The ICRC in the Palestinian territories: double role, single aim
by Marcin Monko, ICRC Jerusalem April 2007

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. It is also the fortieth year of continuous presence of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in this context, with an unchanged mandate based in international humanitarian law (IHL). The year 2007 is also distinctive because of the unprecedented level of resources the ICRC has brought to bear. The operation in Israel and the occupied territories is the second largest in the world after Darfur, reflecting the exceptional needs of the people there after four decades of occupation.

Long-term presence

‘Aware of the increasing tension in the Middle East during the first half of 1967, the ICRC took preparatory measures some ten days before the conflict broke out by sending, on May 25, representatives to Cairo and to Tel Aviv, as well as to Amman, Beirut and Damascus.’ Thus reads an ICRC report from 1967. The report goes on: ‘On June 7, in fact 48 hours after the opening of the hostilities, the ICRC despatched an aircraft bearing the Red Cross emblem to the Middle East carrying five more delegates and medical equipment.’

Today, more than 300 staff visit detainees, talk to the Israeli military and civil authorities on behalf of the occupied population, provide emergency assistance for victims of house demolitions, refurbish water distribution networks, conduct training on IHL and run many other humanitarian programmes integrating protection, assistance and communication activities. The ICRC has a network of offices in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Gaza city, Khan Younis, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, Ramallah, Qalkilia, Salfit, Tubas, Nablus, Tulkarem and Jenin.

The escalation of violence in Gaza since late June 2006 has had serious consequences for the protection of the Palestinian population. Sporadic rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip continue to affect Israeli civilians. The ICRC continues to call on all parties to strictly observe the provisions of IHL, in particular regarding the treatment of detainees, the protection of the civilian population and medical provision.

As lead agency in this context, the ICRC coordinates the relief response of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and supports the activities of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) and the Magen David Adom (MDA), both of which were formally admitted to the Movement in June 2006.

In 2006, the ICRC:

  • Enabled people from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem to make over 220,000 visits to relatives held in Israeli detention.
  • Monitored the conditions of detention of almost 20,000 individuals held by the Israeli authorities.
  • Carried over 12,723 Red Cross messages (brief personal messages to relatives who are otherwise unreachable because of armed conflict) between detainees and their immediate families, and made several thousand telephone calls to family members to inform them of the whereabouts and welfare of detained relatives.
  • Monitored the situation in government surgical hospitals in Gaza and the West Bank during a health strike, and supplied the central medical stores with life-saving medicines and disposables.
  • Supported the emergency services and other essential medical services of the Palestine Red Crescent Society, while facilitating movement by the Society’s ambulances, in particular during Israeli military incursions.
  • Distributed tarpaulins, mattresses, blankets and other essential household items, including tents, to over 1,000 families whose houses had been destroyed or damaged.
  • Provided back-up power generators and fuel, and set up, extended or repaired water-supply systems for over 134,000 people, particularly those affected by military operations in Gaza
  • In Hebron, provided monthly food parcels for some 1,800 families, particularly those hit by ‘strict closures’, which prevent residents from leaving their homes (over 37,200 food parcels and some 5,300 hygiene kits were distributed, along with over 157 tonnes of wheat flour for 1,250 families in need).
  • Conducted livelihood-support programmes that enabled more than 800 households to develop new ways of generating income, despite restrictions on movement.

Israel is bound by IHL, in particular the Fourth 1949 Geneva Convention and other rules of customary law relating to occupation, as reflected in the 1907 Hague Regulations. Since 1967, the situation in the Palestinian territories has been one of ‘belligerent occupation’, enabling ICRC delegates to operate in Israel and in the occupied territories within a clear legal framework.

Double role

Neutrality, independence and impartiality define the action of the ICRC and of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement worldwide. These core principles result from the ICRC’s double role as guardian of IHL, and as a humanitarian organisation seeking to protect and assist all victims of armed conflict.

The priority of the ICRC in Israel and the occupied territories is to promote respect for IHL, including the law of occupation. ICRC monitoring and its representations to the Israeli authorities focus on those violations of IHL that have the most serious economic and social consequences for the population of the Palestinian territories: various forms of closure engendering restrictions on movement, the construction of the West Bank Barrier and the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. In each of these fields, the double role of the ICRC is clear: on the one hand, it reminds parties of the law; on the other, it provides solutions to practical problems at field level.

Restrictions on movement

The movement of Palestinian people and goods is severely restricted. This in effect curtails economic and social development and leads to particularly harsh humanitarian consequences. The practice of closures is largely responsible for the unprecedented increase in unemployment and poverty.

The essence of the law of occupation, and of the ICRC’s position, is simple: the Occupying Power has the right to protect itself, but the measures used to do so must allow the occupied population to live as normal a life as possible. The ICRC therefore has been reminding Israel of its obligations under IHL, requesting that it guarantee access to food, water and medical assistance, as well as employment and education. In short, the ICRC urges the Israeli authorities to balance their security concerns with the needs of the occupied population. At the same time, at field level, the ICRC addresses day-to-day practical problems by facilitating farmers’ access to olive groves during harvests, ensuring that ambulances can pass through checkpoints as quickly as possible or arranging family visits to Palestinians held in Israeli detention.

The West Bank Barrier

The barrier cuts off Palestinian communities and families from each other and from the main urban centres that provide health services, higher education, employment and general economic activity such as markets. It also gives rise to widespread appropriation of, and damage to, Palestinian property.

In 2004, the ICRC issued a communiqué calling upon Israel not to plan, construct or maintain the barrier within occupied territory. The ICRC clearly expressed its legal opinion that the barrier, as far as its route extended into occupied territory, was contrary to international humanitarian law. Once again, the ICRC played the dual role it has been assigned by the international community: first, it gave a clear legal reading on a pressing humanitarian issue; second, it protected and assisted people affected by the barrier. The ICRC has been focusing its livelihood programme on areas close to the barrier, helping develop new and sustainable sources of income and ensuring that gates are installed and operated, so that farmers can attend to their plots behind the barrier.


The law specifically prohibits the transfer of the occupier’s civilian population into the territory it occupies, and the ICRC has shared this legal position with both the Israeli authorities and the public. The establishment of settlements and their uninterrupted expansion over the past 40 years have severely affected every aspect of Palestinian life.

The significant loss of land and income, movement restrictions and recurrent violence by settlers are the chief humanitarian consequences of the settlements. In Hebron, for example, settlements are situated in a densely populated city centre; closures imposed by the Israeli military to protect the settlers have resulted in the total collapse of the local economy. The ICRC distributes monthly food parcels to 1,800 families in Hebron. It also registers all acts of violence perpetrated by the settlers and presents these cases to the Israeli authorities who, under IHL, are duty-bound to ensure the safety of the occupied population.

Therefore, once more, while the ICRC’s known position is that the settlements in the occupied territories are unlawful, it strives to find working solutions to the direct humanitarian consequences of the settlements.

One aim: protection

The ICRC’s priority remains promoting respect for IHL to alleviate the suffering of victims of conflict. The ICRC continually restates the principles of the law of occupation. Livelihood programmes and other activities at the micro level address the urgent needs of communities, and at the same time bolster and support the ICRC’s protection work, giving further credibility to its core mandate as the custodian of IHL.

Marcin Monko was ICRC media relations delegate in Jerusalem from November 2006 until February 2007. The ICRC in Jerusalem can be reached at