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Israel-Palestine
A tragedy without end?

 

The years go by, and the situation in the Autonomous and Occupied Palestinian Territories keeps getting worse. Since the Six-Day War in June 1967, open warfare has alternated with periods of calm, but without so much as a glimmer of peace on the horizon. What have been the main humanitarian consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And how has the Movement been responding?

 

Diary of a visit to the Palestinian territories, March 2007 (extracts):

“The people here want to live in peace. Life is too short and we need to have our dignity,” says Ahmed Ibrahim. He is showing us around the small Palestinian village of Khirbet Zakaria, perched on a hilltop peppered with olive trees 7 km from Bethlehem. Not far below, we can see the separation barrier being built; from the hill opposite we can hear the clamour of children’s voices from the Israeli settlement of Gush Etzion as they play in the swimming pool. Of the 27 dilapidated houses that make up Khirbet Zakaria, nine have already been destroyed by the Israeli authorities, and the small school is also under threat. To survive, Ahmed Ibrahim runs a small shop where his new neighbours from over the way occasionally come to stock up. His house accommodates 17 people, who share three rooms. He shows us a pile of failed requests for an extension permit, adding resignedly: “Whatever happens, we will stay here. We don’t want a second 1948!”

Tanguy De Blanwe, the ICRC delegate who covers the region, finishes off his notes, on which he will base his next report to the Israeli district authorities. After a last glance around the small school and the tents recently supplied by the ICRC, we resume our journey over the stony road.

Driving through the Occupied Territories towards Ramallah, you can’t help noticing all the security structures dotted across the countryside. Most conspicuous of all is the West Bank barrier, an 8-metre-high concrete wall punctuated by trenches, patrol routes and lookout towers. Aimed at restricting the movements of Palestinians and preventing attacks in Israel, the barrier is so far 730 km in length and deviates frequently from the Green Line — the 1949 Armistice line — to penetrate into occupied territory. These encroachments and the restrictions on movement have had a detrimental impact on Palestinian communities and their livelihoods, as well as on the many Bedouin who are threatened with expulsion. “Further north, around Qalqilya, farmers have a lot of trouble accessing their lands close
to or on the other side of the barrier,”
explains De Blanwe.

After the Beituniya checkpoint west of Ramallah, we reach Beit Sira, a village of 3,300 inhabitants, most of whom worked on building sites in Israel before the second intifada. Since then, with the workers’ entry to Israel barred, unemployment has exceeded 70 per cent and daily life has become seriously complicated. Beforehand, Ramallah was only a 15-minute drive away; today, it can take up to an hour and a half, allowing for all the detours and security checks. Moreover, agricultural land, notably olive groves, has been swallowed up by the expansion of the nearby settlement of Makkabim and the erection of the barrier.

To help some of the neediest inhabitants cope, the ICRC has launched an assistance programme for some 20 artisans in Beit Sira. Abdulkarim Saffi yeh is an experienced mechanic. “Thanks to the tools I received — in particular the soldering iron — I can take on work that I couldn’t have done otherwise.” Ibrahim Hassan Khader was given a small loan to reopen his hairdressing salon in the main square. “Purchasing power has dropped sharply since 2000. Some of my customers cannot afford a hair cut,” he says.

The district of Jenin, covering the northern tip of the West Bank, is a fertile region accounting for about a third of Palestinian agricultural production, mainly vegetables, grains and olives. But, as elsewhere, much of the land lying on the wrong side of the barrier is now inaccessible. Despite the occasional unlocking of a gate following sustained representations by the ICRC, the territory continues to fragment and to shrink a little bit more with each passing day.

In the town of Jenin, where a quarter of the 45,000 inhabitants live in refugee camps, the tension linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is palpable, exacerbated by Palestinian inter-factional fighting and a rise in delinquency. The climate of insecurity affects children most of all and manifests itself among them in aggressive behaviour and poor concentration. According to Salah Daraghmy, coordinator ofa psychosocial support project run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society in several schools in the districts of Jenin and Tubas, “Children don’t feel reassured; their homes are no longer safe, their fathers have been humiliated by unemployment or imprisonment.”

Supported by the Danish, French and Icelandic Red Cross Societies and funded by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO), the project currently reaches 2,700 pre-adolescents in some 40 schools. It consists of weekly workshops designed to stimulate a spirit of playfulness, self-confidence and tolerance through role play and creative activities. Summer camps are also organized to give the children a break from the abnormal situations and relentless pressures they face in their everyday lives. “They need to learn to unwind, to express their emotions and to practise dialogue,” says Daraghmy, who also maintains a close personal contact with the parents.

