New Emblem Paves Way for Israel to Join International Red Cross

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - After decades of struggling for recognition and membership in the international Red Cross movement, Israel is close to its goal.

An international gathering in Geneva accepted a new humanitarian emblem on Thursday -- despite Syrian objections -- paving the way for Israel to join the international body.

Two-thirds of the 192 signatories of the Geneva Conventions voted to create a new internationally recognized and neutral symbol in addition to the cross and the crescent.

The new symbol is a crystal -- a red diamond with a white interior. It will have the same protected status as the Red Cross and Red Crescent in the international arena. Israel -- or any other member country - may insert its own symbol into the crystal or use it as is.

Israel welcomed the decision to adopt the new symbol.

"This decision today is going to correct a historic injustice whereby Israeli society was excluded from an international [humanitarian body]," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

"We see this as an important step [forward]," said Regev. "In many international bodies, Israel has been treated as a second-class citizen."

A founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Henri Dunant, was a Christian Zionist who campaigned for the establishment of a Jewish state, and Regev said the International Committee of the Red Cross was "returning to its roots."

Dr. Noam Yifrach, chairman of Magen David Adom (Israel's equivalent of the Red Cross), welcomed the decision, calling it a "great day" for the volunteers and employees of his organization.

"First of all, we get recognition, which is very important for us. Second we have the possibility to work all over the world with something like diplomatic immunity," said Yifrach by telephone from Geneva.

He also noted that financial support from the Red Cross would amount to about $2 million annually.

The red cross on a white background, an inversion of the white cross on the red Swiss flag, was first adopted in 1863 by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The cross was not intended to have a Christian meaning but during the 1876 Russo-Turkish war, the Ottoman Empire adopted the red crescent symbol to protect its medical workers.

Because of religious sensitivities, Israel has refused to use either of the two accepted symbols -- the cross or the crescent -- and that refusal has prevented it from joining the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Israel's Magen David Adom identifies its own ambulances and medical workers with a red Star of David (a six-pointed star). But the international humanitarian body rejected the Star of David symbol in 1949, and since then Israel has been pushing for its acceptance in the international body.

American Red Cross

The American Red Cross, which has advocated full membership for Israel for years, issued a statement saying it was "extremely pleased" by the decision to adopt the third symbol, which lays the groundwork for Israel to become a full voting member of the Red Cross Movement.

"As part of its policy of universality, the American Red Cross has considered the admission of MDA to the Movement a policy priority for more than 50 years," the statement said.

To protest Israel's exclusion, the American Red Cross has withheld $35 million in dues it owes to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Stuart Jackson, chairman of the American Friends of MDA, welcomed the decision but said the lack of unanimity in adopting the protocol set a "dangerous precedent."

More than 100 members voted in favor of the new symbol, 27 opposed it and 10 abstained.

"The non-acceptance of Magen David Adom has long been a stain on the international community in general and the International Red Cross in particular," Jackson said.

"The placing of narrow political interests ahead of humanitarian causes that has taken place over the last few days in Geneva, and for 60 years prior to this week, is both intolerable and dangerous. The lack of unanimity sets a dangerous precedent."

Discussions at the international conference this week were extended by a full day in an effort to reach a compromise that would have Syria and other Arab countries voting to accept the new symbol, but that didn't happen.

But MDA Chairman Yifrach downplayed the fact that the decision to accept the symbol was not unanimous.

He said the MDA would not operate in many of the countries that voted against the new symbol - countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

"Unfortunately the Syrians were very negative on this issue [of the symbol] and ultimately they were looking for an excuse not to support it," said Regev.

On the other hand, Regev said, Israel shouldn't be surprised that Syria would want to torpedo the process, since it hosts Palestinian terrorist organizations in Damascus.

Israel will become a full member in the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies after the Federation convenes -- probably next year -- to incorporate the new emblem.

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