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The ICRC since 1945: the Suez crisis of 1956


How the ICRC acted on the basis of the newly revised Geneva Conventions to try to protect and assist prisoners of war, the wounded and sick and civilians.

Against a backdrop of increasingly tense relations between Egypt and the West, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in July 1956.

On 29 October Israeli forces launched an attack on Egyptian positions, moving into the Gaza Strip and the Sinai peninsular; the following day Paris and London threatened to occupy the canal zone. British and French troops landed at the northern end of the canal on 5 November.

On 2 November the UN General Assembly had adopted a resolution calling for a ceasefire and, the very day French and British land forces went into action, voted for the creation of an emergency force to supervise a cessation of hostilities. Two days later, on 7 November, the belligerents agreed to a ceasefire under whose terms French and British troops would be replaced by a UN force; this was done by 24 December, although Israeli forces remained in the Gaza Strip and the Gulf of Aqaba until March the following year.

 ICRC offer of services  

Britain, while not having ratified the Geneva Conventions of 1949, told the ICRC it would apply them. On 2 November the ICRC called on the four countries involved in the hostilities to take all steps necessary to ensure the full application of the law and stated its readiness to carry out the tasks entrusted to it under the Conventions, such as visiting prisoners of war and interned civilians.

The ICRC also arranged for a message to be broadcast, in various languages, on Egyptian radio. It called on all concerned to ensure that wounded and sick be cared for without distinction, for medical units and transport to be prote cted from attack and for prisoners and civilians to be treated humanely.

On 11 November the ICRC dispatched an aircraft with medical supplies to Cairo. Some of the supplies were given to the Egyptian Red Crescent, the rest was destined for Port Said, which was held by French and British troops. After negotiations with the occupying forces the medical supplies reached the city on 16 November – the first of several such consignments.

(The question of assistance to the civilian population remained of concern to the ICRC even after the conflict ended. In February 1957 a joint operation between the ICRC, the Egyptian Red Crescent and the League (today the International Federation) was set up to provide assistance to some 15,000 civilians in Port Said whose homes had been destroyed during the attack by British and French forces.)

 Visits to prisoners  

While in Port Said and Port Fuad an ICRC delegate visited Egyptian prisoners of war and arranged for them to write messages home. This was a relief for the soldiers’ families, many of whom had besieged the ICRC office in Cairo with requests for information.

Meanwhile in Israel another ICRC delegate was visiting more than 5,000 Egyptian POWs; he also saw Egyptian civilians interned in the Gaza Strip, and organized the distribution of relief supplies to the needy in al Arish and Rafah.

In early December two operations were carried out to repatriate seriously wounded Egyptian prisoners from Israel. Altogether, 48 prisoners benefited from this measure. Similar operations were carried out for seriously wounded Egyptian prisoners held in Port Said.

It took until mid-December for the ICRC to obtain confirmation of the four Israeli POWs (an officer and three soldiers) held by the Egyptians. Initially an ICRC delegat e was able to visit the officer, who was detained separately; later the three soldiers were also seen. All were released in January 1957.

In December the ICRC facilitated the release of prisoners held by the French and British. Later it helped arrange the release and repatriation of Egyptian prisoners held by Israel, with the first operation taking place on 21 January 1957 – on this occasion 500 prisoners were handed over to officers of the UN Emergency Force. Further releases followed until the operation was completed on 5 February.

 Help for Jews in Egypt  

After the start of the conflict the Egyptian authorities accused the thousands of Jews living in Egypt of collusion with Israel and ordered repressive measures against them. On 27 November the ICRC called on the Egyptian government to lift an expulsion threat it had made against stateless Jews and asked for time to enable measures to be taken that would guarantee respect for the fourth Geneva Convention.

To this end the ICRC chartered 14 ships, between January and September 1957, to transport more than 7,000 people to Greece or Italy, as a first step to permanent resettlement.