The following morning at dawn, we leave Jerusalem for Ramallah. Our purpose is to be present at the departure of families of inmates of the Israeli prison of Ashkelon, just north of the Gaza Strip. In the pouring rain, the detainees’ relatives pass one by one through the checkpoint at Qalandiya before climbing onto the buses hired by the Palestine Red Crescent and financed by the ICRC. They will be escorted to their destination by Israeli police, where they are allowed a visit of just 45 minutes. They are expected back late at night. Among the group are a mother and father who, accompanied by their two daughters aged 20 and 12, are going to see their eldest son for the first time since his arrest. There is also an elderly lady whose husband and two sons are serving long prison sentences. For the 11,000 security detainees that the ICRC has been monitoring this year, these family visits are a lifeline, enabling them to see their loved ones, if only for a brief moment. The formalities over, the buses set off, the rain hammering down as hard as ever. It is the cue for us to return to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, city of the Book, capital of so many promises and so much pain. In the distance, we can make out the flashing light of an ambulance. The car radio is playing an old song from the 1960s Who will stop the rain? The question is, indeed, apt.


The West Bank barrier under construction near Al-Ram between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
©THIERRY GASSMANN / ICRC

 

 

 


Class held at Seer children’s school, Tubas district, run by the Palestine Red Crescent. The staff has been specially trained in psychosocial support.
©THIERRY GASSMANN / ICRC

 

 

 

 

 


A mechanic in Beit Sira, West Bank, where unemployment has reached dramatic levels.
©THIERRY GASSMANN / ICRC

 

Jean-François Berger
ICRC editor of Red Cross, Red Crescent
For more information, see:
www.icrc.org/Web/Eng/siteeng0.nsf/htmlall/palestine?OpenDocument

 

 

 

The legal framework

• The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which protects the civilian population against any abuses by the Occupying Power, was ratified by Israel in 1951. Israel has regularly contested the de jure application of the Fourth Convention to the West Bank and to the Gaza Strip. Present in Israel and the Occupied and Autonomous Territories since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the ICRC considers these rules to be applicable to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including East Jerusalem and the Golan.
• The Fourth Geneva Convention provides that the population under occupation may not be subject to any form of discrimination and that it must be protected from violence of any kind. It also prohibits the establishment of settlements in occupied territories.
• Armed Palestinian groups are also bound by the principles of international humanitarian law. Indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians or acts designed to spread terror among the civilian population are absolutely and unconditionally prohibited. This rule applies also to attacks perpetrated by Israel on Palestinians not taking a direct part in hostilities.
• Ambulances and medical staff must be allowed to move around in complete safety.

For many years, the ICRC has appealed to the relevant authorities, both Israeli and Palestinian, asking that the relevant rules of international humanitarian law be respected.

 

Erez border crossing. ICRC and Magen David Adom officials evacuate a Palestinian man, wounded in Gaza, in an Israeli ambulance. ©Amnon Gutman / Gamma Poverty and violence in Gaza

In a climate of almost daily violence, the population of Gaza is struggling toovercome the mounting difficulties it has been facing since the suspension of international aid to the

Palestinian Authority in early 2006. The resulting lack of funds has severelyaffected public services, in particular health and education. Interfactional fighting between Palestinians — mainly between members of Fatah and Hamas — has worsened since May, leaving hundreds of dead and wounded before thefinal takeover by Hamas factions on 19 June. Moreover, intermittent incursions by the Israeli army continue to disrupt the lives of different sectors of the population.

For Palestine Red Crescent emergency teams and ambulances, the task of evacuating the wounded is fraught with danger and constantly impeded byroadblocks and checkpoints. Extreme vigilance is needed, as is close coordination between the ICRC and all the parties concerned.

Another priority is the provision of surgical supplies and dressings to hospitals and clinics, in particular the Shifa hospital, the largest in Gaza City, where many of the victims of the clashes are treated. In this narrow, overcrowded strip of land of 1.7 million people, where the tension is constant, access to drinking water is essential. To ensure the availability of water, the ICRC provides generators and fuel and installs or repairs water distribution systems.

