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"The Palestinians’ hardship is increasing"

29-04-2006 Article, Tages Anzeiger

Aid organizations can step up their assistance for the Palestinian people, but they cannot take the place of the authorities, warns the ICRC director of operations. Pierre Krähenbühl was interviewed by Marlène Schnieper. This article was published in the Tages Anzeiger of 29 April 2006 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the newspaper.

 You were recently in Israel and travelled for a week through the Palestinian territories. What was your impression?  


The population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip is living in oppressive conditions. Their freedom of movement is considerably restricted by the settlements, the barrier and the checkpoints. The city of Nablus, in the north of the West Bank, for example, is surrounded by eight or nine checkpoints, and special papers are required to be allowed through. It is very difficult for people in the nearby villages to bring their wares to market or to visit relatives in the city. A Palestinian travelling from Hebron to East Jerusalem or Ramallah must overcome an exhausting series of obstacles. That gets people down. The hardship is becoming more acute.

 How about Gaza? Over 700,000 Palestinian refugees there are dependent upon UN food supplies. But the UN is paying millions in storage fees, because Israel obstructs the delivery of humanitarian goods.  

It is still too early to declare that, in humanitarian terms, a crisis has been reached. But it is clear that the already precarious situation in the area is quickly deteriorating.

 UN staff are annoyed most of all with the bottleneck at Karni.  

Karni is an essential part of the problem. It is the only Gaza Strip crossing point through which Israel allows goods to pass, which it then carefully inspects. The crossing r emains closed for days and even weeks at a time. Some things are in fact being produced in Gaza, but bringing the products to market is fraught with difficulty. There is very little purchasing power locally, and exporting – even into the West Bank – is a formidable challenge. The importation of humanitarian and other goods is still bogged down. In the last three weeks of February alone, the prices of salt, flour and sugar rose by 50 per cent. The whole population feels the effects of that.

 The EU and the US want to discontinue their payments to the Palestinians in order to isolate Hamas. What does the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have to say about that?  

It is not the ICRC’s way to give advice to governments. However, we do have a duty to point out the consequences of certain actions. If the Palestinian authorities can no longer pay the salaries of 140,000 civil servants, then from five to ten times as many people – all those who until now have depended upon those salaries – will be punished, thus aggravating the economic crisis, making the humanitarian situation even more acute and further eroding security.

 Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. It referred to the latest suicide bombing in Tel Aviv as a “natural result” of the occupation. What should Israel do?  

Acts of terror intentionally target civilians or at least take no account of civilian deaths. That is explicitly prohibited under international humanitarian law. The ICRC condemns such attacks. Israel clearly has a right and a duty to defend its population against such attacks. It can prosecute the presumed perpetrator, but must act within the framework of its obligations under international law. It may not simply execute suspected accomplices through so-called targeted killings.

 On the whole, the Palestinian population gives the impression of being rather patient and almost disciplined.  

Yes, and Israel, as the occupying power, has a responsibility towards this population. We are in constant dialogue with the Israeli government on this subject.

 What kinds of things do you discuss with them?  

Here is an example: a barrier built by Israel within its own territory may be unattractive, but it is legal. However, if the barrier alters the 1949 cease-fire line and creates a new reality in occupied territory, as is the case in Qalqilya, Jerusalem and elsewhere, it is illegal. We pointed this out publicly two years ago. Since then the barrier at Qalqilya has risen to a height of eight metres, separating farmers from their fields and children from their schools. Every day, our delegates ensure that gates along the barrier are opened and access or safe passage granted.

 That’s how it is in the West Bank. But in the Gaza Strip, from which Israel has withdrawn, don’t the Palestinians have to get themselves out of the mess?  

Israel still controls the borders of the Gaza Strip. It is still the de facto occupying power there too. It cannot evade that responsibility.

 In other words, if the EU and the US cut off money to the Palestinians then ultimately Israel will have to pay.  

That idea cannot be completely dismissed. Brussels and Washington have promised to do everything they can to avoid a crisis, in humanitarian terms, in the Palestinian territories. It remains to be seen, however, what that means concretely.

 Doesn’t it simply mean that instead of Hamas it will be up to the ICRC to do what needs to be done?  

It’s not as simple as that. The ICRC is indeed prepared to step up its activities in the Palestinian territories. But no one should have any illusions: humanitarian organizations cannot work miracles. They do provide short-term aid, but when the authorities are no longer able to perform basic services the aid organizations cannot take over for them. We cannot pay salaries and dispatch policemen. On the contrary, should the security situation deteriorate further, the activities of the Red Cross and other aid organizations will be further restricted. In this matter too Israel bears responsibility.


 In December 2003 the ICRC stopped delivering food to needy people in the West Bank, because it did not want the Palestinians to come to depend on handouts. Are you now resuming the deliveries where you left off?  

It is true that we suspended the food programme. At the same time, we reminded Israel of its duties as the occupying power – this made it credible that we carry out such programmes only when there is no alternative. We will therefore be believed when we determine that the situation of the Palestinian population has deteriorated to such an extent that a resumption of food deliveries is absolutely necessary. None of the details have yet been decided. We are analysing the situation and also considering how we can strengthen our sister organizations, the Magen David Adom in Israel and the Palestine Red Crescent Society.