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Israel-Lebanon: transfer operation completed

16-07-2008 Interview

The transfer operation between Israel and Lebanon was completed at sunset on 16 July, when the remaining ten ICRC trucks and trailers containing 185 coffins of human remains crossed from Israel into Lebanon and were handed over to Hezbollah representatives. Eric Marclay, the ICRC's senior deputy head of operations for the Middle East and North Africa, provides details on the handover and describes the ICRC's role as a neutral intermediary between Israel and Lebanon to facilitate the handover of freed detainees and human remains.

   
  ©ICRC/A. Amro/lb-e-001085    
 
  Lebanese-Israeli border, 16 July 2008. Officers of the Israeli Army's Chief Rabinate Unit remove a black coffin containing the remains of an Israeli soldier killed in 2006 from an ICRC vehicle.    
     
 

   
  ©ICRC/A. Amro/lb-e-001088    
 
  Southern Lebanese border crossing of Naqura, 16 July 2008. Personnel of the Islamic Health Committee linked to Hezbollah unload coffins containing the remains of Hezbollah and Palestinian fighters from an ICRC truck.    
     
 

   
  ©ICRC/A. Amro/lb-e-001082    
 
  Southern Lebanese border crossing of Naqura, 16 July 2008. French UN peacekeeping soldiers walk behind ICRC trucks containing the remains of Palestinian and Hezbollah fighters.    
     
 

   
  ©ICRC/A. Amro    
 
  16 July 2008. Freed Lebanese prisoners accompanied by ICRC staff arrive at the Israeli-Lebanese border.    
      
   
  ©ICRC    
 
  Eric Marclay    
     Can you provide some detail on the handover?  

While important preparatory work was done previously, the effective handover operation started at around 09:00 local time when Hezbollah handed over to the ICRC medical documents concerning the two Israeli soldiers. An hour later, the two coffins were given to ICRC delegates, who in turn handed them over to Israeli authorities who performed DNA identification tests.

At around 11.30 local time, a first truck (out of 11 trailers) bearing the ICR C emblem arrived at Rosh Hanikra on the Israeli side carrying the mortal remains of 12 persons. The ICRC handed them over to Hezbollah on the other side. When the Israeli authorities confirmed the positive DNA identification of the two Israeli soldiers captured in 2006, the five Lebanese detainees were freed by Israel and handed over to Hezbollah by the ICRC. At the same time, a coffin containing unidentified human remains was handed over by Hezbollah to the ICRC who in turn transferred it to Israeli authorities.

The whole transfer operation of detainees and human remains lasted the entire day. In total, the ICRC facilitated the handover of 197 coffins containing human remains from Israeli authorities to Hezbollah. Hezbollah handed over two coffins containing human remains that the ICRC transferred to the Israeli authorities.

The five Lebanese detainees freed by Israel were interviewed in private by the ICRC to make sure that they are being repatriated of their own free will.

The Israeli authorities and Hezbollah are carrying out DNA tests on the mortal remains. The ICRC does not carry out DNA identification.

 What is the ICRC's role in the handover of freed detainees and mortal remains?  

    

The ICRC always maintains an open dialogue with all warring parties with the aim of alleviating the suffering of people whose lives have been disrupted by armed conflicts. In this case, our primary concern is to help reunite families with their loved ones and to put an end to years of distress for those whose relatives went missing.

As there is no direct contact between Israel and Hezbollah the ICRC offered its'good offices'as soon as it heard of an agreement being negotiated between the parties. We informed both sides that we were ready to act as a neutral intermediary, if requested to do so. A few days ago, the Israeli authorities and Hezbollah asked us to facilitate the handover of several detainees as well as the mortal remains of about 200 persons killed during conflicts over the past decades. 

 Was the ICRC involved in the negotiations on this operation?  

    

Not in the negotiations, per se. The ICRC's role of neutral intermediary can also involve mediation between the parties if that's what they want, but this is rarely the case. Usually, agreements such as this one are reached by the parties themselves, often with the support of states acting as honest brokers.

 What is the ICRC's added value in this situation?  

Given the present circumstances, this operation would certainly not be possible without the involvement of a third party. Apart from the fact that we have a mandate to act as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC is also considered as a serious and credible actor in this type of situation. Most importantly, it has the trust and confidence of the parties, which puts it in a position to help ensure the success of these sensitive and often complex operations.

Present in the region since 1948, the ICRC has acted on a number of occasions in the repatriation of detainees and mortal remains between Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Syria. In recent years, it was particularly involved in similar operations between Israel and Hezbollah in January 2004, October 2007 and June 2008.

 Are there limits to what the ICRC can do?  

The ICRC cannot impose itself if its role is not accepted by the concerned parties. All we can do is persuade those who control the situation to act in accordance with the spirit and letter of international humanitarian law. Unfortunately, in some instances political considerations tend to outweigh humanitarian concerns making it impossible to help the missing and their families. Nevertheless, we strongly believe that developing and maintaining contacts with all parties to a conflict or a situation of internal violence, be it states or non-state armed groups, is of paramount importance in order to make progress on issues related to detainees and missing persons, as well as to enable the development of humanitarian operations for the benefit of the victims.

We will thus continue to act on behalf of missing and detained persons and their families across the region. This includes, for example, those who went missing during the first and second Gulf wars, as well as those missing in action following the various phases of the conflict between Israel and Lebanon or between Israel and the Palestinians. Moreover, ICRC delegates are visiting detainees or seeking access to detainees in several countries in the region.    

 Where else in the Middle East is the ICRC acting as a neutral intermediary?  

The ICRC is, for example, facilitating the passage into Syria of some people living in the Israel-occupied Golan. They include students and pilgrims as well as brides and grooms getting married on the other side. It has even made possible the transfer into Syria of apples grown by Druze farmers in the occupied Golan.