Red Cross and Foreign Office to discuss plan to visit Palestinians in Israeli detention

<span>People protest in front of the ICRC building in Gaza City in support of Palestinians held in Israeli jails, 6 May 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
People protest in front of the ICRC building in Gaza City in support of Palestinians held in Israeli jails, 6 May 2024.Photograph: Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu/Getty Images

Red Cross officials are to hold talks with the UK over a Foreign Office plan to visit Palestinian detainees held by Israel. Critics say this bypasses a duty on Israel under the Geneva conventions to give the Red Cross access to detainees.

Israel has suspended the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from access to Palestinian detainees since the Hamas attack on 7 October, and says it will not rescind the policy until Hamas grants access to Israeli hostages.

Thousands of Palestinians are in Israeli detention. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, has said he was deeply troubled by reports of inhumane treatment of detainees.

Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC director for the near and Middle East, is in London to hold talks with the Foreign Office in which the issue of ICRC access to detainees and the implications of the UK alternative are due to be discussed.

David Cameron, the foreign secretary, has unilaterally negotiated a deal with Israel in which two UK legal observers and an Israeli judge would visit some prisoners. Details have not been published.

Related: ‘Everyone has friends in jail’: how Palestinian prisoners became central to Gaza ceasefire talks

The deal came after UK government lawyers visited Israel to underline Britain’s belief that denying access to the ICRC was a breach of the Geneva conventions. The ICRC has made repeated appeals to both sides in the conflict to give its officials access to those detained, as set out in the conventions.

British officials argue even circumscribed visits to detainees is better than nothing, and is a valid way of checking whether reports of wholesale mistreatment of prisoners have validity.

Cameron told the BBC at the weekend: “It’s not all bleak. On the issue of the treatment of detainees I went to see [the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin] Netanyahu. I said it [the lack of access to detainees] was not good enough, that we needed to have a proper independent system for inspecting and regulating, and the Israelis have announced they are now doing that.”

The concern is that the UK government, by endorsing an alternative to ICRC visits, is weakening the rule of law and setting a dangerous precedent for how detainees are treated in other conflict zones. Supporters of the ICRC insist this is not about a territorial turf war, but about the unique scale of the ICRC, its experience in handling such cases in the region, and support for its legally defined powers as set out in the Geneva conventions.

The ICRC values neutrality and confidentiality in its dealings with governments. In a statement to the Guardian, it reiterated that under the Geneva conventions, Palestinian detainees from the occupied territories should be treated as protected persons with access to the ICRC.

The statement added: “We have seen the reports of a government of Israel decision to allow observers to visit some places of detention. The ICRC remains hopeful that suitable steps are taken that could protect the health and welfare of detainees, which remains paramount. We reiterate our readiness to resume our mandated detention activities.”

Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said: “There is no transparency about Cameron’s alternative. What it risks doing is setting up a procedure that bypasses the ICRC … I very much doubt that two Foreign Office-appointed lawyers in the company of a judge from the occupying power are going to have the expertise of the ICRC, but will instead be taken around sanitised prisons.

“What has happened to the thousands of Palestinians taken from Gaza to Israel is a huge issue. [Neither] we nor their families know where they are, whether they are combatants or children, or why in some cases they are being stripped to their underpants. We have heard nothing from the UK government about this.”

Natasha Hausdorff, the legal director for UK Lawyers for Israel, has argued that Gaza is not occupied territory, since Israel vacated the Gaza Strip in 2005 and has no effective control of the area. As a result, claims by the ICRC that the Palestinians have protected status or a right of notification fall, she has argued. She has also said the ICRC had lost any claim to neutrality by calling for a ceasefire that, she said, “would leave Hamas terrorists in power”.

The UK government recognises Gaza and the West Bank as occupied territories.

As a sign of the scale of the ICRC programme, in the first six months of 2023 more than 29,000 prison visits from family members in the occupied territories were enabled through the Red Cross.

The ICRC helped facilitate the handover of 105 hostages taken by Hamas on 7 October to Israel, in exchange for the release of 240 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, during the week-long truce in November.