For Israeli Aid Group, Long Road to Inclusion

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By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 31, 2006

For more than half a century, Israel's humanitarian relief society was not a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the network of organizations that provide aid to people affected by war and disaster.

In June, Magen David Adom finally joined -- the result of a year and a half of diplomatic effort by the State Department working with American Red Cross, Israeli, Palestinian, Swiss government and international Red Cross officials.

"In some respects, the MDA issue was a very small microcosm, albeit without the violence, of the problems that have been going on in the Middle East for decades," said John B. Bellinger III, the State Department legal adviser who served as chief U.S. diplomat on the matter.

Just after Israel's founding in 1948, MDA sought for the first time to join the international movement. Joining the movement required that MDA use one of the emblems -- the red cross, the red crescent, and the red lion and sun -- defined by the Geneva Conventions as signifying humanitarian relief.

But MDA wanted to use its emblem: the red Star of David.

In 1949, diplomats rejected a proposal, 22 to 21, to recognize the Star of David, ending MDA's initial bid for inclusion. The international community had long resisted attempts to change its emblems.

Not being a member did not affect MDA's operations significantly, but it loomed symbolically over the next half-century as Israelis felt excluded from the international humanitarian movement. Periodic efforts to address the situation were begun, but they were always postponed because of concerns about the latest conflict in the Middle East.

In the 1990s, the idea of a new emblem was floated for nations that did not want to use the red cross or the red crescent. In early 2000, the American Red Cross, an ally of MDA frustrated by continued postponements, announced it would withhold its dues to the international group until the matter was resolved.

An October 2000 conference to begin the process of admitting MDA was scheduled. But it was derailed when violence broke out between the Israelis and Palestinians in September 2000 in the second intifada.

For the next few years, the issue was dormant.

When Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state in January 2005, the Israelis and Palestinians were at a relatively peaceful period. Rice sensed it was an opportune time to renew focus on the issue. The Swiss government, which serves as a coordinator for the Geneva Conventions and the international Red Cross, and foreign diplomats agreed.

Next came a flurry of diplomatic activity to bring MDA into the international movement.


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