to Syria. For almost a month, Damascus was a critical staging post for the movement of essential goods and personnel bound for Lebanon. The National Society provided a key facilitation role and, in close collaboration with the Syrian authorities, was instrumental in ensuring a seamless pipeline not only for its Movement partners, but also for other humanitarian actors.

The Syrian Red Crescent was not alone in its efforts. Support, both financial and material, was quick to arrive, particularly from Arab Red Crescent Societies and traditional Western European National Society partners.

While the international spotlight remained firmly on Lebanon and Israel, the Syrian Red Crescent kept up its activities for the duration of the conflict. Within hours of the ceasefire taking hold, Red Crescent volunteers were again at the borders providing much appreciated support for people eager to return to their homes in Lebanon. The National Society, together with the International Federation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and with the support of the ICRC, provided buses to enable people with no other means to return to Lebanon.

Although it no longer assists victims of this particular conflict, the Syrian Red Crescent is not remaining idle. Together with the International Federation, it has just completed an after-action review and will be acting upon the lessons learned to ensure that its response to any similar situation in the future will be even better.

Linda Ta’ef, Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society, and Craig Strathern, ICRC Damascus



©JON BJORGVINSSON / ICRCA president first-aider

Agronomist, son of a doctor and president of the Lebanese Red Cross, Sami Al Dahdah knows what he is talking about when it comes to the strengths and challenges facing his National Society. He was head of the first-aid department for 12 years.

The Lebanese Red Cross has been sorely tested, first with the civil war and now the recent Lebanese–Israeli conflict, during which your first-aiders evacuated more than 800 wounded people in perilous conditions. How has it managed to remain so united and effective?
The credit is due to the people. A humanitarian personality is innate, and we need to know how to spot it in young people and recruit them. We are very demanding in our choice of personnel, who must then undergo rigorous training. Our responsibility to make our volunteers able to live together.
The Lebanese Red Cross has been inundated with assistance from other National Societies, such as those of the Gulf, but is it able toabsorb this massive outpouring of generosity?
Much of this assistance is most welcome, but we have also received donations that do not correspond to the needs, which is more of a hindrance than a help. That is why I appeal to all those who would like to help us not to send unsolicited aid. But we cannot say no to the givers nor judge their intentions. The donor who takes our needs into account is the one we are most interested in. Since the ceasefire, we have reinforced coordination and set limits which enable us, with the ICRC’s help, to direct and channel 80 per cent of the Movement’s donations.
How does the coordination with the ICRC work?
The ICRC takes care of the overall coordination, and we understand each other well. We have been working together for a long time, notably through our first-aid department. As for the non-respect of our ambulances, I have full confidence in the ICRC’s role as intermediary with the Israeli authorities.
What are your priorities for the next six months?
To continue to provide first aid and transport for the sick and wounded throughout Lebanon. The blood bank is also vital, covering 90 per cent of the population’s needs, and we plan to develop this service. In terms of health care and social welfare, there is a lot to do, especially for the very young, the chronically ill and the handicapped. The youth department must continue its health activities. In any case, reconstruction is not our responsibility, but the government’s.
There is no shortage of work.
Our primary role is to give young Lebanese with a humanitarian frame of mind a shared sense of purpose. Training these young people is to educate them in peace. That is the true nature of our work.

Interview by J.-F. Berger
Full interview available at:

In northern Israel with
the Magen David AdomMagen David Adom paramedics in Haifa getting ready to act after a rocket attack. ©AMNON GUTMAN / ICRC

“FROM 22 July to 14 August, 1,012 Katyusha rockets fell on the town of Kiryat Shmona,” says Shimon Abutbul, deputy head of the regional branch of the Magen David Adom. During that same period, tens of thousands of people in northern Israel lived in constant fear, spending some of the time in bunkers, if they had access to one. Caring for the wounded is familiar territory for a man who has worked for the Magen David Adom for 25 years in an area that has been particularly exposed. In a blank voice, he recalls the day, 6 August, when he was called out with his ambulance to Kfar Giladi: “All the soldiers were dead. I counted eight, then twelve. Where were the wounded? I felt something die inside me.” Silence.

In Avivim, a village a few metres from the Israeli–Lebanese border, the Magen David Adom’s Meir Biton is on permanent standby. Bunker, armoured ambulance, helmet and bullet-proof jacket are the everyday currency of his job as a fi rst-aider. During the confl ict, the six Magen David Adom ambulance staff gave shelter to 1,200 people, of whom 120 were soldiers evacuated from the front line to the hospital in Zefat.

With its 10,000 volunteers and 1,200 staff, of whom 450 are paramedics, the Magen David Adom is primarily a rescue and first-aid service. “We carry out around half a million interventions a year,” explains David Abadi, head of the paramedical unit. However, since
the National Society was formally recognized in June 2006 (see pp. 26–27), it may evolve. This view is confirmed by Shimon Abutbul, for whom the recent conflict was an opportunity to expand its humanitarian action, such as assisting people in the shelters: “It has recharged our batteries!

Interview by J.-F. Berger
ICRC editor of Red Cross Red Crescent


Dr Noam Yifrach, chairman of the Magen David
Adom, looks at the past and into the future

During 34 days of conflict, the Magen David Adom was very active. What lessons did you learn?
Our immediate response was efficient and up to the challenge. We earned respect from the population and from the government. But we realize that we have to be prepared for the long haul, just in case. For instance, we need to maintain stocks of food and water in warehouses. Because many people were cut off from their daily needs, we were involved in supplying food through the supermarkets in Tel Aviv and with the support of the Magen David Adom’s friends abroad.
What does the recent acceptance into the Movement of the Magen David Adom mean?
The recognition is of the utmost importance to us because it means the end of our rejection. We have been waiting for this moment since the end of the Second World War. I want to thank the ICRC president for supporting our membership.
What are the main priorities for the Magen David Adom in the near future?
We have to get to know our Movement partners better. We need to build closer ties with all National Societies, chiefly those of the Arab world.
Interview by J.-F. Berger

Interview by J.-F. Berger
Full interview available at:


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