Israel, U.S. Lobby Against July Geneva Convention

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNS) - Israel's Foreign Ministry has launched intensive diplomacy aimed at thwarting an unprecedented international conference planned for next month which is likely to end with a condemnation of Israeli policies in the disputed territories.

The first-ever meeting of Fourth Geneva Convention signatories, set for July 15 in Geneva, was approved by the overwhelming majority of United Nations General Assembly members in February.

Israel plans to boycott the conference, which it says will compromise the neutrality enjoyed by the Convention since 1949. The United States voted against the UN resolution - which was initiated by the Arab states - does not intend to participate either, and is urging other states also to stay away.

The meeting will demand that Israel abide by the provisions of the Convention in areas - including Jerusalem - viewed by the international community as "occupied Arab lands."

In particular, the Palestinian Authority wants the conference to declare Israeli communities located in the areas concerned violations of the Convention.

The Fourth Geneva Convention, concluded in 1949 - previous treaties dated back to the late 19th century - covers treatment of civilians, and of enemy soldiers, in times of war.

Israel seized control of the "West Bank" and Gaza Strip during the 1967 Six Day War, replacing Jordanian and Egyptian administrations respectively. Arab control of those areas, which began in 1948, was also not internationally recognized, and neither Jordan nor Egypt granted the Palestinian inhabitants autonomy.

Since 1967, Israel has maintained that the Convention is not applicable to the disputed territories. The PA hopes to declare a future independent state there soon.

An Israeli foreign ministry official told Monday that the convening of the July conference would constitute the first-ever political exploitation of the humanitarian institution.

The official confirmed that efforts were underway to persuade other signatory states not to attend the Geneva session.

In a sign of what Israel can expect at Geneva, a preparatory conference, held in Cairo earlier this month, adopted resolutions harshly critical of Israel.

Speaker after speaker slammed Israel for building new communities, or expanding existing ones, on disputed land. PA Planning Minister Nabil Sha'ath, for instance, accused Israel of the "mutilation and colonization of the Palestinian territories."

Israel's Ambassador to the UN, Dori Gold, called the decision to hold the session "cynical and evil." He said attempts to convene the summit distorted international law designed to protect human rights, in order to advance the political interests of one party.

Once you politicize the convention, he argued, future humanitarian causes around the world could be seriously jeopardized.

The U.S. has backed Israel in its opposition to the conference, arguing that outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians should be resolved between the two sides, in the framework of the Oslo Accords.

As depository of the Convention, Switzerland is responsible for overseeing the session, but has nothing to do with the political element, Natalie Boesch, first secretary at the Swiss Embassy in Tel Aviv, told

"We don't do it on political grounds, but because the UN General Assembly asked for it. As far as the topic of the conference goes, we are completely neutral on this."

Boesch said any diplomatic moves afoot to have the session cancelled or postponed would not involve the Swiss, but should be undertaken through the UN. "That is in the hands of the signatory states."

Planning for the conference, to be held at the UN's Geneva headquarters, was well underway, although procedural matters such as composition and chairing were still under discussion, she added.

After an earlier General Assembly request, in March 1998, to have Switzerland convene the signatories to the Convention, Switzerland suggested a two-prong approach to resolve the matter in such a way that it would neither undermine the Oslo process, nor damage the effectiveness of humanitarian institutions by politicizing them.

Firstly, Switzerland convened a panel of experts to discuss the applicability of the Geneva Convention to "occupied territories" in general. Secondly, it called a meeting of four parties - Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Switzerland - to discuss the Convention's applicability to the areas in question.

Following a first session of this four-party group, in June 1998, a second meeting was scheduled for last November. However, the PA declined to attend and the process collapsed.

Explaining this decision, the Palestinian observer to the UN, Nasser al-Kidwa, told the General Assembly early this year that after the initial meeting "did not lead to any change in Israeli policies and practices," the PA believed "that we have reached the end of the line."

Israeli officials want to return to the Swiss initiative, as they see the proponents of the July session as more interested in political gains than genuine humanitarian improvements in Palestinians' lives, learned from government sources on Monday.

Israel argues further that, in order to be unbiased, the Geneva conference would also have to address the humanitarian concerns of the more than 90 per cent of Palestinians in the disputed areas who today live under PA administration.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow