Global aid group asks warring forces to respect its neutrality with 24 of its aid workers killed

Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, May 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies asked state forces and combatants Thursday to respect its neutrality and work of delivering humanitarian help to the most destitute in war and other high-risk zones, saying 24 of its aid workers had been killed so far this year mostly in the Gaza Strip.

IFRC President Kate Forbes, who is visiting the Philippines, said in a statement posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that two of her group’s aid workers, Palestine Red Crescent Society paramedics Haitham Tubasi and Suhail Hassouna, were killed Wednesday in the latest incident when their ambulance was hit west of Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city.

It was not immediately clear what hit the ambulance, which was clearly marked with the Palestine Red Crescent Society's emblem. The two paramedics were on duty when they were killed in the Tal Al-Sultan area in Rafah, the IFRC said in a statement.

“I am heartbroken,” Forbes said. “This is not okay. This must stop.”

Palestinians reported heavy fighting in the border city Wednesday and Israel’s military said it seized control of the entire length of Gaza’s border with Egypt.

The fighting in Rafah has already forced more than 1 million Palestinians to flee, most of whom had already been displaced in the war between Israel and Hamas. They’re seeking refuge in makeshift tent camps and other war-ravaged areas, where they lack shelter, food, water and other essentials for survival, according to the United Nations.

Forbes told The Associated Press in an interview in Manila Wednesday that governments should act responsibly and abide by the rules of armed conflict, including the Geneva Conventions, referring to the international treaties drawn up after World War II which contain the rules to prevent war atrocities.

“My appeal to the governments would be, if your signatures are in the Geneva Conventions, abide by them,” Forbes said. “If those are being enforced, we can do our work even in high-conflict zones or disasters.”

"We are neutral. We’re here to give aid,” she said. “We want to make life (better) for those who are impacted by either disease, natural disasters or geopolitical conflicts. We need to get them basic humanitarian aid and restore their human dignity. That’s our job.

Since being elected president of the IFRC in December, Forbes, a former American businesswoman, who has served as a Red Cross volunteer for more than four decades, has been to the frontlines of disaster-response. She visited Rafah in February. “I have nightmares of what I’ve seen,” she said.

Forbes joined growing calls for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid access to Gaza, saying these were “absolutely imperative” to ease the horrific sufferings of civilians trapped in the seven-month conflict.

"We have to have a government solution to get a ceasefire so that we can get access and then we will give aid to both sides,” she said.

“I've said this is both a sprint and a marathon. We need to get aid in Gaza immediately for people who have malnutrition, there’s not adequate sanitation,” she said. “But it’s going to be a marathon in that there’s going to be aid that’s going to be needed for decades to repair Gaza and the people there.”