Pierre Dorbes of the Red Cross
Pierre Dorbes of the Red Cross. Photo by Emil Salman
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Anytime the issue of Palestinian prisoners is raised, especially in a week in which Israel marks the fourth anniversary of Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit's kidnapping, the subject of the Red Cross' mandate is raised. Pierre Dorbes is the deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

What is the greatest achievement of the Red Cross in the occupied territories over the last 40 years?

This is a tricky question. One of our main achievements is that we have been able to visit nearly everyone detained in connection to this conflict, with the exception of Gilad Shalit. We have regular access to all the security detainees held by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

But visiting detainees and prisoners is a cornerstone of your mandate as a watchdog for international humanitarian law. Why present it as an accomplishment?

True, but access to detainees is not a given. For example, since 2005 we have not been allowed to visit detainees in Burma.

And what is your biggest failure?

I don't know whether to call it a failure or a lack of results. The Red Cross, like the entire international community, believes that Israel is obligated as an occupying force in Gaza and the West Bank by the prohibition on the transfer of its population to the occupied areas. That is, the settlements are a violation.

This is not only a lack of results on your part.

There is almost nothing that we are doing alone. One thing concerns the way hostilities are being conducted by the different parties. We have an ongoing dialogue with the IDF and the other sides with the aim that they will respect the provisions of international humanitarian law. There is a certain amount of progress in contrast to a total lack of respect for these provisions. But I would not like to go into details because we keep this dialogue confidential, and confidentiality contributes to progress.

I expected you to say that the failure is the continued detention of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

How is this our failure when it is Israel's decision? It is true that Israel is obligated to hold prisoners in occupied territory, an obligation that it is violating. But let's be pragmatic: It is possible to visit the prisoners. My concern at the moment is the 806 Palestinian prisoners from Gaza who have not received visits for three years. They are not completely cut off from their families, because we are allowed to transfer postcards from them to their relatives.

How many prisoners are included under your mandate in the occupied territories and Israel?

About 200 security prisoners in Palestinian prisons in Gaza, 900 in Palestinian prisons in the West Bank, and 8,967 in Israel. Of these 2,401 are [being held on] on common-law [charges], and the rest security, including 218 administrative detainees. The goal is to visit as many as possible in the first critical stage, when the family still lacks all information, and then afterwards in the regular prison.

Two visits a year are enough to insure that the conditions and treatment meet minimum requirements. Many Hamas leaders were allowed our visits when they were imprisoned, and perhaps for that reason Hamas has allowed us from the beginning to visit their security prisoners. The obvious exception is Gilad Shalit.

Aside from Gazans, many other Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails do not receive regular family visits.

More than 90 percent of West Bank prisoners receive family visits.

But some receive one visit a year, and there are family members who receive new clearance months after the old one expires. How many do not receive regular visits?

The dialogue about this issue is also confidential.

Is there no obligation about the frequency of family visits? There are Palestinians who complain that you act only as a postman for Israeli prohibitions and as a bus service.

As far as I know there is no obligation as to frequency of visits, but rather to maintaining family links. Our role is to be a humanitarian intermediary but also a humanitarian actor pushing Israel to be as generous as possible.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not.

Yes, we do our best, and yes, we do care. We are constantly following this issue with the Israeli side - the army, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, the civil administration.

With which levels of Hamas leadership do you meet about Shalit? How often?

We meet with all levels. In Damascus we are in direct contact with [Hamas political leader Khaled] Meshal himself, the last meeting was six months ago, and with officials in the Hamas offices. A few weeks ago was the last time we met with them. In Gaza we are in touch with the government, we have met with [Hamas prime minister in Gaza] Ismail Haniyeh at times, with the movement and its representative Mahmoud al-Zahar, and also with members of the military arm.

How many meetings have you had? Do you deliver messages?

Since the end of 2008 when I began my assignment, I know of dozens of meetings in which the subject of Shalit was raised. We are not involved in negotiations. We remind Hamas of its humanitarian obligation to dignified conditions. In order to evaluate this, we suggested a number of times that we visit Shalit. We also suggested that he be allowed to communicate with his family via letters. They refused. Hamas is a non-state party to the conflict. As such, it is not obligated to allow family visits or visits by the Red Cross, but it is obligated to make family ties possible.

On what grounds do they explain their refusal?

They offer no explanation. They just say no.

Have you received a promise from Israel that you will not be under surveillance if you do visit Shalit?

Hamas did not ask us to investigate this with the Israelis.

And if they do?

We will consider it.

Has Hamas agreed to anything you have asked for regarding Gilad Shalit?

No.

Did you expect more generosity on Hamas' part?

We are very disappointed by the lack of a positive answer regarding family ties. Where is the danger in exchanging paper [a letter] from a mother to a son? We do not understand. It is extremely disappointing.

Have you mentioned when you have met with the Shalit family that the conditions of Palestinians detained in Israel are not that of a hotel, as many Israelis like to think?

No. In conversations with the Shalits we focus on their son. But what you are implying is an Israeli debate on reciprocity. And here I must be perfectly clear. In international humanitarian law, the principle of reciprocity does not exist and should not exist. If one party violates its obligations, that does not absolve the other side from respecting them.

We wait a long time before determining in public that one side is violating its obligations. Last week the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva published an official announcement about the blockade on Gaza, calling it collective punishment for the first time. For example, for a year and a half we have been struggling to allow the entrance into Gaza of VHF radio equipment for ambulances. Our request was refused. It has been almost a year that we are waiting for electrodes for heart monitors. No answer.

We do not understand this. We have also determined that Hamas violates international humanitarian law when it does not permit Shalit to have continued ties to his family. Many times, even though a violation is thought to exist, we don't want to say so in public, because we assume that there is still room to maneuver to have discussions and make changes.

So do you feel that you've reached a deadlock?

About the blockade, we hope things will change now. But about Shalit, yes. It is a deadlock.