Amidst the continued mass destruction to life and civilian infrastructure in Gaza, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is teaming up with an Israeli war and security think tank to discuss the “challenges” of waging war in densely populated areas.
Seen as serving to ameliorate the Israeli military’s tarnished image, this collaboration is the latest in a series of questionable moves by ICRC, resulting in increased scrutiny of the international organization.
An online petition calls on the ICRC to withdraw its co-sponsorship of a conference with the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank that conducts research related to war and the “national security” of Israel.
The event, scheduled for 4 September, is titled the “Third International Conference on Challenges of Warfare in Densely Populated Areas,” and bills itself as addressing the “challenges inherent in situations of combat in densely populated areas,” as well as the need “to devise legitimate military strategies to ensure that the protection of civilians will not be compromised.”
Gaza is not only one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, but its population is captive. Israel has complete control over Gaza’s northern, eastern and maritime boundaries, and Egypt, Israel’s ally, controls the only southern exit and entry point for Palestinians. Controlling all imports and exports, freedom of movement and delivery of humanitarian and infrastructure supplies, Israel’s imposed siege on Gaza is now in its seventh year.
The Electronic Intifada reached the ICRC for comment, and was told by spokesperson Nada Doumani that “the conference was scheduled before the operation ‘Protective Edge’ has started and is part of the ‘usual’ work of the ICRC, that is to engage with opinion makers, strategists, leaders, military etc. on issues of concern, namely International Humanitarian Law and conduct of hostilities.”
The conference’s schedule can be viewed online. Opening remarks will be made by Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli army general and current director of the Institute for National Security Studies, and Jacques de Maio, the head of ICRC’s delegation in Israel and the occupied territories. In late May 2014, an arrest warrant was issued against Yadlin and other Israeli military officials by a Turkish court for their role in the 2010 massacre of ten civilians aboard the Mavi Marmara humanitarian aid boat to Gaza.
Featured panels at the conference consist almost entirely of Israeli military officers, along with a handful from the British and US militaries. The ICRC will lead one panel titled “Humanitarian concerns — the ICRC point of view.”
The petition calling on the ICRC to cancel participation in the conference, written by Hanadi Qawasmi, a graduate student at Tel Aviv University, is addressed to de Maio. Qawasmi asserts that while the conference may be cloaked in virtuous language about protecting civilian life, in fact it promulgates the fiction that the Israeli army is trying in earnest to target only “terrorists”:
Reading between the lines reveals the disgraceful complicity of the ICRC, a humanitarian organization that claims neutrality and independence … By co-organizing this conference, the ICRC will be giving those key figures a venue to proudly brag about their latest military technologies they claim is being used in wars against “terrorists” and cause no harm to civilians [—] only that in Gaza few hundred kilometers away, this is proven to be a lie.
The ICRC is well-known for maintaining a politically neutral position, ostensibly in order to maximize its ability to do humanitarian work. Though some have argued the ICRC has already violated this standard in its work in Palestine, partnering with the Institute for National Security Studies is a clear breach of its mandate for neutrality.
Framing to Israel’s advantage
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an expressly political organization. While it describes itself as operating outside of government, the group’s stated goal is to help the government devise strategic war and national security policies and frame global discussions to Israel’s advantage.
The institute’s 2014 brochure is straightforward about the nature of its work, stating:
The research conducted at INSS enriches the public debate of issues related to Israel’s national security, which in turn endows governmental deliberations with a greater awareness of public opinion on these fundamental matters. By probing issues that are already part of the public discourse and those that portend future importance, INSS both responds to and helps shape the national security agenda.
The Institute for National Security Studies was formed in 2006 out of the established Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Defined as an “external affiliate” to Tel Aviv University — with budgetary and administrative independence — it nevertheless “enjoys the benefits of working with academics with the university.”
By its own mythology, the institute relays a story of being gradually embraced by Israel’s security and military establishment, before becoming “Israel’s foremost research institute in national security affairs.”
To this end, the Institute for National Security Studies regularly consults and plans events with the Israeli government and military.
For example, on 29 June, the institute organized a panel to discuss “options for Israel” in lieu of a final status peace agreement. Speakers included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset (parliament) members Ayelet Shaked, Zeev Elkin and Ofer Shelah.
Just one week after the panel, Shaked took to Facebook to call for a genocide on the entirety of the Palestinian population (“including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure”). Shaked explicitly called for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.”
Financing anti-Palestinian propaganda
Furthermore, the chair of the Institute for National Security Studies’ international board of directors, Jonathan Jacobsen, is a major contributor to far-right Zionist settler groups, Israeli propaganda organizations and US-based Islamophobic groups.
