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Israel taken to task over treatment of civilians

Switzerland is holding a conference on alleged Israeli breaches of humanitarian law Keystone

The violent events in the Middle East have not prevented Switzerland from holding a conference on Israeli breaches of humanitarian law.

This content was published on December 5, 2001 - 12:19

As Israel launches retaliatory attacks against the Palestinian Authority in response to suicide bombings by Islamic militants at the weekend, states which have signed the Fourth Geneva Convention are meeting on Wednesday to discuss the application of the convention in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Israel late on Tuesday demanded the cancellation of the conference, following recent attacks in which 26 Israelis were killed. Israel's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Yaakov Levy, said he had asked the Swiss authorities to cancel or postpone the conference, however they refused.

The Fourth Geneva Convention seeks to protect civilians in wartime or during military occupation by a foreign power.

Like many states, Switzerland believes the convention is "applicable de jure to all Territories occupied by Israel" and that Jewish settlements established on occupied Palestinians land "represent a flagrant violation of the Fourth Convention".

Basic humanitarian rules

"We are very concerned about the humanitarian situation," says Pierre-Yves Fux, of the Swiss Foreign Ministry's political affairs department. "It's as if there are no rules in the occupied territories and, when you have a crisis, you need to have some basic humanitarian rules."

"It's important to achieve a broad consensus at this conference, but it's more important to have a better application of the convention on the ground - that is, better protection for civilians," he told swissinfo.

However, many countries are privately questioning the wisdom of holding such a conference at such a difficult juncture. Others argue that Israel needs to be reminded of its obligations under international law.

"We are not going to speak about final status issues. We will focus on pressing needs covered by humanitarian law," Fux explained.

Given the very specific nature of the discussions, therefore, the question of terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinian groups will not be broached.

Israel boycotting talks

Israel, even before calling for the cancellation, had decided to boycott the conference. The United States and some other countries are also avoiding the meeting.

The Israelis accuse Arab and Muslim states of politicising and undermining an important humanitarian instrument, and feel the Geneva meeting will simply become a platform for attacking it.

"This will be a tribunal against Israel," says Alfred Donath, head of the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities.

"The final declaration is already written, and it isn't balanced. There is no attempt to explain why Israel is acting as it is. It's yet another occasion to condemn Israel," he told swissinfo.

The gathering was requested by the United Nations General Assembly - at the instigation of Arab and Muslim countries - after the latest Intifada broke out in Autumn 2000.

"The fact that some of Israel's allies are raising their voice in support of humanitarian law will send an important message to them," Fux says.

Depository country

As depository country of the Geneva Conventions, Switzerland was obliged to organise the conference. But the Swiss have managed to ensure that it devotes itself purely to the humanitarian aspect, and does not become an anti-Israeli forum.

To this end, the conference will last just half a day and be held behind closed doors. There will be no debate and no vote. In addition, a declaration has already been drawn up following talks involving 25 states - including the United States.

A complicating factor is that Israel does not believe the Fourth Geneva Convention is applicable since it does not regard the Palestinian areas as "occupied" but "disputed". It says it captured this land in 1967 from countries which had illegally occupied them since 1948.

"Even if there's only a de facto application of the Geneva Conventions, it would be fantastic for the people suffering in that part of the world," Fux says.

The Swiss say this gathering is a resumption of the work of a similar conference held in July 1999. That meeting lasted just 17 minutes before being adjourned, ostensibly so as not to derail developments in the peace process.

by Roy Probert

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