Members of the Israeli government and the families of the 240 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza since October 7 have repeatedly demanded that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) prioritize accessing the hostages abducted by the terrorists who savagely attacked southern Israeli communities, murdering more than 1,200 people.
“We expect the Red Cross to put the issue at the top of the organization’s priority list, to use all levers of pressure, and not rest until it visits all the hostages, assesses their condition, and makes sure they are receiving the medical care they need,” said Foreign Minister Eli Cohen after a November 14 meeting with ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger in Geneva. Two weeks earlier, Cohen said the ICRC has “no right to exist if it does not succeed in visiting the hostages.”
Hostages’ families are asking not only why the Red Cross is not reaching their loved ones in Gaza, but also why it is not contacting them to offer support and updates as they wait in agony for their loved ones to come home.
Part of the answer lies in how the ICRC works and the nature of the war between Israel and Hamas.
In October, the ICRC facilitated the logistics of the release of the four freed hostages, Judith and Natalie Ra’anan, Yocheved Lifshitz, and Nurit Cooper. However, it has had no contact with any of the other Israeli and foreign national hostages — 40 of them babies and children.
“The Red Cross is a humanitarian organization with a mandate to work in areas of war and conflict,” said Yehonatan Saban, spokesperson for the medical and resilience team of the Hostages and Missing Families Forum.
“The problem is that it can’t work without the agreement of both sides of a conflict, and maintaining its neutrality is essential to its work,” Saban said.
ICRC president Spoljaric said last week that to attend to the medical needs of the rest of the hostages and facilitate their release, arrangements would have to be in place.
“We cannot do this alone; agreements must be reached that allow the ICRC to safely carry out this work,” she said. “ICRC cannot force its way into where hostages are held. We can only visit them when agreements, including safe access, are in place.”
According to Saban, the situation is simpler when both two sides in a conflict are both states, unlike in the current war in which Israel is fighting Hamas, a terror organization.
“It’s easier for the ICRC to work with states because states recognize that they are bound by the Geneva Conventions and other international humanitarian laws. States know that they can face sanctions from the United Nations and other international bodies if they don’t comply with requests from the Red Cross,” he said.
Saban, who has familiarity with how the ICRC operates, said he didn’t think that it was a matter of unwillingness on the part of the humanitarian organization to do its job. He surmised that the Red Cross is trying to engage in some dialogue with Hamas.
“But because of the Red Cross’s policy of confidential dialogue with all parties, we have no way of really knowing what its contacts with Hamas have been or whether any progress has been made,” he said.
We have no way of really knowing what its contacts with Hamas have been
Levine and his team compiled medical files on each hostage, with information on their medical conditions and illness, allergies, and the medications, vitamins, and special nutrition they must take. A document containing all this information was given to the Red Cross with a demand that it be used to safeguard the health of all the hostages. Levine’s team also demanded that injured hostages be properly cared for.
The Israeli government and the Hostages and Missing Families Forum continue to call on the ICRC to exert more diplomatic pressure and be more vocal.
“The Red Cross must work through all channels to visit the hostages as soon as possible, including children, women, and the elderly, held captive by the Hamas terrorist organization,” Cohen said following the November 14 meeting in Geneva.
Spoljaric countered by saying that the ICRC has persistently advocated on behalf of the hostages held in Gaza, including through direct contacts with Hamas and with others holding influence over the involved parties.
Saban argued that the Red Cross could be doing more to leverage diplomatic relations with key countries like Egypt and Qatar, and with international organizations to pressure Hamas to let it act.
“If this doesn’t happen, all conflict situations around the world will be influenced by this. The Red Cross will lose its relevance,” Saban warned.
He said the Hostages and Missing Families Forum has not received any updates from the Red Cross, but could not speak for the Israeli government, which may be in closer contact with the organization.
Although some families of hostages have openly complained of feeling ignored or abandoned by the Red Cross, Saban said it would be unusual for the humanitarian organization’s representatives to interact directly with families in functioning states.
“The Red Cross works directly with families in places where the state and civil society are not functioning and can’t support them. Moreover, in places where this is needed, it is done through the local ICRC affiliate — which in Israel’s case would be Magen David Adom,” Saban explained.
“Despite all the upheaval Israel has undergone, we are still a functioning society and can support the families. We are taking care of them and keeping their hope up, but we all know that time is running out and we need the Red Cross to act,” he said.
AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.
Are you relying on The Times of Israel for accurate and timely coverage right now? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel