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Red Cross schools Hamas militants in the rules of war

AFP/File | Palestinian militants from the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigade, the armed wing of Hamas, carry mock rockets at a rally at the Nuseirat refugee camp in the Gaza Strip on December 12, 2014.

The Red Cross is conducting workshops in international law for members of Hamas to encourage the militant group to apply the Geneva Conventions to its conflict with Israel, emphasising how the conventions converge with the teachings of Mohammed.


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has conducted six sessions so far this year for 210 fighters from Hamas’s armed wing – the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades – as well as from two other Gaza-based militant groups, the New York Times reported. Another workshop is set to begin this week.

The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and its additional protocols are the principal dictates of law in wartime, stipulating that both civilians and those who are no longer taking an active part in hostilities, such as prisoners of war, must not be targeted and must be treated humanely.

“The rules are to be observed not only by governments and their armed forces, but also by armed opposition groups and any other parties to a conflict,” the ICRC says in a statement on its website.

Red Cross officials have said that they have similar consultations on international law with the Israeli military.

The ICRC in Gaza has been organising workshops, seminars and conferences on humanitarian law and Islam since 2007, the group told FRANCE 24. Developed in conjunction with Islamic scholars, the sessions are aimed, in part, at emphasising how the Geneva Conventions converge with the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed.

The ICRC's goal is to educate those involved in conflict about international law and "its synergies with humanitarian principles under Islamic law”, the Red Cross said, as well as to “raise awareness about the humanitarian aspects of Islamic jurisprudence”.

Two New York Times reporters were allowed to attend the first day of a three-day workshop in July on the condition that none of the participants, nor the ICRC's staff, be named or photographed.

“The prophet used to give orders to his army that you don’t kill any child, don’t cut any tree,” one fighter told the Times, citing Islam's own exhortation to protect civilians in times of conflict. “As long as he is not fighting me, I should not kill him.”

Red Cross leaders have seen increasing interest among Hamas leaders and fighters in obeying these tenets, the paper said, “if only because they now consider their international image a critical component of their struggle”.

A fighter who took part in a similar ICRC programme in May 2014 told the Times that he had “signed a paper saying I should not kill civilians” upon joining the Qassam Brigades. During the hostilities in Gaza last summer, he said, “the rules and teachings of this training made me fight within limits”.

“Some of my colleagues wanted to have a military [project] inside a school, but we prevented this from happening,” he said.

“We explained the consequences of such actions,” he continued. “What will happen in the ICC (International Criminal Court) against us, and the international community." Hamas doesn't want to have a weak point that the Israeli authorities can use against it, he said.

But not everyone present was willing to be so circumspect. “You are dealing with an enemy that there’s not any difference between soldier and civilian,” another fighter told the paper.

'Time will tell'

The ICRC does not comment on the confidential dialogue it has with parties to a conflict, but would say that Hamas had “shown a willingness to better understand their obligations" under international humanitarian law.

Hamas, like other militant groups, has become increasingly aware that its goals are best served when its actions do not alienate those who might otherwise be sympathetic to its cause.

“For the first time, Hamas is actually, in a private, protected space, expressing a readiness to look critically at a number of things that have an impact on their level of respect for international humanitarian law,” said Jacques de Maio, head of the Red Cross delegation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, in comments to the Times.

“Whether this will translate into something concrete, time will tell,” he added.

De Maio acknowledged that “a big ethical, fundamental question would be, ‘Are we now shaking hands with the devil?’” But he told the paper that the ICRC’s engagement with rogue leaders and militants in the past had often shown positive results.

“The ICRC reaches out to armed groups around the world, just as it does to state parties to conflicts, for exactly the same reasons: to gain access to people who need our help and to spread knowledge and respect for international humanitarian law,” the Red Cross told FRANCE 24.

“It is those who carry weapons who can kill – and be killed. It is also they who can facilitate or hinder humanitarian action,” the group says on its website.

Conflict in Gaza

Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organisation by the United States as well as the European Union, has been accused in the past of exhibiting indifference to civilian casualties in pursuit of its aims.

In a May report, Amnesty International accused Hamas militants of committing war crimes against fellow Palestinians in Gaza – including extrajudicial killings, abductions and torture – during the group’s conflict with Israel in the summer of 2014.

A UN report the following month said the world body had seen "credible allegations" that both sides had committed war crimes. The ICC is conducting a preliminary inquiry into the conflict, in which more than 2,140 Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed along with 73 people on the Israeli side, most of them soldiers.

Israel has long maintained that any attempt to avoid civilian deaths is complicated by Hamas’s policy of positioning weapons in civilian districts, which ensures that the elimination of a military target comes with significant civilian casualties.

Last summer a FRANCE 24 video report appeared to offer evidence that Hamas was positioning its missiles in residential areas. As the channel’s Gallagher Fenwick was delivering a live briefing from Gaza City, a rocket launched from outside the apartment building behind him.

"This type of setup is at the heart of the debate within the international community but also between Israel and the Palestinian militants," Fenwick said at the time. "The Israeli army has repeatedly accused Palestinian militants of shooting from within densely populated civilian areas, and that is precisely the type of setup we have right here – rockets set up right next to buildings with a lot of residents.”

The ICRC began work in Israel and the Palestinian Territories in 1948, following the first Arab-Israeli conflict, and its presence in the region became permanent after the 1967 war. The organisation now focuses on protecting civilians and on ensuring the welfare of detainees held by both sides.

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