Can you explain what the ICRC calls "Protection activities"?
The aim of ICRC's Protection activities is to ensure respect for the civilian population. Obviously, the ICRC cannot physically protect people. However it aims at preventing violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) as regards the civilian population and is based on the role that the States party to the Geneva Conventions have given to the ICRC. In other words, the ICRC monitors the respect of IHL and reports violations to those responsible for them. This is something the ICRC does all over the world.
In this context, the Israeli Government, as the Occupying Power according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, has certain obligations towards the Palestinian population. The ICRC reminds the Israeli authorities about them on a regular basis .
Protection activities also include ICRC visits to Palestinian detainees, both those in Israeli and in Palestinian hands, as well as the efforts to re-establish family links between separated relatives. (These other Protection activities are not addressed in detail in this Newsletter).
What kinds of problems do civilians face?
On the Palestinian side, the answer varies according to area. Globally, one can say that the main problems are related to restriction of movement, improper behaviour by Israeli soldiers or Border Guard (during operations or at checkpoints), and acts of violence committed by settlers. Some of these problems, such as restriction of movement, affect not only the daily life of the Palestinians but have longer-term consequences, including economic ones linked, for instance, to the difficulty of transporting and marketing locally produced goods.
On the Israeli side, the civilian population faces indiscriminate attacks such as suicide bombings. These constitute a violation of IHL, as do attacks against settlements, as settlers are civilians. The use of minors in the conflict and extra-judicial kill ings of alleged collaborators are other violations committed by some Palestinian groups.
Can you describe what the ICRC’s Protection work in the Palestinian Territories actually consists of?
ICRC delegates spend most of their time in the towns and villages of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When they are informed about an alleged violation of IHL, they go to the spot in order to document the case by collecting testimonies from different sources (mainly the victims and the neighbours) and listening to different versions of the events. The collected information is then presented to the Israeli authorities, specifically to the Liaison Officers of the Civil Administration. The latter will cross-check the information with the battalions and the soldiers who were present during the events, and then report their findings to the ICRC. The whole discussion is confidential. In some cases, written interventions are sent to higher military authorities.
The aim is to ensure that such events do not happen again and that clear orders are issued in this regard. ICRC's main message is that the civilian population has to be spared.
On a more practical side, ICRC delegates are in constant contact with the Israeli authorities at district level to try and solve individual problems.
What is the impact of your efforts?
It is difficult to evaluate the impact of ICRC's efforts towards fostering increased respect for IHL. It is not like concrete assistance projects, which bring visible results. If a military operation is carried out according to the rules, how can we know how much the ICRC contributed to it? There is definitely a certain " restraint " effect. It is, however, much more difficult to assess the impact at the policy level, such as th e decision to build the West Bank Barrier, or its routing. On the other hand, when it comes to concrete problems, there are results such as the opening of gates in the West Bank Barrier and the smooth passage of ambulances through the checkpoints.
What means does the ICRC have to ensure respect for IHL?
As explained before, the ICRC reports violations of IHL to the relevant authorities. It is not the ICRC's role, however, to act as a policeman or as a prosecutor taking measures against those who disrespect the law.
ICRC's main tool is its ongoing dialogue with the authorities in order to persuade them that it is in their interest to respect IHL. States are legally bound by these rules (Israel ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1951) and I see at least two practical reasons why they should respect them: to avoid an escalation of violence and to facilitate reconciliation at the end of the conflict.
The ICRC might also consider sensitizing embassies and other influential international actors about worrying humanitarian issues.
What is the added value of the ICRC?
Everybody's contribution is important. I think the more people who work to raise awareness of humanitarian problems, the better. However, the ICRC has some specific strong points, such as a significant field presence that allows it to react very quickly. It also has a good network of contacts with all those involved in the conflict, who can be alerted whenever a problem arises. Let me give you an example: suppose an ambulance from the Palestine Red Crescent Society is blocked at a checkpoint. The ICRC, once informed, will get in touch with the Israeli Liaison Officer, who will forward the information to the Operational Command, who will in turn contact the checkpoint commander. In 85% of the cases, the ambulance is allowed through.
Why did the ICRC decide to work confidentially?
The ICRC is confident that dialogue is an effective means of persuading those people in charge to assume their responsibilities. Working in a confidential way is a tool, not an end in itself. The ICRC generally has access to sensitive places such as prisons and detention centres based on the idea that it will not expose what it has seen to the world. It has proved to be an effective way of working. Confidentiality tends to increase the acceptance of the ICRC by the authorities; this is important because the fate of those afflicted by armed conflicts depends also on the fact that humanitarian agencies have access to them.
In practice, the ICRC's discreet approach is complementary to the efforts made by advocacy organisations.
When confidentiality does not work, do you change your policy?
Yes, the ICRC does sometimes speak out about severe violations of IHL! And we believe that the fact that this is a rare occurrence gives ICRC's public statements particular weight.
In order to ensure a coherent approach worldwide, however, certain criteria must pertain before the ICRC resorts to denunciation. First, the violation of international humanitarian law must be repeated and have been confirmed by credible sources. Second, interventions must have already been submitted, in vain, to the responsible authorities. Finally, a denunciation can only be made if it is in the interest of the victim - meaning that there is no risk of retaliatory measures.
In this context, recently, ICRC’s main public statements to denounce a vio lation of IHL include press releases about the illegality of the West Bank Barrier deviating into Palestinian land and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks against civilians on both sides.