Explainer: What is the Red Cross doing to help hostages taken from Israel?

As a neutral intermediary, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) plays an important practical role once the release of hostages has been agreed.

For more than seven months, families of hostages held in Gaza have endured unimaginable suffering as they wait for news of their loved ones.

Colleagues from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been working round the clock to access the hostages and provide desperate families with information about their loved ones.

From day one, they have repeatedly called for access to the hostages so that they can check on their wellbeing, deliver any medicine they need, and allow them to exchange messages with loved ones.

But they have not yet been granted access to the hostages, and this is a source of deep frustration and grave concern.

The plight of the hostages held in Gaza remains one of ICRC's utmost priorities. They are standing by to facilitate and bring the remaining hostages back to their loved ones. But the situation is extremely difficult. The ICRC does not have information about where the hostages are.

Even if the location was known, the ICRC cannot force its way into where hostages are held. And they can only visit hostages and support relief operations if there is an agreement by the parties to the conflict.

The ICRC must also receive all necessary assurances that colleagues can carry out their work safely. We explain more about ICRC’s role here.

"The ICRC has performed this role many times before"

Rory Moylan, British Red Cross head of region for Middle East, North Africa and Europe, talks about the hostages still held in Gaza.

Duration of video: 01:33

Why is the Red Cross involved with the release of hostages?

The ICRC's specific role as a neutral intermediary in conflict is set out in the Geneva Conventions. This can include facilitating the release of people taken in conflict.

Our Movement’s fundamental principles of impartiality and neutrality are crucial in this work. We don’t take sides in a conflict.

In times like this, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s work is vital, using our neutrality and impartiality to help anyone, anywhere, who needs our support. 

What exactly is ICRC's role?

The ICRC is not a negotiator. It is a neutral and impartial humanitarian organisation and does not take part in any negotiations or political deals between the sides.

Its role is to provide practical support to aid the release of hostages once release has been agreed by all sides.

The ICRC also also reminds parties of their obligations according to International Humanitarian Law.

And once an agreement between parties has been reached, the ICRC will stand ready to receive the hostages and takes them safely out of the Gaza Strip to a previously agreed location.

Why isn’t the ICRC speaking out for the hostages?

As a neutral humanitarian organisation, the ICRC may not be as outspoken as many would want them to be. But they care very much for the plight of the hostages and for the families who love them.

The ICRC has a long history of facilitating the release of hostages all over the world. They helped return the Chibok girls home to their families in Nigeria. They have done the same in places like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Peru. They are ready to do the same here.

Colleagues have been persistently advocating on behalf of the hostages held in Gaza, including directly with the parties holding them, and with actors who may have influence on the parties.

Decades of experience in hostage release operations has shown that advocating behind closed doors is the best way to make a difference. And the ICRC are – relentlessly.

Has the ICRC met with families of the hostages taken from Israel?

The ICRC has been persistently advocating on behalf of the hostages held in Gaza, including directly with the parties holding them, and with those who may have influence on the parties.

Since the start of the conflict, our ICRC colleagues have been in regular contact with the families and loved ones of those held hostage in Gaza.

Mirjana Spoljaric, ICRC President, has met with Israeli, Palestinian and Qatari authorities to advocate on behalf of the hostages and urge respect for international humanitarian law by all parties. She has also met the families of hostages held in Gaza several times in recent weeks.

The ICRC regularly communicates with parties to the conflict about the conditions of hostages, but the content of these communications is confidential, as is often the case in such situations. Confidentiality plays a key role in achieving a positive outcome.

Has the ICRC transferred hostages?

In November 2023, teams from the ICRC began a multi-day operation to facilitate the release and transfer of hostages held in Gaza, and of Palestinian detainees to the West Bank. 

In total, the ICRC facilitated the release of 109 hostages held in Gaza, and 154 Palestinian detainees in Israel.

In its role as a neutral intermediary, the ICRC transferred hostages held in Gaza over several days to Israeli authorities and on to their families, and Palestinian detainees to authorities in the West Bank, to be reunited with their families.

The parties to the conflict agreed to the details of the operation, including who would be released and when. The ICRC was not involved in the negotiations, and its role was to help facilitate the agreement as a neutral intermediary.

Although some hostages have been reunited with their loved ones, there are still families who are worried sick about loved ones taken hostage. The ICRC will continue to advocate on behalf of the remaining hostages taken from Israel and is working to secure their release.

What has the ICRC said to those holding the hostages? 

ICRC colleagues continue to speak with all relevant parties about the release of hostages, using the tools available: open dialogue and urging parties to implement their obligations under international humanitarian law. 

The content of these discussions is confidential to achieve more positive outcomes. This behind-the-scenes work plays a key role in the safe return of hostages and has helped facilitate the release of four hostages so far.

Has the ICRC refused to pass on medication to the hostages provided by families?

The ICRC have met directly with the families of hostages who have urged them to transport personal medications belonging to the hostages.

However, the ICRC can only take them once they have been granted access to visit the hostages. They’ve asked the families to keep the medicines in the meantime.

As soon as the ICRC is granted access to visit the hostages, they will deliver medicine and other aid to hostages.

The ICRC have repeatedly asked for access to the hostages to check on their health conditions and make sure they have the humanitarian assistance they need.

The ICRC are ready to carry out those visits and provide the necessary aid as soon as they have access to the hostages.

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