What does new Red Cross symbol mean for Israel

new york | Magen David Adom’s longstanding effort to join the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movements has proceeded in fits and starts, so it should have come as no surprise that the latest attempt to clear the major barrier to entry didn’t go smoothly.

In the end, though, it was a success: Geneva Convention signatory countries adopted a neutral red diamond last week as an official protective symbol, to go along with the red cross and red crescent.

The move paves the way for MDA to gain full membership in the International Red Cross after nearly 60 years of exclusion due to opposition from Arab and Islamic countries.

“We are blessing the result and we are very, very encouraged by the achievement,” said Reuven Azar, counsel for political affairs at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. “We think that it’s a humanitarian issue and it should have been resolved 55 years ago. For political reasons it was prevented, but fortunately we found a way to advance on this.”

Daniel Allen, executive vice president of the American Friends of Magen David Adom, called the vote “proof positive that humanitarian concerns can come first, even in matters related to the Middle East.”

Syrian opposition nearly scuttled last week’s effort. Syria demanded that MDA enter into an agreement with the Syrian Red Crescent Society similar to one MDA signed recently with its Palestinian counterpart concerning how the agencies would operate in eastern Jerusalem.

Under the pact, in which MDA recognized the Palestinian Red Crescent as the national group in the territories, Palestinian ambulances are guaranteed speedier passage through the West Bank.

With support from some Islamic countries, Syria insisted that the Syrian Red Crescent be allowed to operate in the Golan Heights, which Israel conquered from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. Participants said the demand was an obvious nonstarter for Israel, which doesn’t consider the Golan occupied territory.

The MDA will continue to use the red Star of David when operating in Israel. When working abroad, MDA personnel will display the star inside the red diamond.

Jewish groups welcomed adoption of the red diamond and hoped that the development would lead to the MDA’s full membership in the international organization.

Arab opposition has shut Israel out of the organization for decades. The Jewish state’s candidacy was rejected during the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which insisted that new aid groups adopt the Red Cross emblem.

Among the major stumbling blocks has been Arab and Muslim states’ refusal to accept the Star of David, arguing that the official symbols couldn’t be changed — though the conventions indeed were changed to include the Islamic red crescent.

Backers of Israel had believed that the protocol would be approved easily this year. But trouble began on the first day of the conference when Syria — which demanded a deal like the Palestinians’ — made clear it wasn’t ready to move forward.

That set off three days of negotiations and sparked a series of proposed amendments from the Organization of the Islamic Conference that would, for example, have removed any mention of MDA from the measure.

“It was pretty frustrating,” said Michael Thaidigsmann of the World Jewish Congress’ Brussels office. “Nobody thought it would go through the first day. People were thinking, ‘OK, there’s Syria, but they have no real allies, not even the Palestinians.'”

As it turned out, Syria did have allies among Islamic nations. As negotiations to break the impasse dragged on, plenary meetings were called on an almost hourly basis, then postponed to give negotiators time to hammer out a deal or give the Islamic countries time to meet.

“Syria’s always ready to wreck something when it comes to Israel,” said Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights. “In this situation, the other Arab League” and Islamic countries “all indicated that they would be supportive of the new emblem. Alone they may have said that, but together the dynamic became to resist and show that they wouldn’t make any concessions unless they got huge concessions.”

Jewish officials commended the Swiss role in pushing through the red diamond, and said Pakistan’s role as a facilitator was notable.

“They continued to be of help at a time when a number of Arab and Islamic states wanted to really turn this into an issue, using Syria’s Golan issue as a pretext to challenge Israel’s fundamental right to be treated as an equal nation,” said Shai Franklin, director of international organizations for the World Jewish Congress.

A conference to admit MDA to the international movement is expected sometime in 2006. If accepted, MDA would be eligible to request funds from the international movement and would have access to training, information and forums from which it’s now excluded.

“We are really thrilled by what happened,” said Devorah Goldburg, spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, which since 2000 has withheld dues to the international body to protest Israel’s exclusion. “It’s a great day for MDA, but it’s also a great day for the movement.”