Swiss observers in the occupied territories say they have witnessed human rights abuses against Palestinians of all ages.
At a press conference in Bern on Wednesday they called on the international community to increase its presence in the territories to protect the population.
The observers, who have just returned to Switzerland after a three-month stint in the region, said they felt “powerless” in the face of events such as the building of the security barrier in the West Bank.
On Tuesday the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution demanding that Israel demolish the barrier in line with a world court ruling.
The resolution also called on Switzerland to consider convening a meeting of states party to the Geneva Conventions.
“Huge trucks are transporting and putting into place one-metre wide and nine-metre high pieces of concrete,” said Hansueli Gerber, one of the six Swiss observers.
He added that the wall was straying into Palestinian farmland and destroying valuable crops.
Gerber was in the Palestinian territories as part of a World Council of Churches-sponsored programme, which is supported by the Swiss foreign ministry.
Human rights abuses
The observers, who accompany children to school, monitor checkpoints and ride in ambulances, told the press conference that many Palestinians suffered human rights abuses.
They said those living in the occupied territories could not move around freely and were condemned to stay indoors for days at a time because of curfews.
Gerber, a retired minister, said his main job was to watch and take pictures, but not actually intervene.
“I have learnt just how powerless the people living there feel,” he said. “Their only defence is not to flee but to stay in the area.”
Although the Swiss volunteers cannot intercede on behalf of the Palestinians, they say their work has been well received by the local population.
In one case, a Palestinian head teacher announced her intention to add another class once members of the international project started accompanying pupils to school.
Other members of the mission, such as Florence Nicole, a former foreign ministry employee, were stationed in Israel.
“We accompanied Israeli peace and human rights organisations during observation exercises, demonstrations and court hearings,” she said.
“In Tel Aviv 150,000 people were calling for peace talks,” she added.
The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) was launched by the World Council of Churches in 2002.
In Switzerland, it is coordinated by the non-governmental human rights body, Peace Watch Switzerland.
“[The aims are] passive protection, the documentation of human rights abuses… and solidarity through a presence on the ground,” said Peace Watch Switzerland’s Markus Marti.
Christians, Muslims, Jews, as well as non-religious people and organisations take part in the programme.
The foreign ministry has given SFr50,000 ($40,000) in funding to the project this year, as part of its commitment to the promotion of peace by civilians and work on human rights.
Earlier this week, Israel criticised Switzerland’s involvement in the scheme.
The next group of 20 international observers – from countries including France, Germany and Switzerland – has already arrived in Jerusalem.
swissinfo, Philippe Kropf
Since the EAPPI project was launched in 2002, 115 observers from 30 churches and ten countries have taken part.
Swiss observers have been visiting the area for two years.
Peace Watch Switzerland, a human rights NGO, coordinates the Swiss observers.