Red Cross to terrorists:”Play nice”
Thirty hooded gunmen sit at desks around a flip chart, pen and paper in hand, listening to a lecture on the laws of war by the international Red Cross.
All the Palestinian armed factions have signed up to the course, though they are being taught in individual groups.
The head of Gaza operations for the Red Cross, Anthony Dalziel, said the course was part of his organisation’s worldwide effort to teach international humanitarian law to all parties in armed conflict.
Here in Gaza the classes are lively. The teacher is locally-recruited Red Cross staffer Iyad Nasr.
“The guys like to push and to challenge us. They seem to enjoy, to be interested even in the material they are given.
Mr Nasr told me how surprised some of the gunmen were to find that groups like theirs have a status under international law.
“But then they also have to realise they have responsibilities. Legal ones. And if they don’t keep them, they can be prosecuted under international law.
“And that comes as quite a surprise to these guys, most of whom have always viewed themselves as the victims.”
And as freedom fighters, with right on their side.
As the class progresses, bandage wrappers are torn open. The gunmen are given a practical lesson in first aid.
All over the room, masked men pair up to practise, juggling bandages, splints and rescue lifts.
It is an incongruous sight but it sums up the main message of the Red Cross here – it doesn’t matter who you are, in times of armed conflict it is your duty to protect civilians, the injured and prisoners.
But will these men change their behaviour outside the classroom?
“There are things we learned here that surprised us. Things we weren’t aware of but as to whether our actions will change on the ground, that is up to our leaders. They decide. Not us.”
Civilians are often the victims in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in Palestinian in-fighting.
Gunmen use busy streets, even private homes, as battlegrounds.
Armed Palestinian groups fire rockets at Israeli towns like Sderot, just over the Gaza border, almost every day. Sometimes using public areas, like schools, as launch sites.
Abu Khaled is a local factional leader in Gaza. He told me his fighters were told to take the Red Cross course to show the world they are not as many see them.
“People think we are terrorists,” he said. “But actually the Islamic law we follow is far stricter than international law in its rules of how to protect civilians and prisoners in war.
“By coming to the courses, we want to prove we are aware of international regulations. In fact, it is the other side which attacks civilians and kills innocent people.”
I asked Abu Khaled about the rockets fired at Israel by his faction and others, with the aim of killing ordinary Israelis.
“They are responsible,” he insisted.
Then came a threat not entirely in keeping with the Red Cross class going on around us.
“If they keep hurting our civilians they should know – today we may be targeting their people in Sderot , tomorrow and in the future, with new technology, our resistance will spread further.
“Our missiles will reach deeper inside Israel.”
I suppose if the terrorists are spending hours watching immeasurably boring Powerpoint presentations, then they aren’t spending that time preparing bombs in residential areas, so this course will help the situation marginally.
So far this year, over 80 Palestinian Arab women and children have been killed – by their own people.