Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 July 2006
Issue No. 804
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Resist at your peril

Humanitarian groups the world over are decrying Israel's punitive strikes on the hapless civilian population of Lebanon rather more firmly than governments, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Unexpected Israeli pounding jolted Lebanon out of a relatively quiet July, prompting international reactions. Western governments, and in particular the United States, were on the whole supportive of the Israeli aggression. The Europeans, with the possible exception of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, were less assertively pro-Israeli. Many European leaders expressed grave reservations about the bombardment of civilian targets.

"The European Union is greatly concerned about the disproportionate use of force by Israel in Lebanon in response to attacks by Hizbullah on Israel," according to a statement issued by Finland, which happens to be holding the EU's rotating presidency. "The presidency deplores the loss of civilian lives and the destruction of civilian infrastructure. The imposition of an air and sea blockade on Lebanon cannot be justified... actions, which are contrary to international humanitarian law, can only aggravate the vicious circle of violence and retribution, and cannot serve anyone's legitimate security interests."

For one particularly influential player in Lebanese politics, France, Lebanon's former colonial master, officially reserved strong criticism for Israel's retaliatory measures. Reactions from Asian, African and South American countries were even more openly sympathetic to the Lebanese cause, while international relief agencies and human rights organisations spoke with a unanimous voice -- strongly condemning the Israeli battering of civilian targets in Lebanon. Indeed the Herculean efforts required to salvage the humanitarian situation in Lebanon have, not surprisingly, become the focus of United Nations affiliated organisations and human rights groups as well as humanitarian relief organisations worldwide.

A chorus of voices are trying to exert pressure, or offer assistance at the very least -- a task hampered by continued aerial bombardment. "It is illegal to attack civilians who are not taking a direct part in hostilities and it is illegal to attack civilian property. All precautions must be taken to spare civilian life and property, and to ensure that the wounded have access to medical facilities," Regional Director of the Media Department of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Tamara Al-Rifai told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"The obligation to distinguish between civilians and civilian property on the one hand, and military objectives on the other, is at the core of international humanitarian law and must be complied with at all times. The ICRC's delegation in Lebanon is currently in close contact with the Lebanese Red Cross, which has the logistical means and terrain knowledge, and with which all relief activities will be coordinated (distribution of relief material when needed for instance). The ICRC in Beirut," he went on, "is a small structure (that was convenient for the ICRC's role in Lebanon those past few post-war years). We are currently boosting our structure there by sending extra personnel (health and other), however the ICRC usually prefers to work through structures that already exist in a country (health institutions that are already there and running and that need support during emergencies, the local Red Cross or Red Crescent), as opposed to doing things ourselves directly (which would require a huge human resources structure and would often duplicate the efforts -- efforts that are already exerted by local structures)."

Specifically, the ICRC prefers to support local medical structures with medical and health material and equipment, based on the assessed needs. It also prefers to distribute assistance (food, hygiene parcels, kitchen utensils) through the Lebanese Red Cross (which can monitor, assess and keep record of beneficiaries).

"By coordination with the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) we mean that any assistance to the different Lebanese villages or areas is done with and through them. The LRC has the widest network in Lebanon, with branches and relief volunteers as well as ambulances stretched across the country," Al-Rifai told the Weekly. She added, "they are the ones who know the terrain and are present on location to assess the needs and respond to them. Moreover they have a long experience in conflict situations, because of their recent history and the role they have played throughout the Lebanese war."

Other humanitarian relief organisations concurred. "Israel must put an immediate end to attacks against civilians and against civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, which constitute collective punishment. Israel must also respect the principle of proportionality when targeting any military objectives or civilian objectives that may be used for military purposes. Hizbullah must stop launching attacks against Israeli civilians and it must treat humanely the two Israeli soldiers it captured on 12 July and grant them immediate access to the International Committee of the Red Cross," Malcom Smart, director of Amnesty International's Middle East Programme, declared.

For his part the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland explained, "it is not possible for the UN and others to escort large numbers of people in this kind of situation. We can maybe put a plaster on it but both sides need to stop inflicting the wounds."

"It took everyone a few days to see the situation. Now, everyone is making emergency units and we are trying to coordinate so not everyone does the same thing," explained Suha Boustani, communications officer for UNICEF Lebanon. "Materials do exist. We need to bring them from outside through the roads."

"We are already seeing increased movement of people who need assistance. Displaced people without strong family networks are going to have serious humanitarian needs, and we are helping address those needs," David Holdridge, Mercy Corps' regional programme director for the Middle East, said. "Mercy Corps plans to begin distributing relief supplies to the most vulnerable southern Lebanon residents displaced from their homes in response to humanitarian needs triggered by ongoing violence in the Middle East."

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