Middle East: press briefing with Pierre Krähenbühl, ICRC director of operations
19-07-2006 Press Briefing
In a press briefing held in Geneva Wednesday 19 July, ICRC director of operations Pierre Krähenbühl reminded all parties to the conflict of their obligation to respect the principle of proportionality in all military operations, so as to prevent unnecessary suffering among the civilian population. Speaking notes from the press briefing.
Thank you for joining us at this briefing on the conflict between Israel and Lebanon. As you are well aware a very tragic situation has been unfolding over the past week, with civilians bearing the brunt of the military operations underway.
I would like to share with you:
- the ICRC's assessment of the situation and the main humanitarian concerns in Lebanon and in northern Israel;
- the response of the ICRC and the Lebanese Red Cross: what we have been focusing on over the past days in Lebanon and how we are stepping up our operation.
Let me begin then with the situation and main humanitarian concerns. I would like to mention five:
1. Clearly, the most worrying in the ICRC's view is the situation of civilians.
The civilian population is bearing extremely heavy consequences of the military action. The high number of civilian casualties and the extent of damage to essential public infrastructure raise serious questions regarding the respect of the principle of proportionality in the conduct of hostilities.
Large numbers of civilians in Lebanon are continuously exposed to and are frequently victims of bombardments from the air, by artillery or from the sea.
Civilians in northern Israel have been killed and injured in a series of rocket attacks into cities by Hezbollah.
The number of casualties reported in Lebanon is: about 230 killed and over 600 wounded. In Israel: 13 civilians killed and over 150 wounded.
In the case of Lebanon, there have been several instances, in which bombardments have affected the centre of villages and residential areas inside towns. Entire apartment blocks have been damaged or destroyed. In several of these attacks, military operations have led to the death or injury of a large number of civilians, with many others reported to be in the rubble of their destroyed homes.
This was the case for example on 13 July, when villages in Southern Lebanon suffered attacks and reports indicated two incidents in Douair and Baflay where an entire family of ten, including eight children, and another family of seven members were killed. Many bodies are reported to be still in the rubble of the destroyed houses.
Likewise on 15 July, an Israeli air strike killed 20 Lebanese civilians from the village of Marwahin and wounded 3, including women and children, who were fleeing southern border areas.
Another dramatic event reported today: Israeli Defence Forces bombed the streets in Srifa in southern Lebanon. Again, 20 people are reported dead and more trapped in several apartment blocks leveled during the attack.
There are also situations of populations trapped in their villages in the South: the situation being too tense for them to move and leave the most dangerous regions.
In the north of Israel, attacks by Hezbollah have among other towns killed people in Haifa.
2. A second important issue of concern is the fact that:
Access to people in need of assistance, wounded and internally displaced persons (IDPs), is severely limited by the ongoing hostilities;
Medical evacuations and the safeguard of the medical mission remain deeply problematic .
The principal medical concern currently within Lebanon is the evacuation of patients to hospitals. This includes war-wounded persons as well as other persons in need of urgent medical care. Due to the damage to the road infrastructure and ongoing military action, the ability of the Lebanese Red Cross, who provides the bulk of ambulance services in the country, has been constrained.
Lebanese Red Cross ambulances are operating under very difficult circumstances and incidents have occurred. On 17 July, in Tyre, a missile hit the middle of the town, 10 meters away from a clearly marked Lebanese Red Cross ambulance and 30 meters away from Tyre's main hospital.
On 12 July, the IDF bombed the Qasmiye bridge, located north of Tyre. Three ambulances, one from the Lebanese Red Cross, one from the Civil Defence and one private were damaged. A number of first aid workers were reportedly injured in this incident.
According to media reports, on 18 July, a medical convoy and ambulances of the United Arab Emirates were targeted at the Syrian-Lebanese border. The ICRC has bee n approached by the UAE Red Crescent on this matter and we are following it with them.
3. A third concern is that:
All across the country, large numbers of people are fleeing the conflict zones under dangerous circumstances.
Although large numbers of people are fleeing the South and the southern suburbs of Beirut, precise numbers are impossible to estimate at this time. What we do have at this time is tens of thousands of people crossing into Syria.
4. A fourth preoccupation is that:
There has also been widespread destruction or damage to public infrastructure.
Since the beginning of the recent military operations, about 20 bridges on major roads have been destroyed and highways bombarded, including the one linking Beirut to Damascus, by the Israeli Defence Forces.
The power company in Jieh, south of Beirut, has officially announced that they are stopping the power plant, which has been bombarded several times by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
5. My final point in the description of the situation is related to the consequences of the current naval and air blockade.
Blockade imposed by IDF over Lebanon or parts of it since 13 July.
All sea ports have been blocked by IDF navy vessels; the civilian international airport in Beirut being the only airway in. This blockade must not prevent food and other essential supplies from reaching the civilian popul ation, when unadequately supplied.
As is obvious from these points, there has been much loss of life already, many civilians injured, trauma for countless men, women and children exposed to the unfolding war, as well as severe damage to infrastructure, some of which is essential to the survival and well-being of the population. All this in a few days only.
The ICRC is very worried about this dramatic situation and I would like now to turn to our activities to date and those planned for the immediate next days and weeks.
Concerning ICRC and other Red Cross Red Crescent Movement action
As we recall, the military operations began after the capture by Hezbollah of two Israeli soldiers. The ICRC action at that time was to contact Hezbollah, to urge the group to treat the two Israeli soldiers humanely, and to respect their lives and dignity. It insisted that the soldiers must also be allowed to contact their families.
We made a request to Hezbollah for access to these two. To date there has not been a positive response to this request.
With the onset of the military campaign by Israeli Defence Forces, the ICRC then set its focus firmly on the situation of civilians, in particular persons wounded.
The ICRC team in Beirut and its staff in the south put priority on strengthening the capacity of the Lebanese Red Cross. In particular to ensure that the Society's ambulance services remain operational to the widest extent possible.
The Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) has a remarkable track-record in operating during the civil war. It has experience and a wide network of volunteers. It is today the most active humanitarian actor in the south. Its ambulances have been transporting the wounded and sick to t he hospitals and other medical facilities and its volunteers have been providing medical assistance for people fleeing the conflict zone.
The Lebanese Red Cross, which has mobilized 2,400 volunteers, has 200 ambulances and three fully-equipped operation rooms available in the south and north, as well as in Beirut and the Bekaa valley.
Between 12 and 18 July, the LRC reported the evacuation of over a hundred wounded, over 90 sick people as well as dead bodies.
With such a capacity available locally, experienced and able to respond immediately, it was natural that the ICRC would focus in the first days on strengthening that capacity, while taking parallel measures to reinforce its own presence and operations in Lebanon.
The ICRC has since begun concentrating on the movements of the displaced population and is working in close cooperation with the LRC to ensure that the necessary food and non-food stocks are adequately provided.
To date, the ICRC staff based in Beirut, Tyre and Nabatiyeh are assessing the situation as best they can and working closely with Lebanese Red Cross teams in their areas.
In the north of Israel, an ICRC team has taken part in an evaluation of needs with the Magen David Adom, another very experienced actor. We will see in coming days, what contribution the ICRC can make to addressing those needs. Initial requests from the MDA are in the field of medical supplies.
Turning again to Lebanon:
The first ICRC relief items – two truckloads of food and other emergency items – reached Beirut on 18 July . The first emergency supplies of the ICRC have reached Beirut on 18 July, coming from Amman through Syria, in cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, to address the most pressing needs in cooperation with the Lebanese Red Cross: two trucks with food and other emergency items - 24 tons, for 4000 persons. Another convoy is expected Friday 21 July.
To address emergency needs over the next few weeks in Lebanon and to support the Lebanese Red Cross, the ICRC has asked donor countries for an initial 10 million Swiss francs that serve as a matter of priority to assist internally displaced people and other vulnerable persons and to support medical and ambulance services of the Lebanese Red Cross and its 2,400 volunteers.
The ICRC is expanding its current team of 6 expatriate and 15 Lebanese staff to over 20 expatriate and the required Lebanese staff.
This is a very first step only and based on what we are currently seeing, we will return to donors in a few weeks with a more comprehensive outline of needs and means required.
As I have said earlier, the ICRC is also concerned about the fate of civilians in the north of Israel. The appeal we present today covers Lebanon. The response in northern Israel falls under the budget of the Israel delegation.
The ICRC is coordinating the action of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in Lebanon . The ICRC assumes its role of lead agency to coordinate and consolidate Red Cross/Red Crescent movement response.
Movement members have been very eager to get assistance into the country. The Syrian Red Crescent has been very cooperative: ICRC's first relief came through Syria.
The ICRC is also coordinating assessments of the situation and planning for further relief operations with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Soc ieties and the Lebanese Red Cross on the one hand, with the Magen David Adom on the other.
I would like to conclude this presentation with remarks on the representations we have made with the different parties and actors.
Since the beginning of the military operations, the ICRC has reminded the parties – publicly and through its dialogue with them – of the obligation to distinguish between civilians and civilian objects on the one hand, and military objectives on the other. Hezbollah has continued to fire rockets into cities in northern Israel, killing and injuring civilians. Hezbollah fighters too are bound by the rules of international humanitarian law and that they must not target civilians or civilian infrastructures.
We have also raised:
the obligation to respect the principle of proportionality in all military operations, so as to prevent unnecessary suffering among the civilian population.
the obligation under IHL to respect and protect the medical mission, personnel and means of transport.
and that all precautions must be taken to spare civilian life and objects and to ensure that the wounded have access to medical facilities.
The ICRC now expects improved access and security for medical teams.
These representations have been made in Israel with the Ministry of foreign affairs and Army command, and in Lebanon with the Prime minister. This has also included Hezbollah with whom the ICRC has contact.
President Kellenberger yesterday met with Ambassadors posted to Geneva of Israel, Lebanon, United States of America and Russia. ICRC vice-president today is to meet with the European Union Presidency.
As a matter of conclusion, building up a capacity to respond in such a context of war is demanding and dangerous. ICRC is focused on having the best possible impact for the populations affected.