A conference devoted to finding peaceful solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has opened in the Swiss capital, Bern.
Organised by the Swiss foreign ministry, the meeting brings together experts in the field as well as politicians past and present from the Middle East, the United States and Europe.
The foreign ministry said Monday's conference, entitled “Civilian Peace Building in the Middle East”, was intended to highlight different approaches to peace-building in the region.
Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey opened the meeting, and speakers were expected to include Palestinian minister Qaddura Fares and the former Israeli ministers, Shulamit Aloni and Dan Meridor.
Robert Malley, one-time adviser to the former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, was also scheduled to attend.
The conference has been divided into three main areas: the rights of the civilian population in times of armed conflict, local peace initiatives, and the role of the international community in finding a solution to the Middle East problem.
Switzerland’s role and commitment to the region are also due to be discussed.
Pascal de Crousaz, an expert on the conflict, told swissinfo that international humanitarian law – which is being debated at the conference – formed the basis of Swiss diplomacy in the Middle East.
“Unquestionably, humanitarian law has suffered an unprecedented setback since the beginning of the second Intifada [Palestinian uprising against Israel] in September 2000,” said de Crousaz.
“The civil population from both sides is being targeted by militants; furthermore, the hundreds of Israeli army checkpoints are also places of friction and frequent abuse, as has been pointed out in a report recently made public by the Israeli army,” he added.
The international community has been trying for some time to find a peaceful solution for the region.
One initiative is the "road map" peace plan, which is backed by the United Nations, the US, the European Union and Russia. Switzerland has also indicated its support.
But there have also been several local peace initiatives, the most well known being the Swiss-backed Geneva Accord, which was launched at the end of 2003.
De Crousaz believes the Geneva Accord is the most viable plan for resolving the conflict.
“But in the short term, it has no chance of becoming reality because the [Israeli] Sharon government doesn’t want it, a large part of the [Israeli] Labour opposition party rejects it, and the United States doesn’t intend to adopt it,” he said.
There are, however, other local initiatives which have been launched such as the “People’s Voice”.
This plan is the brainchild of Ami Ayalon, the former head of Israeli security service Shin Bet, and the Palestinian, Sari Nusseibeh, president of the Arab Al Quds University in Jerusalem.
Several of the international personalities attending the Bern meeting are involved in these local projects.
But de Crousaz said that while this was encouraging, it was also important to remember that the conference was coming at a time when Israel was considering its own plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
He said that if the Israeli government adopted Sharon’s accelerated plan to pull troops and settlers out of the area – Sharon wants cabinet to vote on it by mid-September and parliament by November 3 – it would constitute a first positive step towards peace in the region.
“[But only] on condition that the international community puts pressure on the protagonists so that the road map peace plan is followed to the full,” said de Crousaz.
swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand in Geneva
Switzerland supports the two-state road map peace plan.
The country has also called on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
The Swiss have appealed to both sides in the conflict to respect international humanitarian law.
Switzerland backs the Geneva Accord financially and logistically.
The country works with Israeli and Palestinian NGOs to encourage dialogue.
It also finances international organisations that give humanitarian aid to the Middle East.