Middle East

‘In the line of fire’: The crucial, neutral role the Red Cross plays in conflicts

By Heather Chen, CNN

CNN  — 

During the brief truce between Israel and Hamas earlier this month, it was people in white vests driving SUVs who escorted freed hostages to safety.

Sporting unmistakable red and white livery, the men and women of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) co-ordinated the transfer of hostages from the control of masked Hamas gunmen back into Israel, as well as the return of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli detention.

“Sometimes it looks like it’s just driving people from one place to another,” said Fabrizio Carboni, Regional Director for the Near and Middle East for the ICRC.

“But it’s about agreeing on when, how, what, and all this needs to be coordinated, with different movement also outside Gaza,” Carboni told CNN.

“As you know, there were also Palestinian detainees who were released and brought back to their families. So, it’s extremely complex.”

An International Red Cross vehicle carrying Israeli Russian hostage Ron Krivoy released by Hamas drives towards the Rafah border point with Egypt ahead of a transfer to Israel on November 26, 2023. The Israeli army said in a statement on November 26, 2023 that 13 released hostages were back on Israeli territory, and another four were on their way via the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. (Photo by Mohammed ABED / AFP) (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

The truce between Israel and Hamas collapsed after 7 days last week and fighting is once again raging, with Israel’s bombardment increasingly focusing on Gaza’s south, where hundreds of thousands of refugees had already fled.

Palestinian hospitals are filling once more with dead and wounded and the fate of the remaining 138 hostages Israel believes to be still in captivity is far from clear.

As a neutral intermediary between the two sides, the Red Cross is on standby to facilitate more exchanges.

But in the past week, the organization has also had to defend itself against criticism that it’s not doing enough in Gaza to help the remaining hostages.

An Israeli mother, whose son is believed to be held hostage in Gaza, said that the Red Cross had done “a wonderful job being the Uber service for the hostages who are released,” but had done nothing for those still being held.

People gather with signs for a demonstration calling upon the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to take action for the release of hostages abducted by Palestinian militants on October 7 and currently held in the Gaza Strip, outside the ICRC offices in Tel Aviv on November 9, 2023 amid the ongoing fighting between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Speaking on the BBC World Service’s Newshour program, ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric said criticism of the Red Cross’ role in facilitating the release of hostages was “profoundly unjust, unfair, and it’s wrong.”

“We are working round the clock with the authorities on the Israeli side to make [the release of hostages] possible whenever there is an agreement to release hostages,” she said.

Robert Mardini, Director General of the ICRC, told CNN that there were “limits to what humanitarians can do.”

“Our staff and volunteers are all in the line of fire,” he said. “Bearing witness to the terrible and very difficult conditions of delivering impartial humanitarian services in this context.”

A long and storied history

Being in the line of fire is something Red Cross volunteers have faced for the last 160 years.

Founded in Geneva in 1863, the ICRC is the oldest and one of the most honored humanitarian organizations in the world.

A three-time Nobel Peace Prize winner, winning the award during the two World Wars and on the centenary of its creation, the ICRC operates in more than 100 countries, supporting those affected by war, natural disasters and other global crises through a humanitarian network of some 80 million people.

“The ICRC responds quickly and efficiently to help people affected by armed conflict. We also respond to disasters in conflict zones because the effects of a disaster are compounded if a country is already at war,” the organization said in a statement on its official website.

“Emergencies are unpredictable so our rapid deployment capability is hugely important.”

DUZCE,TURKIYE - FEBRUARY 04: A view of the Turkish Red Crescent blood donation center in Duzce, Turkiye on February 04, 2019. (Photo by Omer Urer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In Muslim majority nations, the ICRC carries out its humanitarian work under a crescent moon – the first to adopt the symbol was the Turkish Red Crescent, founded under the Ottoman Empire in 1868.

The Palestinian Red Crescent Society was formally founded in 1968, initially to help Palestinian refugees in Jordan, and now represents Palestinians both in West Bank and Gaza and the wider diaspora. In 2006 it was admitted as a full fledged member of the ICRC.