A review of his foundation’s 990 forms from the past twelve years shows he’s donated nearly $2 million to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committe’s (AIPAC) charitable organization, the American Israel Education Foundation; $4 million to Israeli propaganda and anti-Palestinian incitement organizations the David Project and the Israel Project; $270,000 to the Jerusalem settler organization Ir David; and $350,000 to the Central Fund of Israel.
Jacobsen has also given generously to Birthright Israel, Friends of the IDF, and Steve Emerson’s notorious Islamophobic websites The Investigative Project on Terrorism and Counterterrorism and the Security Education and Research Foundation (CTSERF).
Furthermore and of most crucial note, the Institute for National Security Studies — and in particular, its director, Amos Yadlin — plays a significant role in justifying and promoting Israel’s current offensive on Gaza, which at the time of this writing has killed more than 1,820 people, the vast majority of them civilians, and has injured nearly 10,000. Nearly half a million Palestinians — one-fourth of Gaza’s population — have been internally displaced.
In a 22 July post concerning Israel’s operation in Gaza and the perceived “legitimacy” of its actions, the Institute for National Security Studies’ policy expert Pnina Sharvit Baruch wrote unequivocally: “Legally speaking, the rules allow Israel and the IDF relative freedom of action [in Gaza].” As my colleague Amena Saleem points out, Sharvit Baruch was a colonel in the Israeli army during Israel’ 2008-2009 assault on Gaza, during which she was responsible for strikes on civilians.
In the recent weeks, Yadlin has been published in The New York Times, The Times of Israel and The Jerusalem Post, pushing for a full-scale military operations in Gaza aimed at completely routing out Hamas.
Criticism of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ work in occupied Palestine, in particular in Gaza, has been mounting over the last two months.
The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah called out the organization for its double standards regarding the treatment of Palestinian and Israeli youth after the organization demanded that the three missing Israeli teens be “returned” at once, while exhibiting complacency toward the 196 Palestinian children that have been snatched from their homes and held by Israeli authorities under brutal conditions.
In Gaza, ICRC has been decried for its perceieved cooperation with the Israeli army’s shelling of al-Wafa hospital on 17 July, and refusal to help Palestinians the night of the Shujaiya massacre on 20 July.
In the wake of this public criticism, de Maio has gone on the defensive. On 25 July he posted a statement on the ICRC’s website titled “No wonder Gazans are angry. The Red Cross can’t protect them,” and in a videotaped session with the press on 27 July, he stated:
You can criticize us for not being able to stop the war, for not being able to stop the shelling or for not being able to respond to all of your expectations. But don’t be angry at us because we don’t try to do it … I want to say to the Palestinian people: don’t direct your anger at the wrong place. Some people they are trying to divert your anger against us. But we are also victims here. Humanity is a victim here. People are saying that the ICRC is neutral. We say we are neutral. Today in Gaza, I’m saying that we will be neutral when it comes to politics. But we will never be neutral when it comes to picking our sides, and our side is by the victims.
Appearance of “neutrality”
The ICRC is dedicated to maintaining an appearance of neutrality — a commitment that at times has preempted their humanitarian work. Journalist Jonathan Cook relates one example in a recent short commentary. Echoing Abunimah, Cook criticizes the ICRC for its contradictory positions on the detention and kidnappings of Palestinian and Israeli youths, and describes his attempts at communicating with the ICRC in 2003 about the secret Israeli prison — known as Facility 1391 — in which Israel holds people, mostly from Lebanon, seized abroad in extremely harsh and abusive conditions.
Cook was told that the Red Cross knew about the secret prison, including its location, but refused to comment beyond that. He writes:
Their justification for refusing to speak further or to criticize Israel for the gross violation of international law the prison represented was that they believed it was more important to maintain a position of absolute political neutrality. They told me it was vitally in the interests of the Palestinian prison population that they keep the trust of Israel so that their access would not be withdrawn. That was not a view I shared, but it was one I could believe was honorably held.
In sponsoring an event with Institute for National Security Studies, the International Committee of the Red Cross seems content to completely disregard its sacred vow of “neutrality.”
By sharing its status as a humanitarian organization, it chooses to provide a protective shield to condemnation and a veneer of legitimacy to the wantonly destructive Israeli military — even as it assaults the defenseless and captive population of Gaza.
The Electronic Intifada contacted the Institute for National Security Studies and Hanadi Qawasmi for comment, but did not receive a response at time of publication.
- International Committee of the Red Cross
- Jonathan Cook
- Institute for National Security Studies
- Pnina Sharvit Baruch
- Ayelet Shaked
- Hanadi Qawasmi
- Facility 1391
- international humanitarian law
- Nada Doumani
- Amos Yadlin
- Jacques de Maio
- Tel Aviv University
- Jonathan Jacobsen
- Shujaiya massacre