After long deliberations, the ICRC has taken the difficult decision to end two major relief aid programs in the West Bank. Indeed, the long-term solution is not to support the occupied population through emergency assistance but rather to ensure that its basic rights under International Humanitarian Law are respected.
An exceptional response
Following Israel’s large-scale military operations in April 2002 and the subsequent long-term closures and curfews imposed in the West Bank, the humanitarian situation within Palestinian cities and villages deteriorated dramatically. For the first time in its 36 years of continuous presence in the area, the ICRC decided to launch two major relief aid programs in favor of the most vulnerable families living in the West Bank. The programs were always intended as an exceptional mea-sure taken in response to an emergency. In 2002, no one could have foreseen that closures would still be in place today.
To respond to the needs of Palestinians living in urban areas, the ICRC created a unique voucher program to support the local economy. In cooperation with the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs and local committees, 20,000 families were selected to receive vouchers every six weeks. They could exchange the vouchers for food and household items in local shops. A different approach was chosen in rural areas. Working with the United Nations World Food Program, the ICRC distributed food and household items to 30,000 vulnerable families in more than 300 villages.
The responsibility of the occupying power
A recent independent study shows that both ICRC programs achieved their aim of helping some 300,000 people. However, the ICRC always stressed that the obligation to take care of the basic needs of any civilian population living under occupation does not lie with humanitarian organizations. According to International Humanitarian Law, it is the clearly defined primary responsibility of the occupying power, in this case of the State of Israel. Therefore, humanitarian aid is never more than an exceptional and temporary measure designed to help the most vulnerable members of a society facing an acute humanitarian crisis. Under no circumstances should such aid become a substitute for the long-term measures necessary to ensure economic stability.
From an emergency to a long-term reality
The ICRC’s assistance program was always intended to be a provisional short-term measure. The real problem facing the occupied population is that the short-term emergency that fell within the mandate of the ICRC has now turned into a long-term crisis. In response to the humanitarian problems caused by continued closures, stringent restrictions of movement, repeated military operations and the destruction of infrastructure, the ICRC had been providing emergency assistance for more than one and a half years. This is no longer appropriate. The time has come to address the root causes of this emergency so as to end the suffering of civilians.
The ICRC maintains close contacts with Israeli authorities. Its task is to document humanitarian problems in the field, alert the authorities about the humanitarian impact of their actions and urge them to meet the standards imposed by International Humanitarian Law. The essence of the law of occupation is simple: while the occupying power has the right to protect itself, the occupied population should nevertheless be entitled to live as normal a life as possible. To meet its obligations under the fourth Geneva Convention, the State of Israel has to protect all people living under its occupation against any form of brutality, reprisal and collective punishment. It has to guarantee access to food, water, and medical assistance as well as employment and education. In short, the occupying power must satisfy its security needs through the adoption of measures that minimize any potential adverse effects on the civilian population.
The closures have led to a collapse of the economy
The measures imposed on the Occupied Territories over the past two years - especially the internal closures - have resulted in severely restricted access to income generating activities and, consequently, basic goods and services. This caused a general collapse of the economy and this situation cannot be put right by humanitarian aid, whatever its scale and scope might be.
Humanitarian organizations should not and cannot act as substitutes for an occupying power. In the medium and long-term, basic assistance of the type provided by the ICRC is not an appropriate response measure. Only when restrictions of movements are eased and Israeli authorities ensure that the basic needs of the occupied population are met can the Palestinian Authority, with the support of the international community, take up its share of responsibility in rebuilding Palestinian society. The international community has an important role to play by ensuring respect for International Humanitarian Law and by supporting the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to take care of the welfare of the population.
The decision to scale down its large emergency assistance programs does not affect the ICRC’s other activities. Israelis and Palestinians continue to live in constant fear and insecurity. The ICRC has repeatedly condemned all deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians. It remains deeply committed to sup-porting the medical services of the Magen David Adom in Israel and the Palestine Red Crescent Society in the Occupied and Autonomous Territories. The ICRC will continue to monitor the humanitarian situation on a daily basis and is ready to respond to possible renewed emergency needs.
Only the strong and long-term commitment of all actors can solve this political and security crisis. Containing its humanitarian and social consequences through continued emergency assistance is not a long-term solution.
Assistance Facts & Figures
Both the urban voucher program (UVP) and the rural relief program (RRP) started in summer 2002. In total, relief items worth 36 million USD were distributed between May 2002 and November 2003. More than 300,000 people benefited from these programs (i.e. 20,000 families in urban areas and 30,000 families in rural areas) all over the West Bank (the UVP was implemented in the district capitals of the West Bank). The families assisted were among the poorest in the Territories. They were selected according to a list of criteria defined by the ICRC.