“We are the middle man and see suffering on all sides… never involved in politics or political processes,” said Balthasar Staehelin, who heads its delegation for East Asia in Beijing.

“If a person has needs or is suffering, we are there to help, it’s simple and we do not ask about one’s race or religion, or political beliefs.”

Civilians who left the area near Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol walk accompanied by a member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at a temporary accommodation centre during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the village of Bezimenne in the Donetsk Region, Ukraine May 1, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

The organization’s history begins with Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant, who in 1859 came across hundreds of soldiers who lay dying on the Italian battlefield of Solferino.

Horrified by what he saw, Dunant took it upon himself to help the injured men, organizing teams of civilians to assist with medical treatment and care.

After returning to Geneva, he went on to write a book, A Memory of Solferino, that detailed his harrowing experiences.

“So much agony, so much suffering – the wounds, aggravated by the heat, the lack of water and assistance caused more intense pain,” Dunant wrote. “Could not voluntary aid societies be founded, whose function would be to provide, or arrange to provide, help for the wounded during wartime?”

His plea would inadvertently give rise to the creation of the ICRC and the first of the Geneva Conventions.

Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) members deliver medical aid to the Nasser Medical Hospital in Khan Younis, Gaza, on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023. Authorities in Hamas-run Gaza said Israeli attacks have killed 8,306 Palestinians since Oct. 7. Photographer: Ahmad Salem/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Over the next century and a half, Red Cross and Red Crescent groups have been present at virtually every conflict – the group’s World War One archives alone contain details on more than 2 million prisoners of war (POWs).

In 2003, Nelson Mandela recalled how he was regularly visited by the ICRC during his long years of prison in apartheid South Africa.

“To me personally, and those who shared the experience of being political prisoners, the Red Cross was a beacon of humanity within the dark inhumane world of political imprisonment,” he said.

KALAMATA, GREECE - JUNE 14: Members of the Red Cross and UNHCR wait outside of a hangar where more than 100 migrants have been temporarily housed as the Greek Coast Guard ship with 79 recovered bodies arrives to a port on June 14, 2023 in Kalamata, Greece. A fishing boat carrying hundreds of passengers attempting to reach Europe capsized and sank off Greece on June 14, leaving at least 79 dead and many more missing in one of the worst disasters of its kind in the past decade. Greece declared a three-day national mourning period for the victims of the shipwreck of its southern coast on June 14. (Photo by Byron Smith/Getty Images)

Responding to natural disasters is another key element of the ICRC’s work.

During the height of the initial coronavirus rampage through Italy, Red Cross workers were among those going door to door in the city of Bergamo.

When an earthquake tore through northern Afghanistan earlier this year, the ICRC were among the few international aid organizations still present in the country since the Taliban’s takeover.

But hostage and prisoner exchanges however are often the most politically fraught moments for the Red Cross, which maintains that neutrality in all and any conflict is crucial for the role it plays.

Refugees eat food in a tent of the Armenian Red Cross registration centre, near the border town of Kornidzor, on September 26, 2023. Hundreds of vehicles were heading to Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh on September 26, 2023,  following Azerbaijan's lightning offensive against the separatist enclave, an AFP team at the scene said. (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD / AFP) / "The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by ALAIN JOCARD has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [September 26] instead of [September 25]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require." (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has brought large scale mechanized war back to Europe and the ICRC is once again visiting POWs on both sides.

Earlier this year, it facilitated the exchange of hundreds of prisoners in Yemen’s conflict and did the same in 2016 for 21 girls in Nigeria who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram militants.

“Our Movement’s fundamental principles of impartiality and neutrality are crucial in this work,” the ICRC said in a recent statement it issued about its work with hostages in Israel and Gaza.

“The ICRC is not a negotiator. We don’t take sides.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that Israel was “pressing” to allow the Red Cross to visit hostages in Gaza.

“I spoke with the president of the Red Cross again today and I told her to turn to Qatar, since it has been proven that they have leverage over Hamas, and demand Red Cross visits with our hostages and, of course, the providing of medicines for them,” he said in a video statement.

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