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International Red Cross Decides Fate of Israel’s Magen David Adom in June

May 26, 2006
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American Jews and their Red Cross allies are holding their breath as Judgment Day for Israel’s emergency services operation inches closer. Despite lobbying over the past several decades by agencies like the American Red Cross and the American Friends of Magen David Adom, the Israeli outfit has been excluded from the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement for 58 years because of Arab and Muslim opposition.

Next month, Red Cross member states and societies meeting in Geneva will determine whether Magen David Adom, or MDA, can join the international group.

“Politics has prevented MDA’s admission — that’s clear,” David Meltzer, senior vice president of international services for the American Red Cross, told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Tuesday in New York City. “It’s not the first time and not the last time politics has interfered with a humanitarian issue.”

Arab and Muslim states have refused to allow the international body to accept the Star of David as a valid symbol.

In December, Israel took a significant step toward inclusion with an agreement that allows Israel to use Stars of David on ambulances operating inside Israel. When abroad, MDA will have to use a neutral symbol — a red crystal — if the host country requests it, but MDA could place a Star of David inside the diamond.

Though the new symbol passed in a December resolution, voting bodies still need to determine whether or not to admit MDA.

Based on the December vote — 98-27 in favor, with 10 abstentions — the prognosis for MDA’s acceptance appears good. But insiders caution there are still a number of loose ends.

As Meltzer put it, “You can buy the champagne, but don’t buy ice and certainly don’t pop it.”

For one thing, if MDA wants to join the international body, it will have to follow Red Cross rules, including the dictate that MDA operate independently of the Israeli government. Currently, MDA’s board is appointed by the government.

The Red Cross also insists that Israel recognize the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. Like Israel, the Palestinians have observer status in the Red Cross, and admission for the two groups has been combined into one item for the June vote.

Before the vote, Swiss government officials want to see that Palestinian ambulances have access to emergency stations in eastern Jerusalem, from which they can operate more quickly.

Despite Israeli security concerns — Israel says that in some cases Palestinian ambulances have been used to transport weapons and terrorists — Palestinian ambulance drivers must be allowed to bypass long lines at checkpoints.

Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive vice president of the American Friends of Magen David Adom, said he was confident the Israeli government would take the necessary steps. He said other factors could come into play, however.

“It will come down to a vote,” Allen said. “It’s about whether or not states are willing to admit a Jewish humanitarian organization into their family.”

Meltzer said the Syrian government in particular has been “fighting tooth and nail to derail this.”

He noted that the “more or less stable” situation in the Middle East recently had contributed to progress at the negotiating table. But Red Cross employees worry that the situation could become volatile again.

Despite these hurdles, the parties remain cautiously optimistic.

With Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to Finland, at the helm, the American Red Cross has been pushing for Israeli inclusion.

Since 2000, the American Red Cross has withheld $42 million from its parent organization, 25 percent of the International Federation of Red Cross’ annual income.

That has kept the American Red Cross from enjoying full member perks — like voting and representation — in the international body.

“In many ways the American Red Cross has been punished severely by doing this,” McElveen-Hunter told the Conference of Presidents on Tuesday. “But it’s recognizing that doing the right thing carries some costs.”

American Friends of Magen David Adom also has been turning up the heat.

“We’ve been the information conduit among the various parties,” Allen explained. He said the organization, which has been supporting MDA for 50 years, is responsible for bringing the issue to the attention of the American Red Cross.

“We just hope that the international Red Cross societies around the world will live up to their highest ideals of humanitarian aid,” Allen said. “This is one more step in the total recognition by the world of Israel being a member of the family of nations.”

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