Gaza: ICRC remains determined to help Gilad Shalit

23-06-2010 Interview

It has been almost four years since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured. The ICRC has never slackened its efforts to help him. Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, the ICRC's head of operations for the Middle East, tells us more.


Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo 
     Can you tell us about what the ICRC has been doing for Gilad Shalit?  

We are still working just as hard as we did when Gilad Shalit was first captured. We are continuing to do everything in our power to be allowed to visit him or at least to see to it that he is authorized to correspond with his family. Our efforts have lost none of their intensity, despite the fact that Hamas has so far firmly rejected all of our pleas. It is unacceptable to hold a soldier captive without allowing him contact with his family, as required under international humanitarian law. We particularly regret that political considerations so far appear to have carried more weight than humanitarian concerns.

I would like to say again how acutely aware we are of the anguish and frustration of Noam and Aviva Shalit, Gilad's parents. We have been meeting them regularly to update them about our efforts. Since we don't have access to their son, however, we unfortunately cannot provide them with any first-hand information on his condition.

 What exactly have you asked Hamas to do?  

We have stepped up our contacts with the Hamas authorities, for example at high-level meetings held recently in Gaza and Damascus. We have requested access to Mr Shalit and tried to obtain information about his condition. We have also requested that Hamas hand over to Gilad Shalit thousands of letters and greeting cards sent to him by various organizations as well as by schoolchildren and other individuals. We deeply regret that all these requests have been rejected. We have also been constantly reminding his captors of their obligation under international humanitarian law to protect his life, to treat him humanely and to let him have regular and unconditional contact with his family.

As a general rule, the ICRC works discreetly behind the scenes, which we believe is the approach most likely to achieve results. This is what we have been doing since the very beginning. On 14 June, however, we said publicly that Hamas, by not allowing contact between Mr Shalit and his family, was violating international humanitarian law. This was the first time we said this publicly. It was not the first or only time we have made public statements regarding Mr Shalit, however. We have publicly called upon Hamas on a number of occasions to allow us to visit Mr Shalit or at least to allow family contact. All of these calls have been flatly rejected.

 How does Hamas justify its refusal to let the ICRC visit Gilad Shalit or to allow him and his family to exchange news?  

Whatever the reasons behind its decision to deny Gilad Shalit regular contact with his family, Hamas has an obligation under international humanitarian law to allow such contact. Hamas said publicly that security considerations prevented it from allowing the ICRC to visit Shalit. Security considerations cannot, however, justify a refusal to permit the exchange of news between Gilad Shalit and his family for almost four years.

Moreover, the issue of family contact should not be linked to negotiations concerning Gilad Shalit's release (which, incidentally, the ICRC is not involved in). Hamas has an obligation to protect the life and dignity of any captured soldier. Family contact should be granted unconditionally on purely humanitarian grounds and in accordance with international humanitarian law.

 Is Israel entitled to ban family visits to detainees from Gaza held in Israel, given that Hamas is not allowing access to Gilad Shalit?  

Both Israel and the Palestinian factions have obligations towards those they detain, and they cannot relieve themselves of these obligations on grounds of lack of reciprocity. This principle is at the very heart of humanitarian law.

Under international humanitarian law and human rights law, everyone is entitled to respect for their family rights. People held captive must therefore be given the opportunity to have r egular contact with their loved ones. An ICRC programme enabling Palestinian families to regularly travel to see close relatives detained in Israeli prisons has been accepted for decades, and the ICRC has always accepted the security controls that were imposed. But the programme has been suspended for families from Gaza. The ICRC has repeatedly called for the resumption of family visits to Gaza detainees and will continue to do so.

 What are the main challenges faced by the ICRC in its work relating to detainees and missing people?  

Visiting people deprived of their freedom and enabling them to exchange personal news with their relatives is one of our organization's main activities – and one of the main challenges it faces – all over the world. Every year, ICRC delegates visit almost half a million detainees in more than 70 countries and help exchange over half a million Red Cross messages, over a quarter of which are between detainees and their families. But there is only so much we can do for them, and there are limits to what international humanitarian law entitles us to do. It frequently happens that we can do little more than remind those who control the situation of their obligation to comply with the law.