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Geneva meeting targets Israel

NEW YORK, Dec. 5 (JTA) — Jewish observers at an international meeting in Geneva to scrutinize Israel´s treatment of the Palestinians were saddened — but not surprised — by the decision to brand Israel "an occupying power." "It´s a quiet crime," Sybil Kessler, a policy associate for Hadassah´s division of Israel, Zionist and international affairs, said of the reconvening of the Fourth Geneva Convention on Wednesday. "Very diplomatically, very quietly, 140 countries have convened and left just to reinforce the fact that the international community still doesn´t accept Israel on the same playing field as the rest of world," Kessler told JTA by telephone from Geneva. "It leaves us extremely saddened and disheartened — and even after a weekend like we´ve had," she said, referring to the 25 Israelis killed in suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Haifa. In a symbolic declaration, signatory states called on Israel to "refrain from committing grave breaches" of the convention, including "willful killing, torture, unlawful deportation," "collective penalties" and "unjustified restrictions of free movement." The convention, which focuses on the "protection of civilian persons in time of war," was established in response to Nazi atrocities committed against civilians — primarily Jews — in territories they occupied. Every country is a signatory to the convention, but member states have met only once before in the half-century since the convention was signed. That meeting was on July 15, 1999, at the behest of the Arab world, to scrutinize Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem. Boycotted by Israel and the United States, that meeting was adjourned after only 17 minutes. It convened again this week without Israeli, American or Australian representation. The meeting came on the heels of another attack on Israel by the U.N. General Assembly on Monday. The assembly passed four resolutions relating to Israeli-Palestinian relations. One backed Palestinian rights to an independent state, based on the principle of trading land for peace. Wednesday´s meeting came just three months after a U.N. conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, sought to stigmatize Israel as the worst offender in the world on human rights issues. Andrew Srulevitch, executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based group affiliated with the American Jewish Committee, said the "politicization of humanitarian and human rights institutions by Arab states to attack Israel is nothing new." But he said the declaration issued in Geneva "sets a very dangerous precedent for the abuse of humanitarian law to single out one country." He noted that the convention never has been applied to humanitarian concerns in other areas of the world. The real clue to understanding the event in Geneva was Tuesday´s accompanying conference of nongovernmental organizations, which systematically excluded Jewish groups. Organized by two Palestinian organizations, the NGO conference was not under U.N. auspices, but was "purportedly an open conference," Srulevitch said. When he arrived, however, Srulevitch was told that the meeting was "closed to NGOs who do not accept the application of humanitarian law in the occupied territories." Also turned away were members of other Jewish organizations, including Hadassah, B´nai B´rith and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Srulevitch called the NGO conference "pathetic," with about 20 organizations represented, including two officials from the Palestinian Authority. More egregious, he said, was the coordination between the NGOs and the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who postponed a follow up meeting to the Durban conference to accommodate a pro-Palestinian demonstration against Israel. That rings of bias, Srulevitch said. "The High Commissioner should not be juggling her schedule to allow the maximum number of Palestinian protesters at an anti-Israel demonstration," he said. Fewer than 100 people attended that demonstration, Jewish observers said, while two pro-Israel demonstrations by Swiss students drew more than 40 people. Meanwhile, approximately 180 faculty and students from the Rambam Mesivta, a New York-area yeshiva, protested the convention at a rally Wednesday across the street from the Swiss Consulate in New York.