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Israel-Lebanon: "the ICRC has the trust of both sides"

15-07-2008 Interview

Ahead of the repatriation of detainees and mortal remains between Israel and Lebanon due to take place on 16 July, Eric Marclay, the ICRC's senior deputy head of operations for the Middle East and North Africa, explains why the organization is involved and what role it will play.

  ©ICRC/A. Amro    
  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.    
  Eric Marclay    
     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 h eard 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. 


 What does this imply in practical terms?  


Not all details of the operation are known yet. As in other similar operations that took place in the past, ICRC delegates will be present during the whole operation, in particular at the Israel-Lebanon border crossing of Ras Naqura / Rosh Hanikra. The detainees due to be released have already been interviewed in private to make sure that they are not being repatriated against their will. The ICRC delegates will receive the detainees and the mortal remains as agreed between Israel and Hezbollah and ensure their transportation across the border to hand them over to Israel and Hezbollah respectively.

 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 human itarian 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.