The east Jerusalem office of the International Committee of the Red Cross has become, over the last six months, the de facto headquarters of three Hamas legislators, who had been ordered by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to leave the city. They have established a protest tent there, met with overseas dignitaries, and on Thursday held a press conference, while various Israeli officials argue about what to do with them.
Ahmad Attoun, Khaled Abu- Arafa and Muhammad Totah – all representatives of Hamas’s Change and Reform list in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) – timed their press conference on Thursday to mark International Human Rights Day, which takes place on Friday.
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They used it to appeal to Israel to revoke the order that they leave, but refused to speak directly to Israeli journalists.
The three were elected to the PLC in 2006 and have spent the past four years in and out of Israeli prisons in connection with the kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit. They have lived in the Red Cross building in Sheikh Jarrah for the past 162 days, since the June 30 arrest of fellow Hamas politician Muhammad Abu Tir.
Like all east Jerusalem Arabs, Attoun, Abu-Arafa, Totah and Abu Tir held blue ID cards, which gave them Israeli residency but not citizenship. Interior Minister Eli Yishai revoked the men’s blue residency cards this past spring, after the four politicians refused to renounce their ties to Hamas.
The Shin Bet required all four to leave Israel by the end of June, though only Abu Tir, known for his trademark red beard, was arrested for failing to leave Jerusalem. He has been imprisoned since June 30.
On Wednesday, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court prohibited Abu Tir from entering the country for the next three years and ordered his transfer to Palestinian Authority territory. He faces four months in prison if he returns to Israel.
On July 1, fearing that their arrest and expulsion from Jerusalem was imminent, Abu-Arafa, Totah and Attoun showed up at the ICRC office, informing the Red Cross that they wished to hold a sit-in protest on the premises to draw attention to their situation.
The ICRC denied that it had offered the politicians a safe haven.
“We don’t have anything to say about them,” Cecilia Goin, spokeswoman of ICRC for Israel and the Occupied Territories, told The Jerusalem Post
The ICRC was not involved in the press conference.
“Our work is only related to humanitarian issues,” she added.
The Red Cross has provided the politicians with a room inside the building where they can sleep and keep their belongings, a bathroom, electricity for their large protest tent, and a water cooler, it is understood.
Family members come daily to bring food and clothes.
“They just came and informed us they were going to stay,” said Goin. “The police can come any time to arrest them, we will not act against this. We do not have diplomatic immunity, and we informed Israeli authorities accordingly, because it was an unexpected situation.”
She said that the Red Cross had immediately made the police aware that the three men were staying on its property.
The three claim they have not left the premises since they arrived, and spoke to the media from behind an open gate, clearly standing on Red Cross property. They say that if they leave the Red Cross premises they will immediately be arrested.
Goin said the organization had not given the politicians any type of ultimatum about when they had to leave. She refused to discuss the possibility of more Hamas politicians camping out at the building, or whether the Red Cross would similarly help a Jewish family.
The politicians themselves refused to talk to the Israeli media. Their lawyer, Osama Asadi, also did not return repeated phone calls.
During their time at the Red Cross, the politicians have held regular Friday prayer services attended by large crowds of Jerusalem residents; greeted visiting dignitaries, including former American president Jimmy Carter and a Jordanian envoy; and held photo ops with various local Arab notables. Literature supporting their cause has been distributed from the Red Cross compound, and large signs with the legislators’ faces adorn the side of the building.
The Red Cross has called upon the government to respect its “obligations under international humanitarian law,” which it said prohibits the eviction of Arabs from Israel.
“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,” said Dorothea Krimitsas, a spokeswoman for the ICRC’s Near and Middle East region.
“Under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, forcible transfers of protected persons are explicitly prohibited, regardless of their motive.”
The ICRC differentiates between militant and political wings of terrorist organizations, but would not categorize Hamas as a terror organization, Krimitsas said. “It is not up to the ICRC... to confer a particular status on people or organizations or to recognize their legitimacy,” she explained.
Israeli politicians have been slow to act on arresting the Hamas leaders
for illegally residing in Israel, instead arguing over who is
responsible for dealing with the matter. The Prime Minister’s Office has
maintained that the Foreign Ministry is responsible, since the three
are politicians from a foreign territory.
The Foreign Ministry has claimed that the Prime Minister’s Office should
be responsible for making the political decision whether or not to
Police confirmed that the Red Cross did not have immunity and police could enter at any time to arrest the Hamas politicians.
“We don’t want to detain them right now,” Jerusalem District Police spokesman Cmdr. Shmuel Ben-Ruby told the Post
this week, citing unspecified “operational reasons.”
The politicians are under 24- hour surveillance and are not a flight risk, Ben-Ruby said.