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Israelis are desperate for news about the hostages taken by Hamas nearly 2 weeks ago

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Families in Israel and elsewhere in the world are desperate for news of loved ones who were taken hostage by Hamas nearly two weeks ago. The International Committee of the Red Cross is in Gaza. They're trying to help civilians with humanitarian assistance, of course. But they are also on standby ready to help facilitate the release of hostages. And it's something they've done before as neutral mediators. Crystal Wells is a spokesperson for the ICRC in Geneva, and she's here with us to tell us more about that. Good morning, Crystal.

CRYSTAL WELLS: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So thank you for coming. So does the ICRC have a realistic hope of being able to visit the hostages being held in Gaza?

WELLS: I want to start first by saying that there are families, as you rightly said, who today are worried sick about their loved ones taken hostage. And what we really want their families to know is that their loved ones are a top priority for us. We've stated publicly, we've stated repeatedly that the taking of hostages is prevented under international humanitarian law, and that they must be released immediately. Now, in terms of your question about hopes and what we're doing, we are working to help the hostages in any way that we can. So we as the International Committee of the Red cross, we are speaking with Hamas. We are speaking with Israeli authorities and others on this issue.

And all of this is in an effort to be able to help them, like I said, in any way that we can. And some of the ways that we could help and what we do in other similar situations around the world is we can visit them to check on their health, for example, or to deliver personal medicines. We can make sure that hostages and their families can share messages with one another. And we've also expressed and would stand ready, of course, to facilitate any eventual release so that ultimately these people can go back home and be with their families. So the bottom line is we're working on this and it's a top priority for us.

MARTIN: So the question is, you are in touch with Hamas in some capacity, correct? The ICRC is in touch with them?

WELLS: Yes, that's right.

MARTIN: OK. I think it might be surprising for people to know, as it was surprising to me to know, that the Red Cross actually gave humanitarian law classes to Hamas some years ago. And I understand that you weren't personally there. You weren't physically there for that. But do you have any sense of whether Hamas has absorbed any of your teachings or the ICRC's instructions about the treatment of hostages. Recognizing that hostage taking is against international law to begin with, but you also offered some boundaries around the way hostages are supposed to be treated. Do you have any sense of whether Hamas has absorbed any of that?

WELLS: What I can say is that the teaching of Hamas around international humanitarian law is something that the ICRC does around the world. It's not unique to Hamas. We do it with other groups around the world as well as with state militaries. And then when there is very active conflicts like we're seeing right now, the way in which the ICRC works is we engage directly with parties to the conflict - so Hamas here, as well as Israel - to speak to them about their obligations or the rules of war. And we take a very discreet approach with this.

We don't come out and disclose the content of those conversations, and it's not to be secretive for the sake of being secretive. But we take this discreet approach because we've found through decades of experience that by having that space where we speak directly and confidentially with them, that it's the best way to influence change, to ultimately help the people we want to help. And for us, our priorities would be to help civilians suffering in Gaza, and like I said, also to be helping the situation with the hostages, both the hostages as well as their family members.

MARTIN: I do take your point that you feel that these, if I may call it, back-channel communications are perhaps more productive than public pronouncements. But a cease-fire - for example, many people have noted that, you know, this bombing campaign that Israel is waging does have the potential of killing hostages as well. And I'm just wondering if you are in communication with the Israeli government about that.

WELLS: Another - and thank you for this question. Another top priority for us is around the need for humanitarian aid to get into Gaza and also having the right conditions on the ground to be able to do that. So obviously, what we've seen unfold in the last week and a half and what civilians have suffered is absolutely horrific. We've seen people, obviously, killed, injured. Millions of people are affected and are going without their basic needs being met. So another top priority for us would be to be looking at how we can get aid in. But a humanitarian cease-fire would be really important, so that we're able to reach those in need and be able to scale up. A pause in the fighting now is essential.

MARTIN: That is Crystal Wells. She's a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, and we reached her in Geneva. Crystal Wells, thanks so much for sharing these insights with us. We appreciate it.

WELLS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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