The International Committee of the Red Cross recently had a highly visible role, transporting released hostages out of Gaza in vans displaying plastered with the Red Cross logo and flying their flags. But this has also renewed criticism of the organization, as in spite of their heavy presence in Gaza helping Palestinians this is the first time they’ve done anything for the hostages. Some Israelis have called the Red Cross nothing more than an Uber service. It moved the hostages once they were released, but its job should have been to care for them all along.
Is that fair? What are the Red Cross’s responsibilities, and what can we reasonably expect? To answer, we have to understand the special legal status of the Red Cross and the code of conduct by which it operates.
A key principle of humanitarian law is that medical personnel and equipment, even if belonging to an enemy or treating enemy soldiers, cannot be the target of military attacks. The reason is that medical personnel take no part in military operations and exclusively work to help the wounded. There is therefore no military benefit in attacking them. Doing so would be uselessly destructive and is therefore not allowed. The Red Cross emblem serves as a sign making known to all combatants that an individual, vehicle, or other piece of equipment is being used solely for medical purposes and thereby enjoys this immunity from attack.
But this alone does not explain the Red Cross’s role in facilitating the release of hostages. For example, even though Hamas allowed the Red Cross to transport the hostages from Gaza, there is no way it would have allowed IDF medical units displaying the Red Cross symbol (or in this case the Magen David Adom) to do the same.
impartiality and neutrality
This is because the International Committee of the Red Cross commits to also following two additional principles. These are impartiality and neutrality. The Red Cross defines impartiality as being guided solely by the needs of people who are suffering, prioritized by the urgency of the case, without discriminating due to nationality, race, religion, or other status. They define neutrality as not taking sides in hostilities or engaging in controversies of a political, racial, religious, or ideological nature. You can see this on their website here.
This principle of neutrality in particular requires explanation. A simple way to look at it is that the Red Cross readily admits that it as an organization, as well as its individual members, take political and ideological positions. The best example is their commitment to humanitarian law itself. The Red Cross states clearly that taking hostages is wrong, and that it condemns Hamas for doing it. The Red Cross does not require itself to be neutral or non-committal about that point.
What neutrality means is that even though they have a clear position about what humanitarian law is and that it must be followed, acting in their official capacity they vow not to take any actions to stop humanitarian abuses or other wrongdoing they encounter of any sort. So in return for access to visit hostages, they pledge not to help them escape, not to reveal to the outside world where they are being held, and so forth. They even commit not to cooperate with any future war crimes investigations or the International Criminal Court. An Israeli medical unit, even though it is also legally shielded from attack and bears the proper logo, would never agree to that (and there is zero chance they would be believed even if they said they would).
The Red Cross believes that neutrality and impartiality taken together mean there should be no grounds for any party to a conflict to deny it access to anything. Since even if a group is committing the most heinous war crimes, such as holding civilian hostages and deliberately targeting civilians, the Red Cross while acting in its territory under its protection will take no actions to hinder those violations now or in the future, there is no valid reason to keep them out.
So why hasn’t the Red Cross visited the hostages? They’ve reassured Israel they want to and are trying. But they don’t know where the hostages are, and even if they did know the Red Cross cannot just barge in. They depend on Hamas to allow them access, and so far Hamas hasn’t obliged.
Now of course it’s true that they cannot visit the hostages without Hamas’s permission. The question becomes what their response should be as Hamas continues to refuse.
In the beginning, the Red Cross could have argued that the logistics of visiting the hostages are difficult and it takes time for them to reassure Hamas of their neutrality and work out a system for visiting without giving away information to Israeli intelligence. But by now it’s clear Hamas is just saying no.
This is in effect causing the Red Cross to violate its principle of impartiality. Surely the hostages are in grave need of medical and psychological assistance. But the Red Cross is discriminating against them. It’s helping only Palestinians in Gaza who need assistance, while it ignores Israelis (and other foreigners) being held in that same place.
I’m sure the Red Cross will argue that it’s vital that it remain in Gaza because of the immense need for medical services that it is helping to fulfill. But by doing so it is compromising its principles. The Red Cross could tell Hamas that either they allow it to treat everyone in order of need without regard to nationality, hostages included, or that it will pack its bags and leave. While various Israeli political leaders, joined recently by the U.S. Secretary of State, have urged the Red Cross to continue pushing Hamas to grant access, it’s unclear to what extent they’ve demanded the Red Cross take such a stand.
It should be noted that Israel also has additional, unrelated complaints that the Red Cross has violated its commitment to impartiality and neutrality in other ways. But this demand that the Red Cross visit the hostages, reassure families about their condition, and provide them urgent medical attention, Israel can make clearly, unequivocally, and based on the Red Cross’s own guiding principles. If the Red Cross meekly accepts Hamas’s refusal and just goes on treating Palestinians without visiting the hostages, it should lose its lofty humanitarian status. Israel can also deny Red Cross workers some of their privileges of coming and going through Israeli territory, and internationally it should forfeit some funding as well.
Originally published for Times of Israel