Why humanitarian assistance is not a long-term solution in the OPT
by Simon Schorno, ICRC November 2004

Neutrality, independence and impartiality drive the action of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and of the whole Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement worldwide. These core principles result from the ICRC’s double role as custodian of international humanitarian law, and a humanitarian organisation seeking to protect and assist all victims of armed conflict. Whether visiting Palestinians held in Israeli detention, speaking to Israel Defense Force (IDF) commanders on behalf of victims or making institutional decisions that affect the livelihoods of thousands, a strictly neutral, independent and impartial stance provides the ICRC with the legitimacy required to remind the government of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority of their obligations under international humanitarian law.

The Fourth 1949 Geneva Convention, ratified by Israel in 1951, protects civilians in times of war and deals specifically with situations of military occupation. Since 1967, the situation in the Palestinian territories is one of ‘belligerent occupation’, enabling ICRC delegates to operate in Israel and in the Occupied and Autonomous Palestinian Territories within a clear legal framework. The main activity of the ICRC Delegation, one of the largest in the world, is to monitor the implementation of, and respect for, international humanitarian law by both Israeli and Palestinian actors. This is achieved through a range of programmes, including visits to Palestinians detained in Israel and in the territories, monitoring humanitarian issues in the field, providing training in international humanitarian law and offering emergency relief.

A difficult decision

The stance of the ICRC regarding relief assistance for Palestinians living in occupied territory is best illustrated by the difficult decision it had to make in late 2003, when it decided to terminate two major relief programmes.

Drastic measures aimed at restricting the movement of the Palestinian population were imposed by Israel in 2002. These measures resulted in lack of access to income-generating activities and, consequently, to basic goods and services. This provoked the general collapse of the Palestinian economy. In May 2002, the ICRC responded by launching, for the first time since it began working in the region, two temporary large-scale emergency programmes for the most vulnerable segments of the population. In cooperation with the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs and local committees, 20,000 vulnerable families living in West Bank cities were selected. Every six weeks, these families could exchange a voucher for food and household items at their local stores. In addition, together with the World Food Programme, the ICRC regularly distributed food and household items to 30,000 families in need living in rural areas. The two programmes provided assistance for 300,000 people.

The ICRC terminated these two programmes in December 2003. The painful decision taken then brought a number of crucial issues to the fore. Was relief assistance sufficient to have a positive impact? How long could an emergency last? Who was responsible for the well-being of the population? Who else could assist those in need? The ICRC acted in what it still thinks was the best interest of the victims: the gravity of the situation demanded that the ICRC shift its emphasis from humanitarian assistance provider to custodian of international humanitarian law.

The essence of the law of occupation, and of the ICRC 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 reminded Israel of its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention, requesting that it protect everyone living under its occupation from any form of brutality, reprisal or collective punishment, and guarantee access to food, water and medical assistance, as well as employment and education at all times. In short, the ICRC reminded the Israeli authorities to balance their security concerns with the needs of the occupied population.

In this context and elsewhere, the ICRC believes that humanitarian aid should never be more than an exceptional measure designed to help the most vulnerable members of a society facing an acute humanitarian crisis. In the West Bank, the ICRC responded rapidly and massively to a major humanitarian crisis. It provided assistance over a reasonable period, while making clear to both Israelis and Palestinians that this was a short-term response. It refused to take over the obligations of the Occupying Power, explaining that under no circumstances would its aid become a substitute for the policies necessary to ensure a minimum level of economic stability. It spoke the law and explained its position, stressing that the obligation to take care of civilians living under occupation did not lie with humanitarian organisations, but was the primary responsibility of the Occupying Power. When an emergency clearly falling within its mandate turned into a lasting crisis for which its response had become inappropriate, it decided to address the causes of that crisis. This was, and still is, done by systematically documenting the destruction of infrastructure and the humanitarian effects of closures, checkpoints and other policies aimed at restricting freedom of movement for Palestinians. It is also done by reminding the Israeli authorities and the international community of their obligations under international humanitarian law.

The West Bank barrier

The position taken by the ICRC regarding the construction and operation of the West Bank barrier further illustrates its position with regard to the continuing crisis affecting the occupied territories. On 18 February 2004, the ICRC issued a communiqué calling upon Israel not to plan, construct or maintain the barrier within occupied territory. It also stated that the barrier deprived thousands of West Bank residents of adequate access to basic services and sources of income, and that it gave rise to widespread appropriation of, and damage to, Palestinian property. In the communiqué, the ICRC clearly expressed its legal opinion, stating 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 protected and assisted the population affected by the construction and operation of the barrier through its work in the field; second, as the custodian of international humanitarian law, it gave a clear legal reading on a pressing humanitarian issue.

The outlook in the West Bank remains bleak, and the ICRC stands ready, if need be, to re-evaluate its assistance policy. But in complex conflict environments, tangible results take time to achieve. The ICRC does not give up. Instead, it continues to work as closely as possible with the Israeli authorities, sharing its concerns about the most pressing problems facing Palestinians living in the territories. Only when restrictions on movement are eased, and the Israeli authorities ensure that the basic needs of the occupied population are met, can the Palestinian National Authority, with the support of the international community, take up its share of responsibility in rebuilding Palestinian society.


Simon Schorno is spokesperson of the ICRC in Jerusalem. His email address is sschorno@hotmail.com.


References and further reading

(All references are available on the ICRC website: www.icrc.org.)

The ICRC in Israel, the Occupied and Autonomous Territories: Activities, January to July 2004 (Geneva: ICRC, July 2004).

The Occupied and Autonomous Territories: Advocating Humanitarian Values (Tel Aviv: ICRC, January 2004).

New Strategy for the West Bank (Tel Aviv: ICRC, November 2003).

‘Mise en oeuvre de la Quatrième Convention de Genève dans les territoires Palestiniens occupés: Historique d’un processus multilatéral (1997–2001)’, International Review of the Red Cross, September 2002.

IHL in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, www.icrc.org, 2004.