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According to Netanyahu, Hamas refused an offer of fuel for the hospital. Hamas on the other hand claims Gazans don't have fuel for hospitals.

Netanyahu: Hamas refused Israeli fuel offer for Gaza's Shifa hospital | Reuters

Now, notice I didn't even tag Hamas or Israel here. My question is really, when it comes to sensitive, but also spontaneous, humanitarian negotiations like this, where each party has a vested interest in "spin", but there are also humanitarian concerns, are third parties ever invited to be present as "witnesses" so that, if humanitarian needs are not addressed, it is clear who said what?

I would assume the answer is no, to avoid limiting negotiations happening in the first place and to allow free and frank exchanges, but I am not so sure.

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    Do mediators and their assistants count as witnesses?
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 14, 2023 at 19:41
  • Your question needs more explanations. After reading your comment on alamar's answer, you seem to ask about a situation where in case of conflict a witness could publically testify. How is that different to the negotiations being public in the first place? For that, the Round Table format used in various transitions of east European countries from communist to democratic come to mind, especially in Poland and East Germany.
    – ccprog
    Nov 14, 2023 at 20:05
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    @ohwilleke No, not normally. But in this case, that might be useful. You have a humanitarian emergency that can, somewhat, be relieved by humanitarian procedures within a larger military context: open a safe corridor, deliver food, etc. Procedures that, in theory, should not be that controversial. Now, both parties claim: "oh, this problem is not my fault, it's the other guy's". It would be nice, just on this limited scope, to hear what was really on the table, just for these relief procedures. Another example would have been the Mariupol exit corridors. Nov 14, 2023 at 21:44
  • In the past Israel and Hamas often negotiated through Egypt. In fact, they don't talk to each other durectly (since it would imply recognition), but rather sit in neighboring rooms/hotels with Egyptians shuttling between them. I am not sure though that the cited situation implied any negotiations - more likely open offer and refusal through the public media. Red Cross is another possible mediator.
    – Roger V.
    Nov 15, 2023 at 5:47

2 Answers 2

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The following can not answer the question "was there ever a case", but only describe what is considered best practice. I just learned that humanitarian negotiation is actually a well-defined term in the context of international organisations:

Humanitarian negotiation can be defined as the interaction between humanitarian organisations and their counterparts to:

  • establish and maintain the presence of humanitarian organisations in crisis environments (conflicts, disasters, migration flows, epidemics…)
  • ensure humanitarian access to people in need, and
  • deliver humanitarian aid and implement protection activities.

Humanitarian negotiations have a relational component, focused on building an ongoing relationship of trust with counterparts, and a transactional component, focused on establishing and agreeing on the specific terms and logistics of humanitarian operations.

Humanitarian negotiations are different from peace-making or political negotiations, which are usually carried out by mediators or diplomats. Their purpose is not to influence political or diplomatic positions but to ensure humanitarian agencies have access to people in need to provide humanitarian assistance and protection.

This is an excerpt from the profile of the Centre of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiation, a "global network of frontline humanitarian negotiators" and "a joint initiative of five humanitarian agencies: the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Médecins Sans Frontières Switzerland (MSF), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP)."

Field representatives of these organisations have the role of "negotiators" for humanitarian principles vis-à-vis the agressive "counterpart(s)" (could be one or two warring parties), they should have a "support team" and are normally acting on behalf of the "mandator", the humanitarian organization. According to their comprehensive Field Manual, "a set of concrete tools and methods...to plan and prepare negotiation processes":

Humanitarian negotiations are team-based, comprising the frontline negotiator who leads the engagement with the counterpart, the negotiation support team who assist in the critical reflection on the orientation of the process, and the mandator who frames the process into the institutional policies and values.

The presence of observers or witnesses is not taken into systematic consideration. Instead, the avoidance of misunderstandings and malicious interpretations is abstractly discussed as "determining the Common Shared Space".

So yes, there are regularly non-warring parties involved in negotiations about humanitarian concerns between warring parties, but their usual role is nothing like that of a silent witness, or a neutral mediator. They are an interested party, and normally they are even the ones demanding negotiations out of humanitarian concerns.


Because it is so eerily famliar, I'll quote one example the manual uses:

Siege Negotiation: Tripartite Negotiation with the Besieging Party and the Besieged Opposition

In Country A, most of the countryside is under the control of an armed opposition group. To gain access to the population under the armed opposition’s control, FWB [Food Without Borders, a hypothetical organisation] must negotiate concurrently with the government of Country A and the leadership of the armed opposition as the convoys move regularly from government-controlled to non-government-controlled territory.

In this case, the government’s main interest is political, i.e., to avoid providing further legitimacy to the armed opposition through the access and distribution of food by FWB in the territory under its control. Additionally, the government wants to collect data on the population being served and obtain lists of beneficiaries.

The leadership of the armed opposition is also eager to gain politically from the distribution of FWB food as this assistance will contribute to ensuring a greater cohesion of its political and security alliances with tribal leaders in the various communities. The opposition leadership wants to control where the distribution takes place and is opposed to the transmission of population data to the government as it suspects that these will be used for intelligence purposes.

For its part, FWB is eager to maintain its access and proximity to the population. FWB wishes to maintain control over the distribution of food to the population most in need. Since there have been concerns about diversion, it wants to monitor the distribution site. It is aware that the lists are becoming a political issue for both the government and armed group.

As the point of the example was only to point out that there can be multiple counterparts in a negotiation, there is no further explanation on how to proceed beside a short "you will need all the tools that you know"...

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  • I am accepting on the basis that smarter people, engaged in that type of work, have apparently thought about it quite a bit and do not pursue that line of thinking. Still, a world which generally expected more transparent humanitarian wheeling and dealing might pressure warring parties to accept this negotiating format or else risk being exposed for bad faith. That's not necessarily our current state of affairs tho, hence my acceptance. Nov 15, 2023 at 18:31
  • When you are reading through the material, the emphasis on pragmatism is quite striking. Never accuse the counterparts of acting inhuman. If building trust means keeping secrets, keep secrets. If they don't want to publicly acknowledge actions that bring results, favor the results and deny their role in public.
    – ccprog
    Nov 15, 2023 at 19:35
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In the Donbass insurgency of 2014, this was done by OSCE on the ground. They went around in their white vans and tried to register shellings from both sides / make sure that DMZ remains unoccupied, with some limited success.

In the same conflict, the negotiations were held in Minsk, which served as a neutral ground where both sides could be heard.

Eventually all of it has failed to prevent a full scale war, as we all know, but it did keep the balance and prevented the escalation for almost a decade.

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  • OK, but that's not exactly the question. It would apply if Belarus came out and said "well, party X asked party Y to stop shelling civilians and Y refused cuz reason Z". Serving as a third party merely to host negotiations is not uncommon, Doha (Qatar re Afghanistan) and Oslo (Norway re. Palestine) come to mind. Nov 14, 2023 at 18:05
  • That's where OSCE was supposed to step in. They had people on the ground as well as knowledge who promised that.
    – alamar
    Nov 14, 2023 at 18:11
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    This is not directly equivalent to say MSF saying that the offer was made by Bibi and refused by Hamas. Or stating the opposite, that Bibi never made that offer during negotiations (not the sticking-to-agreement aspect as seems to be part of your answer). Nov 14, 2023 at 18:15
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    OSCE was present when agreements were written down so they knew who promised what. They did not succeed with enforcing the political part, though. But the ceasefire mostly happened.
    – alamar
    Nov 14, 2023 at 18:26

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