Humanitarian protection: a case study from Palestine
by Erik Johnson, formerly Oxfam April 2004

The prevailing protection discourse amongst humanitarian agencies focuses on appeals to the responsibilities and obligations of belligerents and occupying powers under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). However, most aid workers know that rhetoric rarely intersects with reality on the ground.

States – including nations traditionally held to be the guarantors of the principles underpinning IHL – flagrantly violate it, and agencies’ attempts to link power with responsibility are frequently and deliberately thwarted. While agencies must continue the struggle to change this status quo, field-level strategies must meanwhile provide protection in spite of it.

This article examines the protection challenges Oxfam faced doing a water project in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in 2002 and 2003. Oxfam sought to help the villagers affected to maintain their access to a critical water supply. More broadly, the agency was also concerned with protecting the villagers from violence, prevailing upon the Israeli army to honour to its protection responsibilities while the project was being completed. The article examines the protection measures adopted, attempts to understand why some strategies failed and others were successful, and offers recommendations for further research and action.

The protection environment in Madama

Madama is a Palestinian village of approximately 2,000 people near the town of Nablus, in the OPT. In 1983, the Israeli settlement of Yizhar was built on a hilltop approximately 1.5km away. Villagers report that Israeli settlers have frequently fired on them, and in 2002 they vandalised a natural spring near the village, which provided crucial drinking water. The village council approached Oxfam for help in repairing the spring and protecting it from further vandalism. They also asked for Oxfam’s help in protecting workers from the Israeli settlers and army. Villagers had been fired on at the spring’s location on several occasions; one person had been injured and a donkey killed.

The primary point of contact for humanitarian agencies in the OPT is the civil liaison branch of the Israeli army. Oxfam requested its assistance to ensure that the workers repairing the spring would be free from harassment by the army or the settlers at Yizhar. Civil liaison staff reviewed the request and gave verbal guarantees that agency staff and villagers would be safe.

On the morning work was due to begin, Oxfam contacted the civil liaison branch to ensure that the settlers and army personnel were informed of the project. The agency was repeatedly assured that the work was authorised and safe. Three international staff members were present at the worksite, and a large ECHO flag was planted nearby (ECHO funded the project). Oxfam vehicles with insignia were also visible about 200 meters away.

The work was quickly stopped by a group of Israeli soldiers from the settlement. They took workers’ IDs, claiming to have no knowledge of the permission from the civil liaison. After about two hours, the documents were returned and the work was allowed to continue. On the following days, the army patrol reappeared and watched from a distance, but did not hinder the work.

After a few days, the village council representatives and Oxfam decided that the villagers could continue the work without the presence of international staff. Oxfam continued to make contact with the civil liaison and the village council prior to the start of work and throughout each day.

Two days later, a van appeared from the settlement road after the work began, and a gunman began firing on the workers. A donkey being used to haul cement was shot and killed. The workers ran from the scene, terrified but unhurt.

Oxfam reported the incident in writing to the officer responsible, to the commander of the civil liaison in the West Bank, and to the ICRC and ECHO. The civil liaison officer apologised and reassured Oxfam and the villagers that such an incident would not happen again. The following morning he met villagers and Oxfam staff in Madama. While there, he tried to extract sensitive information about village residents from the council representative, who politely refused. The officer assured those present that work could continue safely, and drove up the hill to the settlement.

Approximately two hours later an unmarked vehicle appeared from the settlement; the driver opened fire on village workers and Oxfam staff, shooting about 40 rounds. One worker fell and broke his nose while fleeing. Further reports and complaints were made to the Israeli army authorities, and Oxfam also tried to interest an Israeli journalist in the incident. Though promised, no story ever appeared. The commanding officer told Oxfam that the work was not permitted, since the area was under indeterminate status pending final negotiation of the (collapsed) Oslo peace accords. He insisted that a permit request had to be completed before work could continue – despite having already received such a request.

On Oxfam’s advice, the village council made direct contact with an activist group, one of several ‘solidarity organisations’ operating in the OPT, doing witnessing work and acting as human shields and escorts. None of these groups is permitted to work in the OPT, and their members are routinely deported or denied entry into Israel.

Members of the organisation accompanied the workers to repair the spring. With their help the villagers were able to complete the work. Water pipes were subsequently vandalised again at a location closer to the village, but these too were repaired and encased in concrete.


