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Jerusalem 1948: seeking the trust of all sides

15-08-2003 Article, Le Temps

Original title: "Quand le CICR sécurisait Jérusalem" - press article by Luis Lema, published in "Le Temps" (Switzerland) on 15 August 2003; in the bloody count-down to independence in Palestine, the ICRC sought to create "security zones" for civilians under threat.

Read the complete article in French.    

Humanitarian action seen through the archives 
Journalists from Swiss daily "Le Temps" scoured the ICRC's archives and came up with a series of five articles, each on a decisive moment for history and for the ICRC's own development.  
  When the ICRC learned about protecting civilians…
  Famine in Russia: the hidden horrors of 1921
  Ethiopia 1935-36: mustard gas and attacks on the Red Cross
  Hiroshima 1945: a day in August that changed the world


The months prior to the end of the British mandate in Palestine, in May 1948, were fraught with the certainty that blood would be spilled. In fact, the killing had already started, following the UN decision to split the territory into two parallel states, Jewish and Arab. Fear and the perceived need for self-preservation had fostered a spiral of violence in which civilians found themselves in the front line.

The ICRC was putting its energy into the complete revision of the Geneva Conventions, with the addition of a new treaty to protect civilians – precisely the tool it had lacked in World War II. The new laws were to be adopted in 1949. In the meantime, amid growing appeals to take action in the worsening Palestine situation, it had to do what it could.

As a first step the Committee sent a delegate, Jacques de Reynier, to Jerusalem in January 1948 to make contact with all sides and build up a relationship of trust in which the ICRC might hope to be able to work. Not the most simple of tasks, de Reynier noted later *, since “generally speaking, confidence no longer governs relations between the inhabitants here….”


 Dialogue with Arabs and Jews  

Nonetheless, this resourceful Swiss army officer, Arabic-speaking and with a marked se nse of initiative, succeeded in establishing a dialogue with both Jews and Arabs on the spot, as well as with the governments of neighbouring Arab nations. The British were also cooperative – but they were about to leave anyway…

Most importantly, after some initial hesitation, both Jews and Arabs agreed to respect the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, even though neither side, at that moment, represented a state.

About a month before the end of the British mandate, two events took place that were to set the tone for the many difficulties – and the modest successes – that lay ahead. In early April the ICRC delegate was contacted and asked to try to rescue a group of wounded Jewish fighters who had become encircled and faced, at the least, an uncertain fate. De Reynier talked his way through the lines and persuaded the Arab forces, the British monitors – and the threatened Jews themselves – to allow safe passage for the wounded.

 Flight to safety
© CICR - réf. ps-n-00004-2679 
June 1948, Tulkarem region. Under the ICRC's auspices, 1,100 persons leave the Jewish area to reach the Arab one. 

Some days later de Reynier was again summoned – this time by the Arab side – following an attack on the village of Deir Yassin by Jewish extremists, resulting in many civilian deaths**. The delegate discovered only three survivors – two women and a young girl. The atrocity sent a shockwave through the Arab community and led to widespread displacement of the population – hundreds of thousands fled to safer areas.
It was against this backdrop, and faced with the hostility of its neighbours, that the State of Israel was proclaimed on 14 May 1948.
Measuring the likely political and military consequences of this “ethnic cleansing”, and buoyed by the apparent acceptance by all sides of the ICRC’s neutrality, de Reynier proposed the creation of three “security zones” in Jerusalem. These would be open to all, without discrimination, and would have to be respected by all combatants.
Perhaps surprisingly, given the nature of the conflict and of the terrain, all sides agreed. De Reynier was besieged with offers of buildings that could be used – for humanitarian reasons, no doubt, but, as he recalled, “especially in the hope that they [the buildings ] would be untouched…”. The zones were duly proclaimed, under the protection of the red cross emblem.
The fact that one of the zones closed after only a few hours, and that another ceased functioning after part of it – the King David hotel – was seized by Jewish fighters during a truce – did not lessen de Reynier’s enthusiasm for the concept. “Some 2,000 people found refuge there,” he wrote a year later, at the end of his mission.
The limited success of these security zones provided a grim f oretaste of the difficulties that would be encountered in trying to protect civilian war victims in the remainder of the 20th century.
 * See de Reynier’s book “1948 à Jérusalem” (publ. Georg, Geneva)  

 ** The exact number of victims is disputed – Ed.  


  Article reproduced with kind permission of Le Temps; no reproduction in any form without the prior permission of Le Temps.  
The article’s editorial content and style are those of Le Temps and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ICRC, which has provided this summary as an informative guide to the article.