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