In the midst of the chaos that has caused so much suffering, credit is due to the Magen David Adom and the Palestine Red Crescent, which have pursued their humanitarian tasks with dedication and dogged professionalism throughout the crisis. Gaza hospitals have a limited capacity, so a certain number of complicated surgical interventions have to be performed in Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem. Given that Palestinian ambulances are not allowed into Israel, the Magen David Adom and the Palestinian ambulances place their vehicles “back-to-back” at the checkpoints — mostly through Erez — that straddle Gaza and Israel. The patients from Gaza are carried from one ambulance to the other, a distance of about 50 metres, before being transported onwards to Jerusalem. In the long term, prospectsare even bleaker for the Gaza population. Perishable goods like meat and dairy products, which are normally imported from Israel or the West Bank, are in short supply.

“The almost complete closure of crossing points in and out of Gaza and the lack of contact between the authorities on both sides are aggravating a situation that cannot be dealt with by providing humanitarian assistance alone,” says Christoph Harnisch, head of the ICRC’s delegation for Israel and the Palestinian territories. “Long-term economic aid and commercial exchanges are the only sustainable ways of helping the people of Gaza.”

J.-F. Berger with contributions from Bernard Barrett,
ICRC media officer in Jerusalem

 

©ICRC Dr Noam Yifrach, Chairman of the MDA

What has changed for the Magen David Adom (MDA) since it became a full member of the Movement in December 2005?
We are proud to be part of the Movement. We want to contribute more at an international level, in particular in the field of first aid. For instance in Sri Lanka, we are helping to develop the National Society’s emergency and medical services, and to train their volunteers and staff. We have also sent instructors and provided equipment to the National Societies in Azerbaijan and Georgia.
How would you describe cooperation with the Palestine Red Crescent Society?
We are currently working on the memorandum of understanding we have signed with the Palestine Red Crescent. [See above] We realize that we cannot solve all of the problems in one day, but we are confident that the terms of the MoU will be implemented gradually. To improve cooperation, the MDA is working closely with the Israeli authorities involved in the process.
Events in Gaza have exacerbated the situation in the border region. What are your main activities there?
In the town of Sderot, which has been the target of rocket attacks from Gaza, MDA teams stand ready to evacuate casualties to hospitals in Askelon, Beersheba and Tel Aviv. At the Erez border crossing, we pick up Palestinians who have been wounded in the Gaza Strip and transfer them to various hospitals in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

 

Druze pilgrims at an Israeli-Syrian checkpoint in Golan. ©Bernard Barrett / ICRC Meanwhile in the Golan

Occupied since 1967, the Golan Heights were unilaterally annexed by Israel in December 1981. The Fourth Geneva Convention is applicable to this territory, which is inhabited by 21,000 Syrian Arabs who live in the five main towns and 20,000 Israelis living in some 40 settlements. The ICRC has an office in Majd El Shams, which focuses on maintaining family links between the inhabitants of the Golan Heights and their relatives in Syria. Family visits to Syria have been on hold since 1992, causing deep distress to the populations separated by the Demarcation Line.

Acting as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC arranges for students and Druze pilgrims to travel between the occupied Golan and Syria proper. For 24 years, it has also facilitated weddings between Syrian Arab inhabitants of the Golan and their future spouses living in Syria proper. In addition, at the request of Israel and Syria, for the past three years the ICRC has been transporting apples grown in the occupied Golan to Syrian markets, providing a much-needed boost to the economy of the Golan Heights.

 

Israeli rescue personnel walking past an exploded rocket fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip into the Israeli town of Sderot. ©Amnon Gutman / Gamma Sderot, next door to Gaza

The violence also affects neighbouring Israeli towns, notably Sderot, where Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza have caused casualties among civilians, whose movements are often hampered by the insecurity. The Magen David Adom has mobilized emergency medical units from various parts of Israel in order to cope with the needs.

The Maoz siblings — Noam, Adi and Amir who are respectively 15, 13 and 10 years old — talk about their experience of the conflict. “We live in Nakhal Oz, a kibbutz located 100 metres from the Gaza fence — we can see the buildings from our home. We go to school near Sderot. Some of our classrooms are made of concrete, but not all of them. When the siren starts, we have 15 seconds to run to the closest shelter. We don’t always make it on time. In the ‘safe classes’, we have to lie under the tables for a couple of minutes until the Qassam rocket falls, and then we call our parents to tell them we are fine. At one point we had up to eight alerts a day. It was very difficult to keep on studying normally — it’s not something you can get used to. It scares us every time, although we know that we are in a safe place. Some children can’t stop crying. Many of them have nightmares.

