Nada Doumani, Middle East spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), says international humanitarian law dictates that the blockade imposed on Lebanon must not prevent foodstuffs and other essential supplies from reaching the civilian population.
Aljazeera.net: What is the current humanitarian situation in Lebanon?
Nada Doumani: Obviously, the civilian population is bearing the brunt of the military operations. The number of casualties increases dramatically day after day, while large numbers of civilians are continuously exposed to air, sea and land shelling. Basic public infrastructure is severely damaged; roads, bridges and fuel tanks have and are still attacked. There is an air and sea blockade on Lebanon since July 13.
Hundreds of villages are isolated in the South with thousands of residents unable to leave, often lacking water, food and medical supplies, while aid convoys are unable to reach them. Most importan, there is great difficulty to evacuate some injured people or even sick persons, such as those suffering from chronic diseases, either because of ongoing military operations or simply because roads have been destroyed.
According to various sources, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes, mainly from the south and the southern suburbs of Beirut, some are living now in open areas (public parks), others in schools, with limited means to survive.
With the continuous increase in casualties, some hospitals mainly in the South are overwhelmed and can only deal with emergency cases.
For the time being, there is no acute shortage of medical supplies, but if the situation continues to aggravate and access is not eased, hospitals may start lacking some essential items.
Lebanon relies extensively on the import of goods. With the sea, air and partial land blockade, the continuous flow is interrupted and, on the mid-long term, there are legitimate fears that basic supplies would start lacking. Already, prices of basic goods such as sugar and bread have flared up. A trip to/from the south by taxi (about 100km) may cost up to $800.
Due to the considerable damage inflicted to the power plant in Jiyeh, south of Beirut, the power supply is seriously disrupted in some areas, in the south and the Chouf.
Is the ICRC able to access civilians in Southern Lebanon?
On July 21, a first aid convoy of the ICRC reached the city of Tyre in southern Lebanon, following negotiations with the Israeli authorities in order to access the area. The convoy followed an agreed route and the trip lasted six hours although Tyre is only 70km south of Beirut. On July 23, part of the same convoy arrived to the city of Bint Jbeil in south Lebanon.
Twenty-four tonnes of food and other emergency items were distributed in and around Tyre. Moreover, an ICRC doctor accompanied the convoy and provided support to the Hospital of Jebel Amel, which reportedly treats about 85% of those in need of medical care in the south of the country.
In the coming days, the ICRC will do its utmost to reach other isolated villages in the south and western Bekaa in order to bring urgent needed items for residents stuck in their houses or in mosques, churches and other communal places for days.
On the other hand, the ICRC is facilitating access to the Lebanese Red Cross ambulances in areas, which require prior co-ordination with parties to the conflict. On July 20, for instance, the Lebanese Red Cross evacuated 18 wounded and sick people from Mays al-Jabal (a village near the Blue Line) and 12 persons from the Jabal Amel hospital, following co-ordination by the ICRC.
Some reports indicated that Red Cross vehicles had come under attack in the south of the country, is that true?
We are aware of an incident on July 13, when a Lebanese Red Cross (LRC) ambulance was hit and three volunteers injured in the South of Lebanon. No other incidents were recorded since.
However, this does not mean that Lebanese Red Cross ambulances are "danger free".
We would like to underline in this regard that the LRC is doing a remarkable job in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions. It has mobilised 2,400 volunteers and runs some 200 ambulances. It has proceeded to date (July 23) to 2,089 evacuation of wounded and sick people as well as to 75 dead bodies. It also mobilised several mobile clinics in order to reach areas in the south where the population is not able to move.
Relief agencies reported 500,000 internally displaced Lebanese. Given the summer heat in the Middle East, is this a concern for the ICRC?
The issue of internally displaced Lebanese is a major source of concern since, as stated above, many of them are living in dire conditions. A lot have found refuge in relatives and friends houses.
We believe unfortunately that this problem will require a lot of time to be solved as many of the displaced might not be able to come home or have had their houses destroyed.
Several organisations are working on this issue including the LRC. However, more help is needed. The ICRC has already begun an emergency appeal for the sum of 10 million Swiss Francs. It will be mostly used to assist the displaced persons in Beirut and other areas and to support the LRC. We do have serious concerns regarding the health situation and food supply of this vulnerable group if the situation continues as it is.
As for Syria, how many Lebanese refugees are there and how is the ICRC responding to their needs?
According to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARC), approximately 140,000 persons have found refuge in Syria, 45,000 of whom have already left and 95,000 are still in the country. The majority are staying in relatives’ or friends’ houses. In addition, the SARC is running eight facilities, five in Damascus and three in Homs, hosting a number of Lebanese who have fled their country. The SARC is covering their needs. The ICRC has already expressed its readiness to support the SARC in this endeavour.
Has the ICRC been granted access to the Israeli captured soldiers? Had it had access to the Lebanese prisoners Hezbollah says are in Israeli jails?
Since the beginning of the crisis, the ICRC, which has always had contacts with Hezbollah, asked its interlocutors to be granted access to the Israeli soldiers. This request has not found a favourable echo so far.
The ICRC also reminded Hezbollah of the obligation to treat the soldiers humanely, preserve their dignity and give them the opportunity to get in touch with their families.
The ICRC stands ready to provide its humanitarian services for this specific issue. The ICRC visits regularly the Lebanese nationals detained in Israel and they are in contact with their families.
As a reference on international humanitarian law, what is the ICRC position in regard to the way military operations have been conducted by both sides?
A fundamental rule of international humanitarian law is the obligation to distinguish between civilians and civilian property on one hand and military targets on the other. Under no circumstances, can civilians and public and private property be deliberately attacked. All parties in the conflict have to abide by these rules.
Let me also quote the ICRC director of pperations, Pierre Krahenbuhl, who said that "the high number of civilian casualties and the extent of damage to essential public infrastructure raise serious questions regarding respect for the principle of proportionality in the conduct of hostilities".
As you know, the ICRC is cautious in its public comments when it comes to possible violations of international humanitarian law and refrains from making hasty judgments. But, it does take up issues firmly, in a bilateral way, with any party accused of perpetrating a violation.