PHROC open letter calling upon the President of the Swiss Federal Council to convene a conference of the High Contracting Parties to urgently address Israel’s violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention
Your Excellency, President Didier Burkhalter,
Distinguished Members of the Swiss Federal Council,
As Palestinian human rights organizations concerned with respect for international humanitarian law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), the Palestinian Human Rights Organisations Council (PHROC) calls upon Your Excellency to convene a conference of the High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention to discuss Israel’s continued non-compliance with the Fourth Geneva Convention. Between 6 July and 10 July 2014, Palestinian Human Rights organisations has documented the killing of 83 Palestinians, including at least 46 civilians, of whom 22 are children, following indiscriminate and disproportionate Israeli air-raids on the Gaza Strip targeting, inter alia, civilian homes that cannot be perceived as military objectives. In addition, at least 400 Palestinians, including 123 children, have been injured. Statements by Israeli officials indicate intent to expand their military attack on the Gaza Strip, code named ‘Operation Protective Edge’, which will likely result in more civilian deaths and destruction.
The population of the Gaza Strip has been living under an Israeli imposed closure for the past seven years, constituting a form of collective punishment. As a result, 70 per cent of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are dependent on humanitarian assistance and Palestinians have been hindered from recovering from damage and destruction caused during previous Israeli offensives, including ‘Operation Cast Lead’ and ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’. It must be emphasised that ‘Operation Protective Edge’ erupted in the context of an already ongoing armed conflict and belligerent occupation. As such, Israel cannot justify its attack based upon the right to self-defence according to Article 51 of the UN Charter and must therefore act in accordance with the laws regulating the conduct of hostilities. In fact, analysis of Israel’s recent offensive operation in the Gaza Strip indicates that it is politically driven.
PHROC reiterates that all parties engaged in hostilities during armed conflict must abide by international humanitarian law. The principle of distinction requires all parties to distinguish between civilians and combatants, as well as between civilian objects and military objectives. Furthermore, the principle of proportionality dictates that launching an attack, which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated, is prohibited. Failure to abide by these principles of international humanitarian law may result in the commission of war crimes. Furthermore, Palestinian civilians in the OPT are protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention. As an Occupying Power, Israel must ensure the welfare and safety of the occupied population and respect Palestinians’ right to life and dignity. As such, prior to launching a military attack Israel is obliged to provide “effective advance warning” of attacks that “may affect the civilian population” and take precautions in the choice of means and methods of attack with a view of avoiding and minimizing civilian casualties.
In April 2014, Palestinian accession to relevant international humanitarian and human rights gave rise to additional obligations on part of Palestinian actors in the conflict as well as opened up additional opportunities. As a High Contracting Party, the Palestinian leadership is now entitled to request the High Contracting Parties to address Israel’s prolonged occupation of the Palestinian territory and the international humanitarian law violations committed therein. On this note, PHROC further recalls UNGA resolution A/Res/64/10 of 2009, which called upon the Swiss Government to “undertake as soon as possible the steps necessary to reconvene a Conference of High Contracting […] to enforce the Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and to ensure its respect in accordance with common article 1.”
Whereas the Swiss Federal Council convened conferences of the High Contracting Parties discussing Israel’s non-compliance with the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1999 and 2001, both conferences failed to sufficiently lay out concrete measures to be undertaken by all the High Contracting Parties in order for them to ensure Israel’s compliance with the Geneva Conventions according to common Article 1. For example, in December 2001, the Conference of High Contracting Parties called upon Israel, “to fully and effectively respect the Fourth Geneva Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Mere statements void of any concrete measures of action by the High Contracting Parties inevitably failed to induce Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law. PHROC therefore emphasizes that in order to bring to an end Israel’s repeated disregard of the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the High Contracting Parties must discuss, agree upon, and undertake concrete action to ensure that Israel’s pattern in conducting hostilities across the OPT, particularly in the Gaza Strip, is not tolerated. On this note, we recall that Israel does not acknowledge the de jure application of the Fourth Geneva Convention with respect to the occupation of the Palestinian Territory.
The failure of the High Contracting Parties to effectively engage their own clearly defined legal obligations to ensure respect for the Fourth Geneva Convention, as well as their obligation to hold perpetrators of grave breaches responsible under Article 146, amounts to tacit acquiescence to Israel’s calculated and systematic disregard for international humanitarian law. Further inaction at this time would not only betray any hope that the civilians of the Gaza Strip have left in the ability of international humanitarian law to provide protection and alleviate their suffering, but would leave broader question marks as to the basic commitment of the High Contracting Parties to invest in the future relevance of international humanitarian law.
We look forward to receiving your response and remain at your disposal for any questions, comments or requests for further information that you might have.