BLAISE GODET
Anja Niedringhaus  /  AP
Blaise Godet, Swiss Permanent Representative to the United Nations, holds up a banner with the new “red crystal” emblem Thursday morning in Geneva, Switzerland.
updated 12/9/2005 4:02:27 AM ET 2005-12-09T09:02:27

A new Red Cross emblem was accepted at an international conference Thursday over Syrian objections, paving the way for Israel to join the humanitarian movement after nearly six decades of exclusion.

The 192 signatories of the Geneva Conventions approved the new “red crystal” emblem by vote after last-ditch negotiations between Israel and Syria over Damascus’ demands for humanitarian access to Syrian citizens in the Golan Heights broke down.

The new emblem — a red square standing on one corner, with a blank white interior and a thick red border — was aimed at resolving the dispute with Israel but also could be used by any national society that feared the red cross used by most countries and the red crescent preferred by Muslim nations would not be respected by combatants.

Israel’s Magen David Adom rescue service has used a red Star of David to identify its ambulances and medical workers.

Magen David Adom, or Red Shield of David, could place a red star in the center of the crystal for humanitarian missions at home or abroad if a host country allowed it.

“Unfortunately, it has not been possible to adopt the protocol by consensus, but it has been adopted by a clear majority,” said Didier Pfirter, a Swiss diplomat who has been coordinating global efforts to muster support for the new emblem.

Swiss officials said international law on such sensitive points is much better if it can be adopted without any objections, but that two-thirds majority vote was the next best option. The vote was 98 in favor, 27 against and 10 abstentions, officials said. A number of small states were absent.

Meeting in the spring
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies now has to hold a meeting — probably in the spring — to change the statutes to incorporate the new emblem, after which Israeli membership can be considered.

Magen David Adom will not operate under the cross or crescent. A request for recognition of its red Star of David emblem was rejected in 1949 and Arab countries have since blocked attempts to find an alternative symbol.

There wasn’t a breakdown of the vote, but Syria had refused to agree to the new emblem unless Damascus was given humanitarian access to Syrian citizens in the Golan Heights, which has been under Israeli control since the 1967 Middle East war.

Muslim countries oppose
A number of Muslim countries again tried to block Israel’s path into the Red Cross movement early Thursday morning, voting against the proposal after three days of negotiations in Geneva.

“The most important thing is the result,” Noam Yifrach, head of the Magen David Adom, said after receiving a congratulatory call from Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, chairman of the board of governors of the American Red Cross. “Tomorrow, nobody will remember the numbers.”

The American Red Cross has been campaigning for years to end Magen David Adom’s exclusion.

“Not only does it create a neutral emblem devoid of cultural, political and religious connotation,” Devorah Goldburg, spokeswoman for the U.S. society, told The Associated Press. “It paves the way for Magen David Adom to become a full voting member of the international Red Cross movement.”

Goldburg also noted that the U.S. society had withheld more than $35 million in dues to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies since 2000 in an effort to win the Israeli society’s acceptance.

United States hails decision
The U.S. government also welcomed the decision. “This will enable the Israeli national society, the Magen David Adom, to join we hope soon next year into the international Red Cross Red Crescent movement,” said John B. Bellinger III, head of the U.S. delegation.

A hurdle to Arab support was believed to have been cleared last week when Magen David and the Palestine Red Crescent struck a deal allowing each other’s paramedics to operate unmolested.

Mohammad Abu-Koash, Palestinian ambassador to international organizations in Geneva, said the emblem was a humanitarian issue.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies also welcomed the adoption of the red crystal and said it believed it would “provide a comprehensive and lasting solution to the emblem question.”

The red cross symbol was first adopted in 1863 and it reverses the colors of the neutral Swiss flag, without any religious intent. But most Muslim countries refused to use it and the Ottoman empire used the red crescent instead to protect medical workers in the 1876 Russo-Turkish war.

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