ICRC to Asharq Al-Awsat: Israel, Hamas Do Not Allow Us to Visit Detainees

Girls carrying food containers in a temporary camp in Rafah, near the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP)
Girls carrying food containers in a temporary camp in Rafah, near the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP)

ICRC to Asharq Al-Awsat: Israel, Hamas Do Not Allow Us to Visit Detainees

Girls carrying food containers in a temporary camp in Rafah, near the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP)
Girls carrying food containers in a temporary camp in Rafah, near the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP)

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said that since Oct. 7, 2023, the Israeli authorities have suspended visits to Palestinian detainees in its prisons, while Hamas movement has not allowed visits to the Israeli hostages.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Fabrizio Carboni, Regional Director of the Red Cross for the Middle and Near East, described the situation in Gaza, about 4 months after the start of the war, as “catastrophic,” in light of the collapse of the health system and the entire power network.
Carboni stressed that the psychological impact of the war on the residents of Gaza, especially children, was one of the cruelest dimensions of this conflict, noting that the population will have to carry it for years.
He praised what he described as “distinguished cooperation” between the ICRC and Saudi Arabia, noting that the financial and political support provided by the Kingdom allowed the Red Cross to work in complex areas around the world.
The Regional Director of the ICRC emphasized that the West Bank and Gaza are occupied territories, and that the Palestinians who live there are protected under the Geneva Conventions, and therefore are entitled to enjoy basic rights and guarantees without discrimination.
In the interview, Carboni also spoke about the challenges facing the Red Cross teams in Gaza, the committee’s position on the case filed by South Africa against Israel before the International Court of Justice, and other files.
The cruelty of the conflict and its psychological dimensions
“The situation in Gaza, after 4 months of intense violence, siege, and limited access to humanitarian aid, is catastrophic, because people cannot receive basic services,” he said.
“Many people are injured, other than those who were killed. Furthermore, something that is difficult to capture is the psychological impact of this violence - the fear, anxiety and sadness of having to live in your own home seeing friends and family members killed and injured (...) Imagine living in constant fear of being at the wrong time or place and being harmed, injured or killed”, he added.
Carboni expressed his belief that the most devastating aspect of the psychological impact of war is people’s fear for their children.
“This is perhaps one of the cruelest dimensions of this conflict. This will have an impact on generations of Palestinian people who have lived through this catastrophic moment,” he stated.
Collapse of the health system and the entire power network
In addition to the destruction of infrastructure, the lack of security and safety prevented people from accessing hospitals, schools and protected shelters, according to the ICRC official.
Carboni spoke of severe damage to the infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, and said: “It is not only the health system that is collapsing, but rather the entire energy system, the complete energy supply, and the provision of water to the people. All this was damaged. The situation is truly alarming and intolerable, and when we look at the state of the infrastructure, it is difficult to imagine how this conflict with such a level of intensity and violence can continue without taking more seriously the situation of the civilian population in Gaza. Therefore, I call on all parties to respect the population and spare them this unacceptable level of violence.”
Carboni praised the courage and resilience of health workers in Gaza, who “have been working for 4 months in a very difficult situation, doing real work and paying a heavy price for it.”
Distinguished partnership with Saudi Arabia
The Regional Director of the Red Cross in the Near and Middle East explained that the International Committee has a distinguished partnership with Saudi Arabia, noting that the King Salman Relief Center funded part of their work in Gaza, in addition to partnerships in Sudan and many other regions.
Carboni highlighted cooperation with the Kingdom to develop a common understanding of how to respond to humanitarian situations around the world.
He said: “We have had a distinguished dialogue with Saudi Arabia over the past years, and we have received very tangible political support in conflicts and humanitarian issues, which has allowed us to work in complex areas.”
He continued: “When we face difficulties in some countries, we know that we can always involve Saudi Arabia and all its representatives in Riyadh, Geneva, and New York to deal with these issues. We have an important financial partnership, but also the political partnership is more crucial from my point of view.”
“Our employees are victims of the conflict in Gaza”
Speaking about the challenges facing the Red Cross teams in Gaza, Carboni stressed that Gaza City is a large battlefield that cannot be easily covered.
“Our employees are stuck in a place they should not be due to violence, which threatens their safety and security,” he said.
The second challenge in Gaza, according to Carboni, is that employees are “victims of the conflict, displaced and exposed to bombing and lack of fuel, water and food.”
He added: “Gaza is a very difficult environment. Even if we do our best (...), it will never be enough because of the scale of the humanitarian crisis.”
War crimes
In response to a question about whether the killings of civilians in Gaza constitute Israeli war crimes, the ICRC Regional Director said that the killing, injury and displacement of civilians, and all intentional and active violence that targets neutral citizens, whether in Gaza or Israel, were unacceptable.
“We expect all necessary precautions to be taken to avoid civilian casualties,” he underlined.
On South Africa’s case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) regarding Israeli crimes in Gaza, Carboni reiterated that the ICRC was not entitled to comment on such questions.
“We focus on the violation of international law and the consequences for people, and we raise these topics in our confidential dialogue with the parties to the conflict. We reiterate that the West Bank and Gaza are located within the occupied territories. Palestinians living in these areas are protected under the Geneva Conventions and are therefore entitled to enjoy basic rights and guarantees without discrimination,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Hostage exchange efforts
Regarding the latest efforts to achieve a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel, Carboni said: “We are not part of any dialogue between the two parties to reach an agreement and allow the release of hostages and detainees. These are political negotiations in which we do not participate. We engage in the humanitarian dimension after the agreement.”
Preventing the Red Cross from visiting detainees
The ICRC regional director spoke about the committee’s long history of visiting Palestinians detained by Israel, and said: “We also facilitate family visits, and if we take the first six months of 2023, more than 29,000 visits from family members were enabled through the Red Cross.”
But he added: “Since Oct. 7, the Israeli authorities have taken a decision to suspend visits through the International Red Cross. We regret that and we continue to talk to those concerned to resume these visits. It is also regretful that Hamas did not allow us to visit its hostages, and in both cases..., this is completely unacceptable. We hope that we will be able to reach those people as soon as possible.”





Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Fakhri Karim: I Conveyed Talabani’s Advice to Assad on Terrorists

Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Fakhri Karim (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The late Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, excelled at delivering messages subtly. In private meetings, he spoke more freely than in public statements or interviews. His chief advisor, Fakhri Karim, often joined these discussions.

Luncheons were lavish, showing Talabani's respect for different opinions, though he rarely followed doctors’ advice.

Talabani believed that Iranian leaders were smart and hoped they wouldn’t try to control Baghdad from Tehran, citing the failed attempt to manage Beirut from Damascus.

He noted that Iraq’s independent spirit makes it hard for the country to follow the US, Iran, or Türkiye. Talabani also admitted giving refuge to 80 Iraqi officers who had fought against Iran, after they were targeted by certain groups.

Talabani praised Syria’s late President Hafez al-Assad for his invaluable support, providing accommodation and passports.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Karim revealed he had warned President Bashar al-Assad, on behalf of Talabani, that militants allowed into Iraq to fight US forces might later turn against Syria.

This, Karim noted, did happen.

After the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, Karim relocated to Damascus. There, he expanded his Al-Mada organization, focusing on publishing, translation, and organizing book fairs, alongside his political activities.

This allowed him to build relationships with top civilian and military officials.

In 2000, after Bashar al-Assad came to power, he met with Karim.

“I felt Assad was eager to listen, especially given my connections with many intellectuals,” recalled Karim.

“I told him dissenting voices exist but are mostly positive. You talk about modernization and renewal; this is a chance for some openness, even in elections,” Karim said he told Assad.

“Do you think anyone could really compete with you, given your position as the Baath Party's leader with all its resources?” Karim questioned.

Karim then discussed the situation of Syrian Kurds with Assad, noting that many lack identification papers, even basic travel documents. He also mentioned seeing historic Kurdish areas in the Khabur region with their names changed to Arabic, which causes sensitivities.

“I am not satisfied with this situation. Rest assured, this issue is on my agenda, and you will hear positive news about it,” Karim cited Assad as saying at the time.

In a later meeting, after the change in Iraq, Karim met Assad several times.

On one occasion, Karim recalls conveying Talabani’s greetings and concerns about armed fighters moving into Iraq and the dangers this posed to both Iraq and possibly Syria.

“We have deployed large forces to secure the borders, but what can we do? There are tribes and smugglers,” Assad complained about the situation.

“I told President Assad that as Fakhri Karim, I couldn’t share with the Americans what I know. I assured him that terrorists enter Iraq from a specific location I’m familiar with, not from all borders,” Karim recounted to Asharq Al-Awsat.

“I also noted that Syria tightly controls its airspace, shooting down any foreign aircraft,” he added.

Assad then responded to Karim and said: “We’re prepared, let us know what we can do.”

In reality, Damascus was worried because there were reports suggesting that Syria’s Baath regime could be the next target for the US army at its borders. Additionally, Damascus was concerned about the sectarian divisions—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish—in dealing with Iraq and the potential impact on Syria.

Repairing Kurdish Relations

Karim has spent years working on repairing the relationship between Kurdish leaders Talabani and Masoud Barzani.

This history began with the split that gave rise to the ‘Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’ from the ‘Kurdistan Democratic Party.’

Despite bloody conflicts and external meddling, Karim believes Kurdish leaders unify in the face of danger to their people and region, a pattern he expects to continue.

Karim believes that the Kurdish leadership, symbolized by Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, made a big mistake at the beginning by focusing only on regional issues, ignoring Baghdad’s affairs.

He thinks they should have aimed for a federal democratic system that respects citizenship rights.

Karim pointed out that without a unified Iraq, the region’s rights would be uncertain. He also criticized the Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which he sees as odd.

Additionally, he mentioned mistakes in failing to unify regional institutions and increasing corruption, with party interests often trumping competence in appointments.

Asked about the personal bond between Talabani and Barzani, Karim said: “Both have moved past their tough history, but they haven’t done enough for the future.”

“I want to highlight an act by Barzani that shows his character. When Talabani was sick, Barzani made it clear to anyone thinking of harming Talabani or his family that there would be consequences,” he revealed.

“This isn’t hearsay, it’s firsthand,” affirmed Karim.

“Barzani also refused to discuss the presidency or a successor during Talabani’s illness. I personally organized a gathering for Talabani’s family, where Barzani reassured them, ‘I’m here for you, I’m family.’ His words moved everyone, showing a strong emotional connection,” he added.

When asked about Barzani’s character, Karim said: “He's been a long-time friend, and our relationship has been politically aligned and personally warm from the start.”

“I see him as a loyal friend, and he's shown that loyalty on multiple occasions. He’s smart, decisive, and listens carefully, often changing his mind after thorough consideration,” he noted.

“Once Barzani commits to something, he finds it hard to go back on his word. There was a moment during negotiations with Saddam Hussein when he stood firm despite my advice to reconsider,” recalled Karim.

Regarding the aftermath of the independence referendum, Karim believes that the negative turn in the political landscape began during Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure.

Al-Maliki’s attempts to shift alliances and his refusal to compromise exacerbated tensions.

The referendum itself wasn’t the problem; rather, it was exploited by some to punish the Kurdistan Region.

However, Karim emphasized that holding referendums is a citizen’s right, and the purpose of the Kurdistan referendum was to affirm this right, not to declare independence.