Behind the Headlines: Meeting on Israeli Settlements Criticized As Manipulation of Law
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Behind the Headlines: Meeting on Israeli Settlements Criticized As Manipulation of Law

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If representatives of 188 countries meet in Geneva on July 15, Israel will be on everyone’s mind.

Israeli officials, however, won’t be there.

The meeting is being convened specifically to discuss the enforcement of the Fourth Geneva Convention in “occupied Palestinian territory, including Jerusalem.”

It is being organized at the request of the United Nations General Assembly, which in February voted overwhelmingly to convene the signatories to the Convention, the treaty governing the treatment of civilians during wartime.

Of the parties to the Convention, only Israel and the United States have firmly and publicly stated that they will not participate.

Because there is no precedent for such a conference, some of the most fundamental questions concerning its procedures and goals have yet to be answered. With less than two weeks before the scheduled date, it is not clear whether the conference will be held as planned.

The July 15 conference would be the first meeting of the parties to the Convention for any reason since the treaty was adopted in 1949.

Israel and the United States have criticized the meeting as a political manipulation of humanitarian law aimed at forcing Israel’s hand on the issue of settlements.

The Palestinians have strong support from the more than 100 countries in the Non-Aligned Movement at the U.N. for holding the meeting.

But some European states, Germany foremost among them, are pushing for a delay, as the meeting would come just as Israel’s new government is being formed.

Still, the European Union has yet to come to a consensus on the matter.

Dore Gold, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, called the Geneva meeting “an anachronistic mechanism that singles out Israel” and ignores the “unparalleled risks” Israel has made under the Oslo peace accords.

Moreover, he said, “it destroys the foundations of international humanitarian law,” most recently defended in the war in Kosovo.

Israel’s opposition to the meeting also has a symbolic basis.

The Fourth Geneva Convention was adopted in the wake of World War II as a measure to protect civilians from the kinds of force, intimidation, and transfer of populations that characterized Nazi expansionist aggression.

To apply the convention today “to Israeli construction in the territories would be singularly biased and an impediment to peace,” B’nai B’rith International President Richard Heideman wrote in a June 14 letter to 188 world leaders.

Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, called the planned Geneva conference “basically immoral.”

Neither Labor nor Likud, he said in an interview, takes an “all or nothing” position. “It’s a question of degree.”

Switzerland, which is responsible for making preparations for the conference, has surveyed the parties and is organizing consultations with representatives of a select group of nations to gauge international opinion about the purpose of the meeting.

So far, a Swiss diplomatic source said, the majority response indicates clear support for the conference to be held, but little else.

Who will chair the meeting, who will pay for it and even what aim the conference is expected to achieve all have yet to be determined.

The Palestinians recognize the uniqueness of the Geneva initiative, but Marwan Jilani, the counselor to the Palestinian observer to the U.N., said that lack of precedence is no reason not to convene the parties.

“The policies and practices of the Israeli government are of serious concern to the whole international community,” he said, although they “might not seem to some people as serious as what’s happening in other places around the world.”

Israeli settlement policies during the last three decades, he said, are “the only case of settler colonization in our present time.”

The Non-Aligned Movement, representing what is taken to be the Palestinian position, has said the conference should conclude with a declaration that cites, among other points, “the existence of grave breaches and serious violations by Israel of the Fourth Geneva Convention” and the affirmation of the applicability of the Convention to “occupied Palestinian territory.”

The movement is also calling for a resolution to be issued at the conference’s conclusion, but how or even if such a resolution would be enforced is unclear.

Jilani said that in pressing for the meeting, the Palestinians “are not calling for sanctions against Israel, nor are we calling to establish criminal courts for Israel’s pursuing policies against the Palestinian people.

“What we are saying is that the international community has the responsibility to discourage settlements in the occupied territory.”

As of July 1, the European Union was reportedly holding meetings with the Palestinians to work out a compromise meeting that would limit the discussion to reaffirming the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to those territories.

Israel maintains that those geographic areas have no current fixed legal status. The question of whether or not it is, in fact, “Palestinian,” is a subject to be determined as part of the Oslo peace accords.

Certainly, an Israeli diplomatic source said, Israel does not view the Har Homa neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem as Palestinian land.

The current push for the Geneva meeting began in earnest in 1997, when the U.N. General Assembly — for the first time in 15 years — convened an emergency special session to discuss Israel’s plans to build housing units at Har Homa, which the Palestinians call Jabal Abu Ghneim.

Palestinian riots and a terror attack on Israel followed groundbreaking at the site in March 1997, leading to an impasse in the peace process that lasted for nearly two years.

Israel and the United States say that by bringing international pressure to bear on a question intended for final-status negotiations, the Geneva meeting may serve to undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Permanent-status negotiations are “the place where the settlements issue should be addressed,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Martin Indyk told reporters on June 30, “not in some international forum which doesn’t have the basis in the [Geneva] Conventions for a meeting and which cannot produce a positive result by its very nature.”

It is being used, Indyk said, “to put Israel in a corner on the settlement issue” and will “set a bad precedent for other issues.”

He also questioned the timing of the proposed meeting, currently scheduled to take place during the first days in office of Israel’s new government under Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak.

“A prime minister committed to moving forward in the peace process and to pursuing the policies of Yitzhak Rabin is a prime minister that we believe should be given a chance,” he said.

A French diplomatic source agreed that the timing was unfortunate, but said that the European Union earlier this year had pressured the Palestinians to postpone the date until July 15.

“We cannot say every six months that it is inappropriate,” the source said in an interview.

He added that France shares the concern that the Geneva conference is being used for “Palestinian propaganda,” but he questioned the “chaise vide,” or empty chair, policy taken by Israel and the United States in boycotting the meeting.

“What we are saying is that the best way to avoid” abuse of the international forum “is to be there and to try to work right away on the outcome of that meeting.”

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