Red Cross to adopt red crystal in deal to let Israel join up

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Representatives from the 192 countries that signed up to the Geneva Conventions gathered in Geneva yesterday to thrash out a deal that would give approval to a third emblem for the International Red Cross (IRC) and allow Israel to join the movement after almost six decades of exclusion.

The new "red crystal" design, mooted by officials as an alternative to the red cross and red crescent insignia already in use, is intended as an entirely neutral emblem that could be used by humanitarian workers in parts of the world where the existing emblems are deemed unacceptable.

The country particularly targeted by the two-day conference is Israel, which refuses to let its equivalent of the Red Cross, the humanitarian Magen David Adom Society (MDA), use either of the two designs. Israel's rejection of the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent and its insistence on using the Star of David has, since independence in 1948, meant it has been forbidden from joining the IRC.

Many Israelis see this as an unfair and short-sighted restriction on the activities of its humanitarian workers and have pushed for the international recognition of the Star of David.

"MDA is active all over the world," Israel's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Itzhak Levanon, told the BBC. "In the tsunami, for example, or following earthquakes, we are often first on the scene, and we deserve to be part of the international movement."

But the IRC says that, rather than being a neutral emblem that is only seen in connection with relief work, the Star of David is primarily a national - not to mention a religiously and politically-charged - symbol. Arab member states have, for their part, said that the use of such an emblem would be unacceptable on their territory.

Into this long-running squabble has stepped the potential compromise of the red crystal, a neutral design of a red diamond on a white background which Red Cross officials hope will please everyone.

If the red crystal is accepted at the Geneva conference, it will be a particular boost for the Red Cross's coffers; for five years, the American branch of the organisation has withheld its subscriptions in protest at Israel's exclusion. The resulting funding shortfall adds up to more than $30m (£17m).

"The adoption of an additional emblem devoid of any national, political or religious connotation would make it possible for us to have a new instrument that we can use to protect military and civilian medical services on the battlefield," said Micheline Calmy-Rey, the Swiss Foreign Minister.

Israel, faced with Geneva Conventions which stipulate that national relief societies such as the Magen David Adom Society must use only recognised symbols outside their internationally accepted borders - including the occupied territories - has surprised many over the past few weeks by saying it is prepared to use the crystal outside its borders. And the MDA has, after intense negotiations, signed a Swiss-mediated agreement with the Palestinian Red Crescent on working together in the occupied territories.

The emergence of a consensus on the controversial issue has given Red Cross officials cause for optimism and has, said Ms Calmy-Rey, "opened up the process which we hope to see crowned with success at this conference."

But it is too soon for a successful compromise to be heralded, especially given that many Arab states see the fundamental concept of a third emblem an unnecessary accommodation of Israel. While an agreement has been reached between the Israelis and Palestinians, Syria has recently waded into the row, insisting that, as the Golan Heights is a disputed territory, the Syrian Red Crescent should be allowed there. This is not something on which the Israelis appear willing to compromise. "The Syrian Red Crescent cannot operate there," Mr Levanon stressed.

"We have no diplomatic relations with Syria, the issue is simply not in the debate. But I'm not excluding that some Arab countries will try to raise it, and if they do, the losers will be the Palestinians."

The movement

* 1859: Jean Henri Dunant founds the International Red Cross movement after the battle of Solferino.

* 1863: The Geneva Society for Public Welfare, inspired by Dunant, creates the Red Cross's forerunner, the International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded.

* 1901: Jean Henri Dunant is awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize.

* 1917: The International Red Cross is awarded the first of three Nobel Peace Prizes for its work in the First World War. (It wins in 1944 during Second World War and in 1963 on its 100th anniversary.

* 1965: It announces its seven guiding principles: Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Voluntary Service, Unity, Universality.

* 1983: The League of Red Cross societies changes its name to League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

* 2003: A suicide bomb attack on its headquarters in Baghdad kills 12 workers, which forces the organisation tosuspend its activities in Iraq.