Red Cross chief: Israel must work out with Hamas our lack of access to hostages

Amid criticism that her organization has done little to help abductees, Mirjana Spoljaric insists Jerusalem needs to sort out terror group’s demands before ICRC can do its work

International Committee of the Red Cross President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger looks on during an international humanitary conference for civilians in Gaza, at the Elysee Presidential Palace, in Paris, on November 9, 2023. (Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)
International Committee of the Red Cross President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger looks on during an international humanitary conference for civilians in Gaza, at the Elysee Presidential Palace, in Paris, on November 9, 2023. (Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP)

The head of the Red Cross defended her organization’s response to the kidnapping of hundreds of people into Gaza, saying it was up to Israel — which has pilloried the aid group for its ostensible lack of pressure on Hamas for access to the hostages — to work out the issue with the terror group.

Mirjana Spoljaric, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, also expressed frustration over Hamas’s refusal to allow the organization access to hostages held in the Gaza Strip so that its personnel can visit them, ensure their conditions and deliver critical medication.

Spoljaric told Channel 12 News that while the Red Cross had “continue[d] insisting” on access, Hamas had conditioned access on Israeli concessions, with the international organization left to wait until those demands were addressed.

She did not specify what those conditions were.

“Now Israel has to negotiate with Hamas with an intermediary which in this case is Qatar. They have to find this agreement so that we are let know where the hostages are because we currently don’t know where they are. We don’t know when and where to go to access them. That’s the simple fact. We cannot enforce this,” she said.

She noted the Red Cross’s role in facilitating the release of 109 civilians, most of them as part of a temporary truce agreement between Israel and Hamas. Some Israeli commentators have opined that the organization seems to have mainly served as a transport service from the captors to the border.

It is believed that 129 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive. The Israel Defense Forces has confirmed the deaths of 22 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

“Now we continue to work with the two sides so that we can implement the release of the remaining hostages and also ascertain the fate of those that we don’t know what happened to them,” Spoljaric said.

Pressed on the fact that only one side was withholding access to the people it had kidnapped, Spoljaric insisted that Israel had to do more in order that the Red Cross could do its job and reach the captives, the majority of whom are civilians, including children, the women and elderly.

“Israel and Hamas need to agree on the modalities by which we can access and release the hostages,” she said.

Spoljaric said that she had pushed for access to hostages when she met Hamas leaders in Qatar, but refused to reveal their responses to the demands. She added that she was not involved in ongoing talks for another deal to release more hostages.

A spokeswoman for the ICRC later added: “Unfortunately, despite all our attempts, we have not yet received the green light from all involved to visit the hostages… This is an active conflict zone, and we cannot simply force our way into locations we do not know in the face of such a situation.”

Spoljaric took issue with the characterization of her organization by some as a chauffeur service, saying the releases of hostages were dangerous and complicated.

“If it were just Uber we would see Uber cars going back and forth. It’s not possible, these are life-saving operations. They are highly dangerous. There are hundreds if not thousands of people in the street. Anything can happen during these release operations, they have to be very carefully planned.”

Some freed hostages have described their ferrying by the Red Cross as among the most frightening moments of their entire ordeal, with masses of Palestinians crowding and jeering around the vehicles and little protection on offer.

Israel has accused the agency of failing to do anything to ensure the safety of hostages held by Hamas since October 7, including refusing to even attempt to deliver medicines handed over by family members, while it agreed to work with Hamas to transport freed hostages during the exchange deal, leading one family member of a hostage to deride the ICRC as a glorified Uber service.

On Thursday, the Shurat Hadin-Israel Law Center filed a civil complaint in Jerusalem court on behalf of the families of 24 hostages seeking nearly $3 million in damages and a court order demanding the group gain access to the hostages.

Families of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza protest outside a Tel Aviv meeting of Red Cross International President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger on December 14, 2023 (Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Swiss-based organization, founded 160 years ago to serve as a neutral intermediary between belligerents in conflict and to visit and assist prisoners of war, has been accused by both sides of not condemning the other and of insufficient help to those detained or being held hostage.

Spoljaric defended a recent visit she made to the European Hospital in Gaza, which some in Israel thought she should have refrained from making given the state of the hostage situation.

In a video following the visit, Spoljaric denounced the disastrous state of hospitals in the enclave and dedicated only a very short portion at the end to the need to protect the hostages.

But she rejected accusations that the statement had lacked balance in the interview aired Saturday.

“I mentioned the hospitals and I mentioned hostages a lot in other interviews. I address both sides equally when there are civilians who suffered. This is my job. We know how to do our work,” she stated.

Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, aimed at destroying Hamas and freeing the hostages, has caused widespread destruction across Gaza, including some 20,000 deaths, according to unverified figures from Hamas health authorities which do not differentiate between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed some 8,500 Hamas terrorists and allied combatants during the war, which was triggered when thousands of Gazan terrorists poured into Israel from the land, air and sea, slaughtering some 1,200 people and seizing around 240 hostages on October 7. Most victims were civilians, and there has been evidence of sexual violence perpetrated by the terrorists, among other atrocities.

Spoljaric said she had “no tolerance whatsoever” for the rape and sexual violence that occurred amid the massacres, adding she was also concerned hostages were suffering such acts at the hands of their captors.

“I’m personally committed to invest what I can so that these things don’t happen and they’re never tolerated,” she stated. “This is the worst. Sexual violence is not a weapon. It should never be tolerated because it’s a clear violation of international charters.”

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