Visiting Gaza, Red Cross chief says suffering ‘intolerable,’ ICRC must see hostages

Mirjana Spoljaric Egger calls for release of all hostages held in Strip and for ‘unimpeded flow of aid’ into enclave

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger delivers remarks during a press briefing in Avully near Geneva, on June 7, 2023. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger delivers remarks during a press briefing in Avully near Geneva, on June 7, 2023. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

GENEVA, Switzerland — In a visit to the war-torn Gaza Strip on Monday, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) President Mirjana Spoljaric Egger called for the protection of civilians in the coastal enclave and declared the human suffering there to be “intolerable.”

“It is unacceptable that civilians have no safe place to go in Gaza, and with a military siege in place there is also no adequate humanitarian response currently possible,” Spoljaric wrote on X.

Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza was launched following the deadly October 7 onslaught in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst through the border fence, unleashing death and destruction across much of southern Israel as they killed more than 1,200 people and seized some 240 hostages.

In response, Israel vowed to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip, which the terror group has ruled since 2007. The IDF launched an aerial campaign and subsequent ground operation which began in northern Gaza and has started expanding to the south in recent days.

The Hamas-run health ministry has said that more than 15,500 people have been killed since October 7, most of them civilians. However, the numbers cannot be independently verified and are believed to include members of Hamas and other terror groups, as well as civilians killed by misfired Palestinian rockets.

Meanwhile, some one million people are thought to have evacuated from northern Gaza at Israel’s behest and moved to the south, where many are housed in poor conditions.

Touching on the recent weeklong truce between Israel and Hamas, which ended after Hamas fired rockets into Israel early on Friday morning and failed to provide a list of hostages to be released that day, Spoljaric said that “the last week provided a small degree of humanitarian respite, a positive glimpse of humanity that raised hopes around the world that a path to reduced suffering could now be found.

“As a neutral actor, the ICRC stands ready to support further humanitarian agreements that reduce suffering and heartbreak,” she added.

A Red Cross vehicle carrying newly released hostages drives towards the Rafah border point with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip on November 28, 2023. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The ICRC said that during her visit to Gaza, Spoljaric would also spend time with the organization’s team on the ground and “visit the European Hospital, where ICRC medical teams have been conducting life-saving surgery alongside local healthcare workers.”

“We have urgently appealed for civilian life to be protected and respected on all sides, in line with international humanitarian law, and I reiterate that appeal today,” Spoljaric said, insisting that “an unimpeded and regular flow of aid must be allowed to enter Gaza.”

During her visit to the region, which was to include a stop in Egypt later on Monday, the ICRC president will attend discussions on allowing Red Cross representatives to access the hostages who have been held by various terror groups in Gaza for close to two months.

Spoljaric, whose organization has faced intense criticism in Israel and abroad for not doing more to push for access to the hostages to ensure their wellbeing, deliver medications and facilitate communication with families, per its mandate, insisted during her visit to Gaza that “all those deprived of liberty must be treated humanely.”

A woman holds a sign against the Red Cross during a demonstration calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip in the Hostages Square at the Museum of Art in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday December 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit))

“The hostages must be released, and the ICRC must be allowed to safely visit them,” she said.

A temporary seven-day truce between Israel and Hamas last week saw the release of 105 of the hostages, most of them women and children, leaving 137 people still in captivity in Gaza. While Israel had said that one of the stipulations of the ceasefire deal was that the Red Cross would visit all remaining hostages, the organization has yet to do so.

Two weeks ago, Spoljaric met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Qatar for discussions. Her office later said that the “ICRC has persistently called for the immediate release of hostages.

“The ICRC is insisting that our teams be allowed to visit the hostages to check on their welfare and deliver medications, and for the hostages to be able to communicate with their families. Agreements must be reached that allow the ICRC to safely carry out this work. The ICRC cannot force its way into where hostages are held, nor do we know their location,” her office said at the time.

In mid-November, she met with family members of hostages and with Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Health Minister Uriel Menachem Buso in Geneva.

“Families of hostages are living through an incredibly heart-wrenching time and I want to underscore how hard we are advocating on behalf of their loved ones,” she said. “This is a key priority for me, and I know the enormous pain the families are enduring.”

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