“All the houses in the kibbutz have shelters. Sometimes the siren doesn’t warn us on time. Once a Qassam fell at night — just five metres from our door. There were splinters in the house. We were lucky nothing worse happened. But we don’t want to leave. All of our friends live in the kibbutz; this is where we have grown up. A few years ago, our mother used to go to Gaza from time to time to visit some Palestinian friends. Only time will tell if things get worse or better. Maybe she will go back there one day. But now, with the Qassam, there is even more fear and hatred.”
Marcin Monko, ICRC Jerusalem

 

©THIERRY GASSMANN / ICRC A long road for the Palestine Red Crescent

Interview with Younis al-Khatib, president of the Palestine Red Crescent Society.

What are the most pressing needs at the moment?
The humanitarian situation in Palestine has got progressively worse over the last 40 years as a result of the Israeli occupation. But without a political solution, it is hard to imagine how things can get significantly better. Short-term needs are linked to the financial embargo and the construction of the West Bank barrier, which is hampering the movement of both people and goods. Currently more than one-third of the Palestinian population is affected by this construction. With employment in free fall, what worries us most in the long term are the rising levels of poverty and social marginalization.

What are you tackling as a priority?
The situation is very volatile; needs are constantly changing. The Palestine Red Crescent has to be adaptable, just as the Palestinian population has been for decades. This makes it difficult to list priorities. That said, we are focusing on the medical mission which is regularly obstructed by the checkpoints, which hold up the transfer of the wounded and sick and can even lead to the death of a patient. The ICRC often has to intercede with the occupying authorities to facilitate the passage of our ambulances.

In this respect, how is the cooperation with the Israeli Magen David Adom working out?
Our relationship is strained… because the Magen David Adom in Israel has not respected certain of its obligations set forth in the memorandum of understanding* we both signed. In addition, inspections of our ambulances by the Israeli authorities are too heavy and time-consuming. Because of these problems, we often have to refer to the ICRC and the International Federation to help speed up the process.

For young Palestinians, the future is particularly bleak. What can the Palestine Red Crescent do for them?
We are devoting considerable effort to addressing this problem. Because of the conflict, many young people have nothing to occupy them. We are trying to give them work opportunities rather than leaving them to hang around the streets. We currently have more than 8,000 active members of our youth committees in the West Bank and Gaza. These young people assist their peers who are most in need of support.

In which fields specifically?
The rehabilitation of disabled people is a priority. The Palestine Red Crescent has set up apprenticeship programmes and secondary-level courses with them in mind. The summer camps also play an important role: we organize about 100 of these a year for more than 10,000 children. It is a chance for them to learn through fun and to take part in music and sport. We also run psychosocial projects in schools in response to the increase in psychological disorders linked to family problems such as domestic violence.

The Palestine Red Crescent is now a full member of the Movement, following its recognition as a National Society in June 2006. How has this changed things for you?
I received a letter the other day requesting payment of our financial contribution to the Movement in Swiss francs [laughs]! The Palestine Red Crescent has been very active in the Movement for the past 35 years, and we have always been treated as a member of the family. What is new, however, is that we now have an official birth certificate with legal parents! We have since also participated in international operations, such as in Yemen and Sudan, as well as in Morocco during the floods. In the future, we would like to contribute more to the development of the Movement’s strategy.

You have acquired considerable experience during more than 40 years of working in extremely difficult conditions. What is the source of your strength?
First and foremost, it is the people and their dedication… When you have to overcome enormous challenges in different places, be it in Lebanon during the civil war or after the Israeli invasion in 1982 or in Syria, Iraq or occupied Palestine, it creates a strong sense of unity and solidarity. In this respect, Fathi Arafat** was a visionary, a towering figure who built many hospitals after the 1967 occupation, earning him the nickname “the builder”. One of the key qualities of the Palestine Red Crescent is its adaptability. Think of the number of times the Palestine Red Crescent has had to move over the years — Amman, Beirut, Cyprus, Cairo — all the while continuing to provide its humanitarian services, medical assistance and relief. Thanks be to God, it is still a going concern. We are a National Society in motion, a kind of flying carpet!
J.-F. B.

*In November 2005, the Palestine Red Crescent and the Magen David Adom signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in Geneva aimed at enhancing the humanitarian mission of both National Societies. The MoU includes an operational agreement relating mostly to access by Palestine Red Crescent ambulances to East Jerusalem. Its implementation is monitored by an independent representative appointed by the ICRC and the International Federation.

** Yasser Arafat’s brother, founder of the PRCS in 1968 and president from 1978 to 2004.

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