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Swiss plan diplomatic initiative for Middle East

The Israeli military offensive against Palestinians represents a breach of the Geneva Convention

(Keystone)

Swiss officials have held preliminary contacts ahead of a diplomatic offensive aimed at getting Israelis and Palestinians to respect humanitarian law.

Officials at the Swiss Foreign Ministry confirmed that they had sounded out interested parties. They refused to name their contacts, but they are understood to have been in touch with - among others - Israeli, Palestinian and American diplomats.

"We are not being selective in our approach. We want to contact all actors playing an important role," says Pierre-Yves Fux, a Middle East expert at the Foreign Ministry.

Swiss specificity

The initiative is evidence of a newly assertive Switzerland, and is a foretaste of how it intends to conduct its foreign policy once it becomes a member of the United Nations in September. As depository country of the Geneva Conventions, Switzerland clearly feels it has a unique role in ensuring they are respected.

"This is our contribution. Our specificity. We want to ensure respect for international humanitarian law through Swiss advocacy within existing frameworks," Fux told swissinfo. He said the parties to the conflict needed to be reminded by international organisations and other actors that even war has its limits, and that basic, universal rules had to be respected.

Basic first step

"Our message is that the path to peace cannot ignore international law. It's a very basic first step, even before a ceasefire," Fux added.

The Swiss cabinet is expected to give the official go-ahead for the diplomatic initiative at its meeting on Wednesday, after which official contact will be made. The Foreign Ministry officials told swissinfo they did not expect any major developments before next week.

The Swiss initiative should not be confused with a full-blown peace plan. But it is based on the assumption that any progress towards a cessation of hostilities is unlikely without a respect for some basic rules.

Fux said international humanitarian law constituted a basic minimal consensus within the international community, and so the response to the Swiss approach "could not be negative". However, he said there was a need to integrate it more into international initiatives, such as peace plans and UN Security Council resolutions.

Fourth Geneva Convention

The Swiss initiative follows an international conference in Geneva last December on the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This convention covers the treatment of civilians in wartime and under military occupation.

As depository of the Geneva Conventions, Switzerland was called on to organise the half-day conference, which reaffirmed the applicability of the Fourth Convention in the Palestinian Territories, and called on Israel to apply it.

Legitimate security needs

Switzerland, like most other countries, believes the indiscriminate use of force against civilians by the Israeli army, the blocking of medical and humanitarian aid, the closure of the territories and the construction of Jewish settlements on occupied land are all breaches of the convention.

Israel, however, regards the territories as "disputed", not occupied, and therefore does not believe the Fourth Geneva Convention is applicable. Israel and the United States boycotted the Geneva meeting, which they claimed was an attempt by Arab and Islamic states to politicise a humanitarian issue.

"We have to explain to Israel that international humanitarian law does not hamper the administration of a territory under occupation. It is not a theoretical ideal. It takes into account legitimate military security needs," Fux says.

by Roy Probert


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