“We cannot just be a relief organization,” Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross until 2022, said in a 2015 speech about the organization’s failures during the Holocaust. The Red Cross, Maurer said, was regretful: “It failed as a humanitarian organization because it had lost its moral compass. It failed … by responding to the outrageous with standard procedures, it looked on helplessly and silently.”
It would be more accurate, actually, to say the Red Cross expressed regret. Because it’s clear its officials weren’t all that sorry.
Not only has the ICRC, which receives many millions of dollars in U.S. contributions, failed to advocate meaningfully for the Israeli hostages held by Hamas, and not only has the organization appeared uninterested in gaining access to them or their release, but it now faces legitimate questions about its complicity in Hamas war crimes.
Over the weekend the IDF released footage from al-Shifa hospital showing Hamas fighters bringing hostages to the medical compound on Oct. 7, the day of its bloody incursion into Israel. One hostage, an Israeli soldier, was likely killed there. Fighters dragging the hostages can be seen interacting freely with medical personnel at the hospital, in case anyone still tries to argue that hospital officials have plausible deniability. And as some have pointed out, there was no way for the hostages to get to Shifa without being taken past several other hospitals on the way, so they were not brought in for medical care.
Ridiculous excuses thus dispensed with, we can move on to what ICRC officials knew and when they knew it. The Red Cross was no stranger to Shifa. On November 6 and 7, for example, it boasted of ICRC caravans transporting supplies to Shifa and patients from Shifa. What did ICRC personnel see as they cleared out patients for transfer? More important, what did they pretend not to see? They had communication with and access to the hospital compound and its staff; to what purpose did they use this access? They were aware of the material needs of the hospital and therefore what was being used daily. ICRC doctors and surgeons around Gaza were in contact with colleagues at Shifa.
And we certainly know they are capable of outrage. ICRC Director Robert Mardini, for example, had this outburst on Nov. 11: “We @ICRC are shocked & appalled by the images & reports coming from Al-Shifa hospital in #Gaza. The unbearably desperate situation for patients & staff trapped inside must stop. Now. Hospitals, patients, staff & health care must be protected. Period.”
Mardini was talking about Israel’s supposed lack of respect for medical facilities in wartime, just to be clear. ICRC regional director Fabrizio Carboni was also quite exercised about it: “The information coming from the Al Shifa hospital is distressing. It cannot continue like this. Thousands of wounded, displaced people and medical staff are at risk. They need to be protected in line with the laws of war.”
Meanwhile, the ICRC had no qualms about portraying Israeli troops as a constant threat to medical personnel or would-be butchers, or going on Al Jazeera to remind the IDF of its obligations to the hospitals that Hamas was already misusing.
Indeed, the ICRC’s partnership with Shifa is a point of pride for the organization. In July, as Hamas was planning its Oct. 7 massacre, officials boasted of improvements to the hospital “implemented by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in partnership with the Ministry of Health in Gaza,” i.e. Hamas. “Hospitals stand at the heart of communities, and Al-Shifa Medical Complex Emergency Department is now beating strong and steady for Gaza,” crowed William Schomburg, a top ICRC Gaza official.
Back in that 2015 speech, Maurer faulted his organization for not balancing its private efforts with public pronunciations. But one difference between the Red Cross’s work in World War II and the current Gaza conflict is that in WWII, the ICRC’s record was mixed. Yes, it failed Jewish prisoners repeatedly. But it also facilitated communication to and from those prisoners, provided medical care to some of them, and was involved in prisoner exchanges—all actions for which it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1944. The Nobel committee acknowledges now that the ICRC knew more about Nazi atrocities than it let on at the time, suggesting that the Red Cross’s full wartime record might not be deserving of such an award.
This time, it has let down the hostages in every way imaginable. At the end of its note on the 1944 Nobel Peace Prize, the committee writes: “The Red Cross has since expressed regret for this suppression of the facts.”
How long will it take them to come clean this time, and what will it require to ensure there is no repeat of the ICRC’s Gaza disaster?