Following the intensification of armed violence in Israel and the occupied territories on 7 October 2023, this page addresses frequently asked questions about our work and international humanitarian law (IHL).
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What does the ICRC do in Israel and the occupied territories?
In Israel and the occupied territories, the ICRC strives to make a difference in people’s lives through its activities and programmes. We visit detainees, reunite families, support livelihood projects, and help improve access to essential services, like water and electricity. Above all, we stand up for people and promote their rights and dignity.
We have been present in Israel and the occupied territories since 1967 and work with the Palestine Red Crescent Society and Magen David Adom in Israel. The ICRC has offices in Tel Aviv, the West Bank and Gaza.
Here is a snapshot of our activities in the first six months of 2023.
What has ICRC’s emergency response been since 7 October?
Thanks to decades of presence in Gaza, our teams are ready to support essential infrastructure providing health care, water, and electricity.
On Saturday 7 October, we dispatched a truck of medical supplies (stretchers, beds) to a hospital in Gaza. We have also donated stretchers to the Ministry of Health in Gaza. We are ready to provide further humanitarian assistance as required on both sides.
A first assessment of the damage to sewage and water treatment and distribution systems is ongoing. Two vital desalination plants that ensure clean water, as well as three wastewater plants, are out of order or lie dormant due to electricity shortages. In addition, Gaza’s major hospitals risk shutting down due to low fuel supplies.
The reports of people being captured or detained are deeply distressing. Our colleagues in Gaza, in Israel, but also beyond, are doing all they can to contact the relevant authorities who are arbitrarily holding Israeli and other nationals. Our ask is very clear: we need to have access to them, assess their needs, and re-establish contact with their families. People who have been taken hostage need to be released. People detained must be treated humanely.
Our offices on both sides are overwhelmed with phone calls from people enquiring about the possible whereabouts of their missing loved ones. We are doing our best to accompany them in these moments of distress. With our Movement partners, we will try to locate the missing and provide answers as soon as the situation will permit. To find out more
My relative has been abducted during the escalation of violence. Can you help and how should I contact you?
We know that your current situation is incredibly distressing for you and your loved ones. You are not alone. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is doing its best to help you. Despite the difficult security conditions, our teams are working around the clock to help as many people as possible.
Since armed hostilities began on 7 October, we have received many inquiries from people in Israel, Gaza, and internationally desperate to know about the fate of their missing family members.
We fully understand how devastating it is for families not to know the fate of their loved ones. Within ICRC’s mandate and capacities, we are ready to do everything we can to help.
If you have lost contact with a family member due to the escalation of violence you can contact:
ICRC office in Jerusalem
We know many people are trying to reconnect during this challenging situation. We are currently experiencing a high number of calls. Please continue trying the below numbers. We are working to respond to all calls.
For contact in Hebrew and English, you can reach the ICRC by calling: 03 524 5286. If you are calling from abroad, call + 972 3 5245286.
For contact in Arabic, you can reach the ICRC by calling: 08 283 2400.
Is the ICRC more active in the occupied territories than in Israel?
Our teams in the field continuously assess the humanitarian consequences of the conflict and strive to provide help based on the existing humanitarian needs. In the occupied territories, the humanitarian needs far outweigh those in Israel: baselines related to unemployment rates and dependency on humanitarian assistance are clear indicators of this. Separately, the technical and financial capacity of Israel to respond to the needs of the Israelis far outweighs that of the Palestinian Authorities and Hamas.
The ICRC never replaces or duplicates the existing services, it responds to the needs that the responsible authorities are unable to cover. In the south of Israel, for example, our teams regularly visit communities affected by violence. The emergency response mechanisms in these communities are very strong. Nevertheless, we continue to monitor the situation and stand ready to provide support if we identify a need.
Why does the ICRC speak to Hamas?
The ICRC’s mandate is to alleviate and prevent the suffering of persons affected by armed conflict and violence wherever they may be, including in areas controlled or influenced by armed groups. Life can be particularly difficult for civilians living in these areas and they can have increased humanitarian and protection needs. As a humanitarian organization, we take a neutral and impartial approach and engage with all parties to an armed conflict. This means we do not take sides: we provide assistance based solely on humanitarian need and talk to all sides to highlight the importance of respecting humanitarian rules. This is the only way we can be trusted by all parties, whether governments or armed groups.
Engaging with armed groups is part of the humanitarian mandate officially given to the ICRC by all state signatories to the Geneva Conventions, and we frequently acknowledge and confirm this humanitarian engagement with all parties to a conflict. While we cannot share the details of our discussions with armed groups as they are very sensitive, we are always careful to ensure that everyone understands that this is how the ICRC works. When we meet with government authorities, for example, we are clear and transparent about this approach. It is very important to us that everyone we are accountable to understands that we engage with armed groups for purely humanitarian reasons. Without this engagement, the ICRC wouldn’t be able to reach everyone suffering as a result of conflict or violence.
What would happen if the ICRC took sides and compromised its principles of neutrality and impartiality?
If the ICRC were to take sides it would lose the trust of the sides. Without this trust, we would not be able to continue carrying-out lifesaving operations and responding to the needs of the affected communities, prisoners, families of missing persons and the sick. Our neutrality and principles are not always well understood, especially in situations where there are strong emotions involved. However, our neutrality and impartiality are critical to our ability to operate in any context.
