The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Thursday issued a scathing condemnation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, describing them as a key reason for Palestinian suffering.
Peter Maurer, wrapping up a three-day visit to the region, said settlement expansion is leading to a “de-facto annexation” of the West Bank.
He also noted that Hamas’s refusal to provide information about and access to Israelis held in Gaza violates international law, though he added that his organization was in no position to negotiate a deal between Hamas and Israel to secure their freedom.
“The settlement enterprise goes against the provisions and the spirit of international humanitarian law, the law of occupation, as we call it,” Maurer said at a press conference in East Jerusalem.
Maurer said settlements were “a key factor” in humanitarian challenges facing the Palestinians.
“We witness it daily in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem: it has enormous impact on people, on their freedom of movement, the social and economic fabric in the territories. It offers limited access to agricultural and other productive lands, has curtailed educational and employment opportunity; it makes water resource and water supply systems difficult for Palestinian communities. And the list could go on and on,” he said.
The statement echoed Palestinian grievances about settlements as detrimental to day-to-day life and a significant hardship for them. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson declined to respond to Maurer’s accusations.
Stressing that the Red Cross is a “neutral and impartial organization” that bases its analysis on the law and not on any political goals, Maurer said his organization has never condemned settlements because they jeopardize the two-state solution. At the same time, he urged “renewed focus” and global urgency regarding Israel’s settlement enterprise.
The Geneva Conventions — often cited as the source for the assertion that settlements are illegal, since they outlaw the transfer of people into occupied territory — remain “the best legal framework” for Israelis and Palestinians to address their conflict, Maurer asserted.
“We believe that settlement expansion policies pursued in recent decades by successive Israeli governments have facilitated the process of de-facto annexation. It has complicated the dialogue between the different communities,” he said.
Maurer met over the week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar in Gaza.
On Tuesday, Maurer asked senior Hamas officials to let him meet with Israeli civilians believed to be held by the terror group.
Maurer made the request as he met with Sinwar, the Hamas political leader in the coastal enclave, and senior Hamas official Ghazi Hamad, according to Palestinian media.
Sinwar told Maurer that “all institutions will be open before the Red Cross to ensure the standards of international humanitarian law are being applied,” according to a Hamas statement. However, a Hamas source was later quoted in Israeli media saying that the group would not allow Israel to gather any information about the captives.
Addressing reporters at the American Colony Hotel, Maurer said his delegation visited “detainees” in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza but that he was not granted access to or information about the Israelis missing in the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave.
He also refused to speculate about a rumored exchange deal between Israel and the terrorist organization.
“All I can only tell you is that the [Red Cross’s] task is to draw the attention of all sides to the legal framework which is applicable,” he said.
“It is very clear from the text of the Geneva Conventions that families have the right to know about the whereabouts of their missing, and that belligerents have a duty to inform families if they have indication and if they are detaining people. And in that sense [the Red Cross] has been very explicit for quite some time what the legal framework is, and that this legal framework was violated, obviously, in that context.”
The Red Cross is not in the business to negotiate these issues, the Swiss native added. “It’s up to the Israeli government and the authorities in Gaza to decide whether and how they want to negotiate these issues.”
Hosting Mauerer in his office Wednesday, Netanyahu accused the Hamas terror group of “unbelievable cruelty” for holding up to three Israeli citizens and the bodies of two IDF soldiers.
“We are concerned about this unbelievable cruelty. We have bodies of our slain soldiers that are kept [by Hamas] and even information about them is kept. And no less important, we have innocent, defenseless Israeli civilians held in Gaza,” Netanyahu told Maurer.
“[They are] kept in a very closed and cruel way,” he added.
Netanyahu thanked Maurer for his organization’s efforts to return the bodies of the IDF soldiers and Israeli citizens “in the face of this Hamas cruelty” and said the terror group was holding the Israelis “in contravention of all international norms and all the ideals the Red Cross has been established for.”
“Israel has seen a very decent and very open relationship between the Red Cross and Israel that is very valuable for the Red Cross, for Israel and for peace,” Netanyahu said during their meeting Wednesday.
Responding to Netanyahu, Maurer said the mission to return the Israeli citizens and IDF soldiers’ bodies was one of the “longest running operations” of the Red Cross and that his organization is mandated by international law to work toward their return.
Last month, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who has in the past criticized the Red Cross for not helping with the missing Israelis, caused a media storm by saying that Israel must not repeat the “mistake” of the 2011 Shalit prisoner exchange deal, which saw the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit after five years in Hamas captivity in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners.
Sinwar responded by declaring in a press release that there could be no deal without Israel releasing Palestinian prisoners in reference to a number of the terror group’s operatives Israel has rearrested since their release in the Shalit deal.
Liberman’s comments drew the ire of the families of those held, with the father of one of the deceased IDF soldiers calling the defense minister “weak” and “cowardly.”
Hamas is thought to be detaining three Israelis — Avraham Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, as well as Juma Ibrahim Abu Ghanima, all of whom entered the enclave on their own accord over the past several years — as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers — Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — who were killed during the 2014 war between Israel and the terror group.
As part of the efforts to return the bodies of Shaul and Goldin, Israel has reportedly been holding indirect talks with Hamas about a possible prisoner deal.
At a memorial in July marking three years since the 2014 Gaza conflict, Netanyahu hinted at increased Israeli efforts to return the Israeli citizens and the bodies of IDF soldiers being held by Hamas.
“Our commitment to return home Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul is still firm. We have not let up from this sacred mission, in particular in recent days. The same applies to Avraham Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, Israeli citizens who are held in the Gaza Strip by a brutal enemy,” he said, failing to mention Abu Ghanima, the third Israeli civilian held by Hamas.
Since the capture of their sons’ bodies, the Shaul and Goldin families have waged public campaigns for their return, with the Goldins recently releasing a video urging the government to up its pressure on Hamas until the two soldiers’ bodies are returned.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.