Israel and the Palestinian territories - press conference
11-04-2006 Press Briefing
Pierre Krähenbühl, the ICRC's director of operations, has recently completed a one-week visit to Israel and the Occupied and Autonomous Palestinian Territories. The objective was to gain deeper insight into the situation there and to review the ICRC's activities. The following is a transcript of what he said during the press conference on 10 April 2006.
I held meetings with senior officials of the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs and with the Palestinian authorities, including President Mahmoud Abbas and the newly appointed foreign minister. I also met with the chairman of the MDA and the president of the PRCS.
Before turning to some of the main impressions gathered and concerns raised in the course of the visit, allow me to provide some background on the ICRC's presence and activities in this context.
The ICRC has been active since 1948 and permanently present since 1967. It currently has 260 staff members, of which 60 are expatriates, and a budget of 42 million Swiss francs for 2006. This makes it the third largest ICRC operation worldwide and underlines many years of sustained commitment.
A central feature of the ICRC's activities is the endeavour to ensure that the State of Israel fully respects the provisions of international humanitarian law (IHL), including the law of occupation.
An important ICRC activity is visits to detainees. Some 10,000 detainees are currently held by Israel and regularly visited by the ICRC. The ICRC also organizes the visits of family members to their relatives detained in Israel through a family visiting programme. In 2005, some 210,000 relatives benefited from this programme.
The ICRC also visits detainees in Palestinian jails (a few hundred currently). Moreover, the ICRC raises the importance of respecting the rules and principles of IHL with the Palestinian authorities and security forces, in particular the need to distinguish between civilians and military targets.
The ICRC also conducts water and sanitation projects and livelihood projects for thousands of Palestinians most affected by restrictions of movement, the West Bank barrier and the settlements. It provides assistance kits to people who have suffered the destruction of their homes. At times, it carries out direct relief distributions to families, such as in Hebron.
The ICRC cooperates closely with the Palestine Red Crescent Society and the Magen David Adom, mainly in the field of their medical emergency services to which the ICRC provides important support.
It is important to underline the quality of the contacts and dialogue with both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities, something that was confirmed during meetings held with them in the past few days.
Turning now more specifically to the current situation, I would like to highlight the following:
As a first remark, I would like to underline the extreme hardship that a majority of Palestinians have to endure – and have increasingly had to endure in recent years.
Their overall economic situation has continuously declined in past years, notably because of a whole range of measures that impose severe restrictions on movement within the West Bank and to and from Gaza. These restrictions significantly hinder the Palestinian population's capacity to live a normal life.
When I speak of restriction, one has to imagine a range of methods from observation posts, road blocks, check points, the West Bank barrier and other physical obstacles.
For a majority of people the smallest trip – or simply attempting to leave one's town – becomes a huge challenge and often a painful experience.
This results in people's access to basic services, such as hospitals and schools, being cut. Moreover, these restrictions have had a negative impact on the economy, on the movement of goods to and from local markets, and on employment.
The ongoing construction of the West Bank barrier has, in a number of instances, meant the requisition of land fro m Palestinians, who have thus lost a further source of revenue.
Another example, in the Gaza strip, is the impact of the repeated and prolonged closure of the Karni crossing point. This has exacerbated hardship and affected the livelihoods of producers across the strip who are unable to transfer and sell their goods in West Bank markets. It has also led to price rises of several commodities: wheat flour and salt, for example, which saw a 50% increase over a three-week period last February.
The ICRC recognizes the State of Israel's right to take measures to ensure the security and well-being of its population.
At the same time, however, Israel, as an occupying power, has obligations to ensure the well-being of the population in the occupied Palestinian territories.
In this context, I expressed in my meetings with the Israeli authorities – as well as with the Palestinian authorities – a serious concern. An inability on the part of the Palestinian authority to provide its range of services and uphold law and order, following, in particular, the decision to withhold funds and assistance from the newly elected Palestinian authority, could produce a further deterioration of the situation for the population and a broader humanitarian emergency.
The ICRC is very concerned about the possible consequences on the ground, in terms of a deterioration in both the humanitarian and security environment.
The ICRC is closely following these developments through its various offices. We are prepare d to step up our activities in response to new or broader needs.
From my discussions and from statements made by the State of Israel and members of the international community, it appears that everyone is committed to prevent a humanitarian crisis developing.
This is welcome, but let me draw attention to the following:
First, as I have pointed out already, the Palestinian population has faced prolonged hardship and a breakdown in the provision of public services with effects that go beyond a humanitarian crisis and humanitarian consequences.
A recent World Bank study points to a projected rise of unemployment from the current 23% to 39% and to a fall of the real gross domestic product per capita by 49% compared to 1999 levels.
While the ICRC is prepared to step up its activities to respond to potentially growing needs, I want to stress that there should be no illusion that humanitarian organizations are able to replace the Palestinian authority in its role as a provider of public services.
Humanitarian action cannot be the magic formula to deal with the scale and range of problems that may be emerging.
Furthermore, current developments may also result in a worsening security environment that could hamper the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance.
Against this worrying backdrop, my last remark on the situation is to underline that under international humanitarian law, it is the responsibility of the occupying power to ensure that the basic needs of the population in the occupied territories are met: foodstuffs, medical supplies, shelter, etc. Under IHL, any state must also allow free passage of essential humanitarian assistance.
The ICRC will follow this delicate situation closely.
Lastly, during my talks with Palestinian and Israeli authorities, I also reiterated the crucial importance of progress in implementing the operational agreement reached in November 2005 between the MDA and PRCS, in view of the upcoming International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in June.