This incident merits analysis not because it was unusual, but because it was common, and bears many of the hallmarks of the most difficult but nevertheless routine protection challenges facing staff working in an environment of protracted conflict, where the military authority has little or no interest in protecting beneficiaries; where there is no accountability to IHL on the ground; and where the monitoring and reporting of human rights violations has had no perceivable effects for those at risk.

Oxfam used a variety of ‘protective’ methods during this incident:

  • establishing a working relationship with representatives of the Israeli army to solicit their permission and agreement not to harass workers;
  • using visible and locally known ‘labels’ – an ECHO flag, Oxfam T-shirts and Oxfam vehicles with humanitarian insignia – to identify the humanitarian nature of the work;
  • maintaining daily contact with the Israeli army before, during and after the work;
  • using international staff as ‘escorts’ to discourage violence against villagers;
  • reporting abuses to the army authorities, both directly and through intermediaries with special access to belligerents;
  • requesting an Israeli army presence at the settlement to control the settlers; and
  • attempting to use the media to attract public attention to the issue.

None of these measures protected staff members or villagers.

Did Oxfam pick the wrong interlocutor? The protection strategy was developed in consultation with the villagers, and with advice from a number of other agencies, both local and international. Everyone consulted used the army’s civil liaison branch to some extent. As the OPT are under Israeli military control and subject to military action at any time, the army is the de facto authority in most areas.

Oxfam staff chose not to negotiate directly with the settlers because:

  • as a civilian rather than a military force, there was no chain of command, and thus there was neither the opportunity to directly address those involved in the violence, nor any accountability;
  • Oxfam’s policy prohibited staff from entering Israeli settlements, both for security reasons and because the agency does not recognise settlements as legitimate since they are in violation of international law; and
  • Oxfam staff believed the villagers’ claims that the settlers had vandalised the spring and were responsible for the shooting. Oxfam believed that the army could serve as an intermediary with the vandals.

Regular escort by international Oxfam staff would probably not have made a difference, since staff were likewise fired upon at the worksite, even while the civil liaison himself was present at the settlement.

The solidarity organisation’s intervention was successful where Oxfam’s failed because the solidarity organisation had:

  • strength in numbers – Oxfam did not have the number of international staff necessary to establish a more visible presence;
  • the willingness to work in the evening and after dark, which is likely to be a more dangerous time;
  • a clear mission to protect human rights, unencumbered by other objectives, such as maintaining a long-term legal presence in the OPT; and
  • the willingness to risk their lives.

Oxfam’s Madama experience shows that, while it is important for agencies to maintain advocacy efforts towards compliance and protection, people at risk and staff in the field can confront threats to individuals’ rights and safety with more pragmatic approaches. In many situations, the most effective protection efforts are often like the one achieved at Madama – what one might call ‘underground protection’.

Where advocacy efforts fell on deaf ears and conventional approaches fell short, a variety of contacts between a village, a humanitarian agency, and a more activist human rights organisation were able to protect workers and enable them to restore a crucial water supply.


When humanitarian agencies consider how their relief programmes may impact upon protection, they should focus on practical outcomes that strive for real safety for those at risk. There is an implicit tension between more activist protection work and humanitarian neutrality, but this tension should not blind agencies to the opportunities they have for assisting in protection. While staff safety, access and the longer-term viability of aid missions are vitally important, aid workers have witnessed countless abuses and been powerless to offer protection.

Humanitarian agencies can maintain their neutrality and the impartial nature of their programmes while still contributing to protection. More information-sharing and creative action are needed to expand the current range of protection strategies and develop innovative approaches that do not jeopardise agencies’ neutrality.

Erik Johnson has worked for six years as a Programme Coordinator in Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Occupied Palestinian Territories for various agencies, including Oxfam. He writes here in a personal capacity, and the views expressed do not reflect any Oxfam policy. His email is:

References and further reading

Mark Frohardt, Diane Paul and Larry Minnear, Protecting Human Rights: The Challenge to Humanitarian Organisations (Providence, RI: Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies, Occasional Paper 35, 1999).

Diane Paul, Protection in Practice: Field-Level Strategies for Protecting Civilians from Deliberate Harm (London: Relief and Rehabilitation Network, Network Paper 30, July 1999, RRN).

Liam Mahoney and Luis Enrique Eguren, Unarmed Bodyguards: International Accompaniment for the Protection of Human Rights (West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1997).

IRIN website special area on protection:

Land Grab: Israel’s Settlement Policy in the West Bank (Jerusalem: B’Tselem – Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), May 2002).