Israel and the Red Cross Law

Just last week, a Memorandum of Understanding between Magen David Adom (Israel's primary ambulance service organization, known as MDA) and the Palestine Red Crescent Society was leaked. The unintentionally disclosed MoU not only speaks to attitudes between and within the two ambulatory societies themselves but it also offers up a somewhat startling behind the scenes view into the negotiating tactics of the presumed politically-neutral International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and demonstrates their vested interest in tilting the outcome of Middle East negotiations.

In the memorandum, the ICRC, a long-revered operation which has presented itself publicly as a neutral party, is exposed instead as a political pawn. Rather than laboring to provide care whilst staying out of the maelstrom of the political machine, the ICRC appears to serve those nations that blindly cleave to the 22-year-old, flawed Oslo initiative. Not only has the ICRC rigidly continued to support the Oslo Accords but it has done so without considering whether or not that agreement has been so far compromised as to no longer be of aid to those caught in the midst of the reality that exists in the Middle East today.

The memorandum was signed in Geneva on November 28, 2005 by Dr. Noam Yifrach, the Israeli Services chairman, and Younis Al-Khatib, president of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS), in the presence of official representatives of the ICRC and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC). What the MoU did was empower its sponsors, the ICRC and the IFRC, to do more than just work towards saving lives, but also reveals how these related organizations used their power to promote one side of a political policy which could cause grievous harm to innocent citizens on either side.

International law recognizes the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems as protected images. People, vehicles and buildings displaying these symbols are safeguarded and any party engaged in a conflict can be held liable to criminal or other charges if found to have targeted and harmed those protected by these emblems. MDA, wishing to obtain the same protection for their Star of David insignia, appealed to the ICRC for recognition. After many years of intensive diplomacy and negotiation the ICRC and the IFRC adopted the Red Crystal as a recognized emblem under Article Two of the additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949: "Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem (Protocol III), 8 December 2005."

The memorandum, signed in November 2005 and the Protocol III adopted in December 2005, finally entitled MDA to include on its buildings and vehicles the Red Crystal emblem. By agreeing to this additional, controlled iconography, MDA obtained the protection, under international law that is afforded to the Cross and the Crescent, albeit via the Red Crystal. This recognition and sanction was finally obtained, but the 70-year process of getting to this point is, in itself, suspect. Moreover, now that documentation on the negotiations has been made public, the very nature of the concessions MDA was required to adhere to call the neutrality of the ICRC into question.

The deliberate and exacting pre-conditions imposed on MDA by the ICRC and the IFRC belie the promise of impartiality that is expected of such a prestigious and virtuous organization. In the MoU, Israel is branded as an "occupier" and MDA is forced to agree that "internationally recognized borders" are the only line of demarcation for protected ambulatory societies. "MDA and PRCS" were subjected to "operate in conformity with the legal framework applicable to the Palestinian territory occupied by Israel in 1967." Further "MDA" had to "ensure that it has no chapters outside the internationally recognized border of the state of Israel." "MDA and PRCS" had to "recognize that PRCS is the authorized national society in the Palestinian territory and that this territory is within the geographical scope of the operational activities and of the competences of PRCS."

In other words, according to this agreement, MDA has no right to set up an ambulance chapter to service its largest settlements such as Efrat, Gilo, Maalah Adumim, Ariel and Kedumim among others. Additionally, "MDA and PRCS will use a distinctive emblem in conformity with the requirements of the Geneva conventions and its Third Additional Protocol" thus stipulating that Israel's famed Red Star of David would be redesigned to display a Red Crystal in order to conform to the requirements of the protocol.

Both the Israeli MDA and the Palestinian RCS committed to operating "in accordance with international humanitarian law." I looked up "international humanitarian law" and discovered this brand of law is developed, sponsored and promoted by the ICRC. On their Website they make the bold assertion the ICRC is a "promoter and guardian of international humanitarian law (IHL)."

And yet, one has to ask where their impartiality lies in their arbitrating and upholding of humanitarian law. Let me remind readers of some facts related to Israel's formation. In 1948, Israel declared her independence setting her borders west of the Jordan River. Almost immediately thereafter, Jordan, Egypt and their allies attacked Israel occupying Israeli land including east Jerusalem, and the West Bank. In 1967 Jordan, Egypt and their allies attacked Israel again during which time Israel reclaimed the land it had lost in 1948. Given these facts, international law also declares Jordan and Egypt aggressors and supports Israel's legal right, so exactly what was it that motivated the ICRC and the IFRC to leverage its law to stoop into political rhetoric and brand Israel as an "occupier"?

Without question, the Red Cross has been caring for those in need and has been an unmitigated savior for millions of people. Nevertheless, in the eyes of countless Red Cross supporters, the organization's innocence has been tainted and its claim of neutrality severely compromised. Perhaps I am being oversensitive to the abuses perpetrated by the ICRC or perhaps MDA, which relies on foreign donors to come up with the vast majority of its funds, was the victor finally obtaining important refuge for the Star of David as provided under international law.

Whatever the case, in the highly charged, sensitive realm of diplomacy, these emblems are imbued with deep-seated meaning, and in manipulating these marks, the ICRC will have used her privileged position of power to leverage her diplomatic advantage over Israel in every significant territory in which they operate. Donors to the Red Cross and MDA may ponder these political maneuverings, but both organizations do wonderful work for people in need and that, ultimately, is paramount.

Despite the concerted efforts of nations affiliated with the Red Cross and their Red Crescent nation cohorts, the Oslo Accords of 1993 spiraled downward into the abyss of failed diplomacy. In the meantime, Israel established for itself, and its people, a new reality in a world where information and knowledge are accessible to all, not merely the purview of a privileged few who kept all others entrenched in ignorant darkness. As Oslo's heady days disappear into the sunset, perhaps now all people in the region, armed with more accurate and fuller information, will finally be better served.