Ahmad Atoun & Halid Abu Arafa relaxing in the courtyard of the Red Cross building in East Jerusalem Credit: Gush Shalom

Jerusalem– The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stated Tuesday that it is knowingly sheltering three wanted fugitives from the Israeli police in its East Jerusalem headquarters. Ahmad Atoun, Khaled Abu Arafa and Muhhamad Totach, all representatives of Hamas’ Change and Reform list in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), have camped out in the Sheikh Jarrah building since the June 30th re-arrest of Hamas MP and former Al-Qassam Brigades leader Muhhamad Abu Tir.

Dorothea Krimitsas, a spokeswoman for the ICRC, stated that the three men requested Red Cross “protection” from Israeli security forces and were informed that “they could remain on ICRC premises, but also that the ICRC could not prevent the Israeli authorities from taking action against them.”

All three are wanted by Israel for illegally residing in Jerusalem due to the recent revocation of their blue residency cards. The cards were confiscated following their refusal to renounce their affiliation with Hamas. Without a repudiation of their membership, Israeli authorities warned, the four men face deportation.

According to Hamas, Abu Tir was taken by security forces as he sat in a car with Hamas MP Atoun in their East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sur Baher. Israeli security sources not explained why Atoun was not apprehended at that time as well.

Prior to his re-arrest, Abu Tir and the other members of the “Hamas four,” as they have been dubbed, indicated a willingness to renounce their affiliation with the Gaza based Islamic movement in order to have the expulsion order stayed, but ultimately no action was taken.

The ICRC subsequently protested the Israeli decision to detain the PA lawmakers and called upon the state to “respect [its] obligations under international humanitarian law.”

“Israel, as the occupying power, has an obligation to protect the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and cannot lawfully undertake to forcibly transfer them from their homes,” Krimitsas stated. “Under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, forcible transfers of protected persons are explicitly prohibited regardless of their motive.”

When asked if the ICRC recognizes Israel’s categorization of Hamas as a terror organization, Krimitsas replied that it “is not up to the ICRC…to confer a particular status on people or organizations or to recognize their legitimacy, neither does international humanitarian law.”

She also explained that the Red Cross differentiates between the militant and political wings of terrorist organizations.

“In a recent study,” she said, “ICRC also interpreted that members of organized armed groups belonging to a party to the conflict lose protection against direct attack for the duration of their membership (i.e., for as long as they assume a continuous combat function).” According to Krimitsas, this “principle of distinction is particularly relevant” and explains why Israel cannot move against Hamas political figures.

Israel objects strongly to this distinction and Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor recently stated that”distinguishing between a military branch and a ‘political’ or ‘charitable’ branch of a terror group is like distinguishing between the two hands of a convicted murderer.”

The Ministry also had harsh words regarding the Red Cross’ objections to its treatment of Hamas’ Jerusalem leadership.

“Hamas is terror organization that is responsible for the mass murder of hundreds of Israeli citizens and is considered a terrorist organization, not only by Israel, but by other countries as well,” said MFA Deputy Spokesman Andy David, responding to Krmitsas’ comments. “The three people we are dealing with are senior members [and] leaders of Hamas…and nobody can expect a country to allow people of an organization that is calling openly for its destruction to roam around freely in the territory of that country.”

David further stated that the three fugitives “are illegally staying in East Jerusalem and they will have to leave to a PA controlled area.”

When asked if the government of the state of Israel intended to censure the Red Cross for its role in harboring wanted members of a terrorist organization, the Foreign Ministry replied that they are currently in touch with the ICRC but declined to comment on any specific moves being considered against the group.

One senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told this paper that while he did not think it likely that Israeli security forces would enter the Red Cross building, all three men face arrest as soon as they step outside.

“I don’t think that there is a need or a call for a forceful entry or anything like that, but these people have to be moved to PA controlled territory,” he said.

Several members of Israel’s extreme left have paid visits to show solidarity with the three fugitives. Controversial Israeli activist Uri Avnery came with a delegation representing Gush Shalom, Anarchists Against the Wall and other, similar organizations. Avnery reported seeing several police cars passing the building, reinforcing the administration official’s contention that security services are poised to arrest the MPs should they leave the premises.