For 57 years, Israel’s Magen David Adom (MDA) was not a member of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Due to explicit non-recognition by the international community, the lone national aid society with a Jewish symbol faced a thorough rejection of its red Star of David as a valid international first aid emblem.
Since 1930, the Magen David Adom has provided domestic emergency medical assistance, mobile intensive care units, disaster relief, and blood bank service. Yet, the MDA was not recognized under the Geneva Conventions until June 22, 2006. The Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) was admitted on the same day.
MDA and Jews worldwide rejoiced when the Red Crystal was formally sanctioned as the third emblem on January 14, 2007, ensuring MDA’s international integration.
Officially, concerns about symbol proliferation had been predominant amongst many member relief societies, as there was originally supposed to be only one symbol for the entire movement.
Many Arab and Muslim IFRC members had also objected to MDA's admission due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and due to the fact that the PRCS had also not yet been admitted to the IFRC.
According to the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the three official emblems function as "symbols of assistance for the victims of armed conflicts and natural disasters." Thus, any of the three can be used as a protective symbol in conflict zones or as an identifying medical assistance marker.
According to ICRC’s Jerusalem spokesperson Bernard Barrett, “International humanitarian law specifies the use, size, purpose and placing of the emblems, what respect for the emblems entails, and the penalties for misuse."
The Red Cross symbol was created in 1863 as the reverse of the Swiss flag and was not intended to bear religious significance for the relief society during neutral, humanitarian missions. The symbol's recognizability from afar was crucial so that persons, vehicles, or buildings bearing the symbol would not be targeted during wartime.
The Ottomans were the first to employ the Red Crescent, which was officially adopted in 1929, after Muslim nations refused to use a cross emblem that evoked negative memories of the Crusaders.
Red Crystal’s Saving Grace
The formal addition of the Red Crystal to the Geneva Convention mandates that all countries recognize it as equivalent to the other two official emblems. Israel and Eritrea were the first nations to declare their intention to employ the emblem on aid missions.
While Israel made the decision in order to overcome objections to the red Star of David, Eritrea intended to brandish the new neutral icon because of its mixed population of Christians and Muslims.
Israeli international aid missions are slated to use the new logo as early as this summer, according to David Abadi, MDA's international coordinator. Joint training missions with the Sri Lankan and Georgian Red Cross Societies will be the first opportunity for use of the Red Crystal - with the red Star of David inside.
"We've created a way to solve some of the problems we've had in the past,” said Tore Svenning, the Cyprus-based IFRC representative in Israel. “In the future, if similar cases appear, we will have a tool to deal with them."
In large part due to a prolonged campaign by the United States to promote the inclusion of MDA in the movement, the MDA is poised to enter a new era. Having overcome its pariah status, the MDA hope to advertise “the opportunity to use the Crystal along with any other logo inside," according to Abadi.
"One of the greatest accomplishments of the original Red Cross was creating one symbol. However, this broke down," said Abadi.
MDA supporters had long alleged that the exclusion of MDA was evidence of an anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist campaign.
"Adoption of a new sign comes with the correction of a deep injustice," said Olivier Durr, Geneva-based head of the Unit for ICRC Policy.
“This new symbol is the most realistic way for MDA to become a member of the IFRC, but merely to use a symbol is not enough,” countered Nouris al-Khatib, President of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. “MDA must abide by all of the other conventions, with respect to the occupied territories and to the geographic dominion of the PRCS.”
Al-Khatib stated, “Yet, our membership in the IFRC is a symbol of nationhood - just as Israel’s membership is.”
Practical and Symbolic Use
“The adoption of the Red Crystal reaffirms the determination of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to consolidate its universality and thereby to enhance its strength and credibility," according to a January 2007 joint statement by the ICRC and IFRC. The Movement is composed of the ICRC, IFRC, and all of the national aid societies.
The MDA has been expanding ties to the ICRC in recent years, according to Bruce Biber, head of the Division for Cooperation and Coordination within the Movement. "But now, the MDA is at the same level of recognition and is officially one of us."
Biber added, "We welcome and encourage MDA to develop and encourage ties with other national societies. With one of the best emergency response capabilities, MDA has a lot to share. This is a historic chance." Biber hopes that as MDA becomes more active internationally, the Red Crystal will become “more widely known and appreciated."
So far, eighty countries have signed and fourteen have ratified the updated Geneva Convention protocols. While none of the signatories thus far are Arab nations, Biber hopes that “as more countries sign, there will be more of a push for Arab countries to ratify.”
"The Red Crystal increases the number of options we have. We could use this emblem in any context where the cross or crescent would be problematic," said Durr, who mentioned the possibility of using the Crystal during Muslim-Christian sectarian violence in African nations.
Biber said, "Israel is the first to adopt the Crystal, and we hope it won't be the last. We consider Israel as a test case for the very long term."
PRCS President al-Khatib agreed: “This is my favorite solution. We are all better off with just one emblem. Yet, it’s not easy to implement. This is not likely to have a serious impact for at least fifty years.”
“We are planning a mega-campaign to popularize this symbol and to afford it the same international status as the Cross and the Crescent,” said Jean-Christophe Sandoz, field coordinator for the ICRC in Jerusalem.
Victory for MDA
This "third protocol emblem" of the ICRC is hailed as a truly universal emblem - free of ethnic, religious, or political connotation. On abroad missions, the MDA can use the red square frame tilted at a 45 degree angle alone or can incorporate it with the red Star of David, depending on the situation in the host country.
MDA is still permitted to use the red Star as its sole emblem for indicative purposes within Israel. However, MDA plans to place the crystal alongside the Jewish star on ambulances as early as 2008, according to David Abadi, MDA's international coordinator.
Abadi’s office has already obtained flags, workshirts, and vests with the new combination emblem - but is still waiting on patches and other necessary supplies.
“However, according to international humanitarian law, countries still must give their consent in order for a national society to provide aid,” reiterated Erab al-Fuqaha, spokesperson for the PRCS.
Therefore, countries may still reject MDA’s disaster relief teams.
"Regardless, this is a compromise idea that's good for everybody, and no one is fighting it," Abadi said. "At the field level, it takes time to be recognized. For this symbol to be seen as the equal of the others, it could take 5, 10, 20 years. We've got patience."
“Yet, personally, I wish that this could be the sole emblem for all first aid societies," Abadi added.
"We hope that the other societies within the Movement will become full partners with MDA, opening doors for all," said Barrett, the ICRC spokesperson. He added, "Everyone was happy to bring in MDA and the PCRS at the same time."
PRCS President al-Khatib concluded, “In general, people must cooperate to save life. Yet, at the end of the day, it’s in the hands of politicians to ensure adhesion to humanitarian doctrines.”