Does the Red Cross consider religion when deciding where to provide humanitarian aid?
No, it does not. The ICRC is not a religious organization and does only provides aid based on the existing humanitarian needs. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our humanitarian work is guided by fundamental principles that emphasize neutrality, impartiality, and independence. We do not engage in religious or political matters or take sides in any controversies. Our mission is solely focused on alleviating human suffering, providing aid to those in need, and upholding the principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence in our humanitarian efforts. While some symbols associated with the Movement, such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent, may have historical connections to religious origins, the Movement itself is defined as a non-religious entity dedicated to humanitarian action and the protection of human life and dignity.
What are you doing to visit those who have been abducted into Gaza?
The reports of people being captured or detained are deeply distressing. Anyone detained – whether they are civilians or fighters – must be treated humanely and with dignity. Carrying out, or threatening to carry out, an act of hostage-taking is prohibited under international humanitarian law.
The ICRC is calling for immediate access to all those detained in the hostilities over the weekend of 7 October. This is so we can check on their well-being and provide much-needed news to their loved ones. As a neutral, independent humanitarian organization, visiting people deprived of their liberty is a core part of our work. We seek to visit all those deprived of their liberty on both sides of this conflict.
What is the status of hostages under IHL?
Hostages are people who, irrespective of their status, have been captured by a person or organization and who may be killed or injured if people do not do what that person or organization demands. Carrying out, or threatening to carry out, an act of hostage-taking during armed conflicts is prohibited under IHL.
What does IHL say about torture?
Torture and other forms of ill-treatment are absolutely prohibited everywhere and at all times. Both IHL and international human rights law (IHRL) complement each other in creating a comprehensive body of rules for the prevention and punishment of acts of torture and other forms of ill-treatment.
States have agreed that there can be no excuse for torture. The suffering caused by such practices may have profoundly disturbing effects on victims that can last for years.
How are prisoner exchange transactions carried out in terms of international law?
IHL sets out some basic rules that should be followed by the parties to the conflict during prisoner exchanges:
- Transfers or exchanges of prisoners must be carried out humanely.
- The conditions of transfer must not be prejudicial to the prisoners’ health. The detaining power should supply the prisoners with sufficient food and drinking water and with the necessary clothing, shelter, and medical attention during the transfer and exchange.
- The detaining power must ensure the safety of the prisoners during the transfer and exchange.
- Prisoners must be allowed to take their personal belongings with them.
- A complete list of prisoners exchanged must be drawn up before departure and should be shared with the receiving power and with the ICRC.
The ICRC regularly facilitates prisoner exchanges as a neutral intermediary. The main conditions of our involvement are:
- Agreement of all parties concerned.
- Security guarantees: safe and unimpeded access for ICRC to carry out the operation.
- Respect at all times and by all parties the requirements of IHL regarding such exchanges, in particular with regard to the humane treatment of the prisoners before, during, and after the transfer.
What is the status of the Gaza Strip under international law?
The ICRC considers the Gaza Strip as part of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The Oslo Accords also recognize the West Bank and Gaza as forming a single territorial entity (even if geographically separated).
Why does the ICRC consider Palestinian territories to be occupied, since Palestine was never a State?
Occupation is a matter of fact: a territory is considered occupied when it is placed under the authority of a hostile army. Whether the territory concerned is under the control of a sovereign on the eve of the commencement of an occupation is immaterial, and controversy in respect of Palestine’s statehood has no bearing on this legal determination.
Since the 1967 international armed conflict between Israel and its neighboring States that triggered the application of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Palestinian territory has been under the authority of the Israeli army. Thus, the ICRC considers the territories controlled by Israel as being under Israeli belligerent occupation, affirming the de jure applicability of the law of occupation (Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949). The application of the law of occupation is without prejudice to any underlying dispute concerning the sovereignty over the territory.
What are the rules on sieges?
Sieges often have grave consequences for large numbers of civilians. To protect civilians, there are important rules in IHL. Crucially, civilians must be allowed to evacuate from a besieged area. Neither the besieging force nor the force under siege may force them to remain against their will.
Sieges may only be directed exclusively against an enemy’s armed forces, and it is absolutely prohibited to shoot or attack civilians fleeing a besieged area. In addition, parties must comply with all the rules governing the conduct of hostilities. Constant care must be taken to spare civilians when putting a city under siege and attacking military objectives in the besieged area.
All feasible precautions must be taken to avoid or minimize incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, and damage to civilian objects. IHL also prohibits starving the civilian population as a method of warfare. At the same time, although temporary evacuations may be necessary, and even legally required, sieges must not be used to compel civilians to permanently leave an area.
How does IHL deal with food security?
A recurring concern in conflict is acute food insecurity. IHL has important rules that can prevent a situation from developing into an extreme food crisis. For instance, parties to the conflict have the obligation to meet the basic needs of the population under their control.
In addition, IHL specifically prohibits the use of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare – a violation of which may amount to a war crime. Moreover, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies, and irrigation works, are specially protected.
They may not be the object of an attack, destruction, removal, or otherwise be rendered useless. Similarly, respect for other IHL rules can play an important role in preventing food insecurity, such as protection of the environment, limitations on sieges, and access to humanitarian relief.
If you want to know more about the rules of war, watch this video
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