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International Attack on Israel Could Further Harm Peace Efforts

November 30, 2001
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With an international forum set to condemn Israel once again, Israeli and Jewish activists fear the meeting will further harm peacemaking efforts between Arabs and Jews.

Most important, the Dec. 5 reconvening of the Fourth Geneva Convention could roil the bad blood between Israelis and Palestinians just as Washington is prodding them toward a cease-fire.

But the bottom line, say Jewish observers, is that next week’s gathering in Geneva — just like the U.N. anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa, three months ago — will lay bare a stark fact: The Jewish state is held to a different standard than the rest of the world.

The Fourth Geneva Convention, centered on the “protection of civilian persons in time of war,” was established in response to Nazi atrocities committed against civilians, primarily Jews, in occupied territories.

The convention, to which every country is a signatory, has been convened only once in its long existence — 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.

That meeting, boycotted by Israel and the United States, was adjourned indefinitely after only 17 minutes.

Now it is set to reconvene Wednesday, again without Israeli or U.S. representation.

Again, the focus will be Israeli behavior in the territories.

“Reconvening it is so outrageous, you want to scream,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“It’s a hypocrisy; it’s a charade. It’s like Durban II, and that we haven’t learned anything. It’s a slap in the face of Israel and of the Jewish people.”

In Durban, a fortnight-long global gathering in September, was ostensibly aimed at galvanizing the world against all forms of hatred and prejudice.

But it was commandeered by Arab and Muslim activists and diplomats bent on isolating Israel as the worst offender of these universal ideals.

In Geneva, the meeting will likely last less than a day, and the draft declaration now being circulated has apparently been toned down from its original form.

But the fact remains: Israel, alone, will be under the microscope.

“It’s scandalous,” said Harris Schoenberg, chairman of the U.N. caucus of Jewish nongovernmental organizations.

“Here I thought it was crazy that you have all these prisoners being killed in Afghanistan” — summary execution of prisoners violates international law governing conduct in a military conflict — “and they’re reconvening the Fourth Geneva Convention to demonize Israel for protecting its citizens from Arabs going around blowing them up.”

Switzerland, as “gatekeeper” of the Fourth Geneva Convention, is responsible for organizing such a meeting — when requested to do so.

In October 2000, soon after the Palestinian intifada broke out, both the U.N. General Assembly — a world body dominated by Arab and Muslim member-states — and the 22-member Arab League submitted a request to organize the meeting.

“It’s to urge all parties to the Fourth Convention to adhere to their legal obligations,” Valentin Zellweger, legal adviser to the Swiss Observer Mission to the United Nations, told JTA.

“The aim is to protect victims and support humanitarian actors.”

The draft declaration, Zellweger said, reiterates that the convention’s legal obligations apply to the West Bank, Gaza and eastern Jerusalem, and contains a specific reference to Israel as the “occupying force.”

Washington remains opposed to the meeting.

“We believe such a meeting would be counterproductive and has no legal basis under the convention, which we strongly support,” a State Department official said.

To prevent some European states from boycotting, the language in the draft declaration is still being negotiated and has reportedly been toned down.

Italy is one country said to be on the fence.

Nevertheless, the 15-member European Union will be represented by Antonio Vittorino, the body’s commissioner for justice and home affairs, an E.U. official confirmed.

Vittorino’s spokesman could not be reached for comment.

That the Europeans are lending credibility to the meeting disturbs Jewish observers. The convention, they note, was created because of what was done to the Jewish people; now it’s being used against the Jewish people.

“I can understand their feelings, the bitter irony,” a European diplomat, who did not want to be identified, said about Jewish sentiments.

“But Arabs would raise the concern, ‘Why is the situation in Middle East not of concern to the U.N. Security Council?’ It’s always a question of your perspective.”

Pro-Israel advocates think they have some of the answers.

In world bodies like the United Nations, where each country has an equal vote, the “numbers game” of the large Arab and Muslim bloc prevails.

Then there’s economic pressure the Arab world presumably exerts, because of their oil, bank assets, investments, and competition for business contracts across the region.

But meetings and declarations like those planned for Geneva have consequences, say Jewish observers, both short term and long term.

In the short term, it’s another blow to Israel’s image on the international stage, and another attempt to internationalize the peacemaking efforts between Israelis and Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has long been suspected of trying to marginalize the U.S. role as facilitator, banking on a more sympathetic ear for Palestinians with a U.N. or E.U. “honest broker.”

Some say such meetings could also produce more bloodshed.

“The crowds will feed off this, definitely,” said an Israeli diplomat.

“When all of Israel’s dearest friends convene and speak passionately against Israel, often with clear anti-Semitic tones, once their populations hear these speeches of incitement, it will feed the violence and hatred of Israel.”

It may also backfire, by generating greater Israeli intransigence.

“The more Israel feels it is being ganged up on, it undermines Israel’s confidence in terms of making those compromises and taking risks for peace,” Foxman said.

Then there’s the potential long-term ramifications of having such declarations and resolutions — passed with the Western world’s complicity — on the books.

“Textbooks will say that Israel was guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which legitimized the isolation of Israel and the questioning of its legitimacy,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“Then the Arab world will justify this by pointing to documents such as the one they’ll be signing at Geneva and say, ‘It wasn’t us who did it; it was the entire international community.'”

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