Red Cross debates admitting Israeli group

Status of Mideast nation, which uses star symbol, is tied to region's politics


GENEVA -- The new president of the American Red Cross, Bernadine Healy, has opened the long-simmering issue of whether to admit Israel's related aid group, which uses a red Shield of David as its emblem, as part of the international organization.

"This situation is something we must correct lest the exclusion of the Magen David Adom be perceived as partial, biased, discriminatory or politically driven," Healy said of the Israeli group last week before a meeting here of the global Red Cross movement, held every four years. Healy, who became president of the American organization Sept. 1, called it an issue of "the highest priority for the American Red Cross."

The issue of admitting Israel, which does not have full status even at the United Nations, is clearly tied to the broader politics of Middle East peace, as one member acknowledged.

But Healy's unscripted demand also reignited an issue -- what symbol best represents both the movement's humanitarian aims and its neutrality -- that has bedeviled the Red Cross nearly since its inception in 1864. The efforts to include Israel in the Red Cross movement have also been derailed in part by its use of the red Shield of David.

Israel has for years merely been an observer and not entitled to a vote at the Red Cross global organization. Though Israel's work is well regarded, many delegates oppose adding the shield, a six-sided star, to the Red Cross and Red Crescent symbols that the international organization uses.

The movement's founder, Henri Dunant, who was Swiss, chose a red cross on a white background, reversing the Swiss flag's colors, as an easily visible sign to be used to protect the wounded and identify those trying to help them.

The red crescent, used by Muslim countries, was accepted as an official emblem about 70 years ago after decades of protest that the cross was a Christian symbol used in the Crusades. Turkey and Egypt then took up the red crescent; Iran chose a red lion and sun.

When other countries clamored to have individual signs, the Geneva Convention was modified in 1949 to allow only the cross, the crescent and the lion, which Iran gave up in 1980.

Now delegates are determined not to allow individual countries too much leeway, to guard against a variety of emblems.

The question of adding a new emblem arises at a sensitive time for the organization because of the rise in killings of its workers.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Cornelio Sommaruga, was angry at Healy's remarks and argued that admitting Israel would force the movement to accept a religious emblem, delegates said.

Healy's call was poorly received among delegates who nonetheless agreed last week to a new working group to consider the emblem issue. The movement's 188 member countries must ratify any change.

The group will consider making a third, neutral emblem available to countries such as Israel, Kazakhstan and Eritrea, which refuse either the cross, on grounds that it is a Christian symbol, or the crescent, because it is believed to be a Muslim symbol. Among the ideas under consideration is a red diamond.

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