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Engaging with Armed Groups During COVID-19

23 Jun 2020
By Katherine Stewart
A group of farmers sow wheat seeds in the presence of ICRC staff. Photo supplied by the ICRC.

Working with the International Committee of the Red Cross in areas of conflict requires flexibility. When talking to armed groups, even amid pandemic, continuity of humanitarian operations is always the top priority.

What is a retired Australian Army officer doing in Israel and the occupied territories during the COVID-19 pandemic? I could have hung up my uniform and sat on a beach in Australia and watched the world go by, but being a very young 50-year-old, I decided I had more to contribute. I have lived in eleven different countries, often in times of unrest, and seen the great work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in helping people affected by conflict. So, after a wonderful 33-year career in the Australian Army I decided to retire and join the ICRC.

I was offered a position in Israel and the occupied territories for my first assignment with the ICRC in 2019. I jumped at the chance, as I had some experience with the region and Israel. Nearly two decades earlier, although I had tickets to the Olympic Games in Sydney, I watched most of the games in Arabic or Hebrew while living in an observation post in Southern Lebanon or in the Israeli city of Nahariyya as a military observer with the United Nations. This was just after the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Southern Lebanon and the start of the second intifada. It was strange returning to the area after all that time as a civilian working for the ICRC.

Although some things had changed since I was last in Israel and the occupied territories, the fundamentals of the situation have stayed the same. The occupied territories (as per international law) are the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights – being territories seized by Israel in 1967. The ICRC has been in Israel and the occupied territories since 1967, promoting compliance with International Humanitarian Law, and working to mitigate the impact of violence, conflict, and occupation on civilians. The situation is complex, especially as Israel contests the designation of the territories as “occupied.”

I have been amazed at the flexibility I need in my job: I am not a lawyer, but the promotion of International Humanitarian Law is the cornerstone of the ICRC’s mandate; I am not a diplomat, but humanitarian diplomacy is used to persuade decision makers to act in the interests of vulnerable people; I am not a social worker, but giving people the opportunity to talk and be heard is a very powerful tool. I must bring all these skills to bear, but my true value is being able to talk to arms carriers in a language they understand. Having had similar training and experiences, I am able to talk to arms carriers about the balance between considerations of military necessity and the requirements of humanity.

I live in Tel Aviv but travel between Gaza, the West Bank and Israel often as a Military and Armed Group (MAG) ICRC delegate. In my experience, it is only when you live in a country, are exposed to different cultures, and talk to the local people, actively listening to their perceptions and experiences, that you can start to really appreciate different perspectives and mindsets. The situation in Israel and the occupied territories is larger than physical – it’s also very much a clash of perceptions. My job involves understanding the mindsets of arms carriers, be they the Israeli Defense Forces or the armed wing of Hamas or other factions and developing discussions that resonate with them.  If I can make a difference by engaging with those with power over the humanitarian impact on people, I will engage with them. I cross lines and shake hands with everybody.

I deal with all sides of the conflict, talking to all actors about respecting the lives, integrity, and dignity of everyone affected by conflict. I speak to and develop working relationships with groups and organisations that carry weapons, whether they be militaries, police, or armed groups or militias that are independent of a state. The aim is frank and confidential dialogue that helps build an environment to influence those who affect the lives of people who suffer because of conflict and occupation. We talk about activities that occur and concerns about behaviours that result in adverse humanitarian consequences. As you can imagine our discussions can be quite sensitive.

Flying into Israel in January 2020 after a lovely summer holiday in Australia, I had no idea how the world would change less than three months later with the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic. January and February saw the normal meetings with the Israeli Defense Forces in Israel and the West Bank, as well a trip to Gaza to talk to the members of some of the armed groups there. March arrived with COVID-19 and a major change to life. The lockdown came quite quickly with a national state of emergency declared by the Palestinian Authority on 5 March and by the Government of Israel on 19 March. Suddenly I was not able to leave the house unless absolutely necessary. A trip out meant either an expedition to the supermarket, pharmacy, or some physical activity within 500 meters of my house – all of this while wearing a face mask when in public.

My top work priority was to ensure the ICRC’s operational capability during the pandemic remained supported. Some movements of people and goods that required ICRC support and coordination between various security services were essential, so my skills were needed. Contingency planning for dealing with the pandemic and considerations for the roles arms carriers might be required to undertake were discussed. Here in Israel and the occupied territories, the military and security services were employed to assist with the response to COVID-19 as they were in many other countries, including Australia. This saw an increase in the cooperation and coordination between Israelis and Palestinians with them working together to achieve a common goal – restriction of the spread of the coronavirus. The establishment of quarantine centres, provision of medical support and supplies, support to the elderly, and the provision of food parcels to the less privileged all became tasks taken on by various security forces both in Israel and in the occupied territories.

The ICRC’s experience with other infectious disease outbreaks, such as Ebola, meant we could provide practical information to help prepare security first responders for future tasks. We talked to arms carriers about the equipment, education, and training that may be needed for the potential tasks facing them. The need for protective equipment for health care workers was well understood, but it took some time for the risks to security first responders or those enforcing quarantine to be understood. To help protect security forces on the front line, we distributed protective equipment, disinfectant, and cleaning products to police stations in the West Bank and Gaza.

COVID-19 brought with it a variety of personal stresses due to the uncertainty of heath, economic, work, and social impacts. Being isolated and a long way from home also increased the effects of lack of information, misinformation, and disappointments. Planned trips were cancelled and reunions with friends and family were unable to take place. One of the things that really affected me was the lack of mail. Hand-written mail may be considered old fashioned by some, but my parents have always written cards to me once a week when I am living overseas. This maintains special contact and keeps me connected to home as the cards always have pictures of Australia and I find it more personal than emails. It is clichéd and may seem inconsequential to some, but the comfort of something that links you so strongly to home and triggers good memories cannot be underestimated. I am very lucky that here in Israel and the occupied territories, I can buy virtually anything, including Tim Tams (even though they do cost $10 a packet), although vegemite is nowhere to be found – a real blow to this happy little vegemite.

Despite the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, life goes on and I continue to learn more every day that I work for the ICRC. I am a valued member of a team that works to help the most vulnerable communities affected by conflict and occupation. We have adapted to meet the challenges presented by the addition of the COVID pandemic to already difficult situations, and I am proud of the contributions we continue to make. It will be a while before I will make it back home to Australia, but until then, I will continue to do my part and appreciate what I have in life, face mask and all.

Katherine Stewart is an Armed Forces Delegate with the International Committee of the Red Cross. She is based in Tel Aviv.

This article is part of the “Conflict and COVID-19” series by the International Committee of the Red Cross in partnership with AIIA, highlighting the overlapping humanitarian fallout of war and pandemic. Other articles in this series feature the perspectives of ICRC delegates working in weapon contamination, forensics, protection, and mental health.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the ICRC.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence, and may be republished with attribution.