Newspaper article International New York Times

Red Cross Offers Workshop in International Law to Hamas

Newspaper article International New York Times

Red Cross Offers Workshop in International Law to Hamas

Article excerpt

The Red Cross developed its program in conjunction with Islamic scholars. So far this year, it has conducted six sessions for a total of 210 fighters.

A new training regimen for fighters in Hamas's armed wing employs slide presentations and a whiteboard rather than Kalashnikov rifles and grenades. The young men wear polo shirts instead of fatigues and black masks. They do not chant anti-Israel slogans, but discuss how the Geneva Conventions governing armed conflict dovetail with Islamic principles.

The three-day workshop, conducted last month by the International Committee of the Red Cross, followed numerous human-rights reports accusing both Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, of war crimes in their devastating battle last summer, and came as the International Criminal Court prosecutor conducts a preliminary inquiry into that conflict.

It was clear during the opening session that the Red Cross would face a steep climb to convince militant Islamists that international law should govern their resistance against Israel.

"The prophet used to give orders to his army that you don't kill any child, don't cut any tree," one fighter said promisingly, lending Quranic support to the principle of distinguishing between soldiers and civilians. "As long as he is not fighting me, I should not kill him."

But a colleague soon countered, "The prophet is different than today," and the conversation quickly shifted from Hamas's own questionable methods to the enemy.

"They killed us, they killed our babies," one militant insisted, speaking of the Israeli military. Of the humanitarian principles underpinning both Islam and international law, he added, "Sometimes we need to overlook these things, because the situation is different."

The Red Cross developed its program in conjunction with Islamic scholars several years ago, but ramped it up after last summer's deadly battle. So far this year, it has conducted six sessions for a total of 210 fighters from Hamas's Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades and two other Gaza armed groups. Another workshop is scheduled for this week.

Skeptics may question the utility of teaching humanitarian law to a guerrilla force that the United States and the European Union classify as a terrorist organization. The Qassam Brigades fired thousands of rockets and mortars toward Israeli cities last summer; its weapons caches have been found in civilian homes and schools across Gaza, and Israel alleges that it uses Palestinian residents as human shields, purposely risking their lives to mobilize international ire against Israel.

But Red Cross leaders say they have seen an increasing commitment from Hamas leaders and linemen alike, if only because they now consider their international image a critical component of their struggle.

Mamadou Sow, who heads Red Cross operations in Gaza, said that in April he presented a critique of Hamas's conduct during the 2014 hostilities to its top political and military leaders, and that they "welcomed it" and "indicated that they are a learning organization." He said they also "challenged us to keep in mind the topology of the Gaza Strip," one of the most densely populated patches on the planet.

"For the first time," said Jacques de Maio, director of the Red Cross delegation in Israel and the Palestinian territories, "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. …

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