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ICRC president meets with Hamas chief during visit to Gaza Strip

Sept. 5, 2017 4:44 P.M. (Updated: Sept. 6, 2017 11:46 A.M.)
Hamas chief Yahiya Sinwar and ICRC President Peter Maurer meet in Gaza (Source: Hamas Twitter)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer arrived in the besieged Gaza Strip on Tuesday morning and met with Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar, as part of a three-day visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.

In a brief comment to reporters following the meeting, Maurer described the situation facing civilians in Gaza as "catastrophic," and pledged that the ICRC would continue its efforts to support those who suffered most from the current situation. "I think we had good talks in this regard," he said.

Palestinian sources told Ma'an that Maurer asked Sinwar to allow ICRC staff to visit Israeli soldiers believed to be held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Senior Hamas leaders Basim Naim and Ghazi Hamad reportedly attended the one-hour meeting between Sinwar and Maurer.

The Hamas movement said in a statement that in the meeting, Sinwar touched upon the dire humanitarian conditions facing "our people" in Gaza as the territory entered its 11th year under Israeli blockade, and Israel's ongoing practices carried out against Gazans in violation of international law.

The statement also said the two discussed “the suffering of Palestinian prisoners.”

At the ICRC headquarters in Gaza City, Maurer met with representatives and family members of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli custody.

Gaza-based prisoners' affairs expert Abd al-Nasser Farawana told Ma'an that missing Israeli soldiers could only be returned through an exchange deal for the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Farwana said he expected that the ICRC chief would receive complaints from the families of Palestinian prisoners during his visit, about the “poor performance” of the ICRC in the region.

The ICRC was the target of protests last summer after the group reduced family visits to male Palestinian prisoners from twice a month to just once, though the second visit was later reinstated, to be funded by the Palestinian Authority, after a mass prison hunger strike ended in May.

ICRC has also long been criticized for its perceived inability to improve incarceration conditions in Israeli prisons.

Reports have meanwhile emerged in recent months that Egypt was working toward negotiating a prisoners’ exchange deal between Hamas and Israel, while Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said in July that the return of missing Israeli soldiers from Gaza was a “precondition” for rebuilding Gaza, which has been devastated by three Israeli wars since 2008.

Maurer is also scheduled to meet with both Palestinian and Israeli officials in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv during his visit, to discuss the ICRC’s humanitarian concerns in the region.

“Critically I’ll be listening to local communities on both sides of the conflict to hear their struggles and their hopes for a better life,” Maurer said on Twitter.

The ICRC official said it was the first time in the three years he has visited Israel and the occupied territory, “to see for myself the impact this long conflict is having on the lives of ordinary people.”

He shared a photo depicting a meeting with a Palestinian family in Gaza.

The coastal enclave has been suffering from what rights groups have described as an all-out “humanitarian emergency,” marked by just a few hours of electricity a day and a stark decrease in the number of permits granted to Palestinians to leave the Israeli blockaded territory, even for medical reasons.

According to local organization the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, 15 medical patients have died in Gaza since the beginning of the year after being denied permits by the Israeli authorities that would have allowed them access to hospitals.

The desperate lack of electricity has also severely impacted Gaza's local hospitals, while sewage treatment facilities have also been forced to to close. The unprecedented, dangerous levels of pollution off of Gaza's coasts has reportedly led to the death of a Palestinian child.

In 2012, the UN warned that Gaza could become uninhabitable by 2020 if current trends were not altered. However, a new report released last month by the UN said that “life for the average Palestinian in Gaza is getting more and more wretched,” and that for the majority of Gaza's residents, the territory may already be unlivable.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres paid a visit to the Gaza Strip last week, when he demanded that Israel’s decade-long blockade on the territory be lifted, describing life in the besieged coastal enclave as "one of the most dramatic humanitarian crises" he had seen.
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