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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 since Oslo.

“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 Israelis.

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.

An 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 the region.

“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 and pessimism.

“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 rebuilding.”

The 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 this programme.

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 is working.

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
Barbara Geary travelled to Lebanon, Israel, the occupied and the autonomous territories in April.

 


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