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Israel Urged to Adopt Geneva Convention

Accepting the attorney general's proposal could cloud the government's contention that Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are legal.

August 25, 2004|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — In the first such recommendation by a senior Israeli official, the country's attorney general has urged that Israel consider adopting the Fourth Geneva Convention, a document that lays out the responsibilities of an occupying military power toward civilians under its control.

Successive Israeli governments have refused to formally recognize the United Nations protocols as applying to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel seized from Jordan and Egypt respectively in the 1967 Middle East War.

Israel contends -- although many human rights groups disagree -- that it already follows the humanitarian principles of the convention in its treatment of Palestinians. The 1949 accord is meant to protect people under occupation from torture and unnecessary hardship, and to guarantee basic services such as education and healthcare.

Israel maintains that because Jordanian and Egyptian rule in the Palestinian lands before 1967 was never internationally recognized, the convention -- which addresses questions involving territory seized by one sovereign entity from another -- does not apply.

The recommendation by the attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, was part of the continuing fallout over an advisory opinion rendered seven weeks ago by the International Court of Justice in the Hague on the separation barrier Israel is building in the West Bank.

In its nonbinding ruling, the world court declared the partly built barrier illegal and demanded that it be torn down. The court, the highest U.N. judicial body, also issued a sweeping condemnation of Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel says the barrier, envisioned to run 437 miles when completed, is a necessary defense against Palestinian suicide bombers. The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has already agreed to make changes in more than 60 miles of the route to ease Palestinian hardships and bring the path of the fortified fence closer to Israel's pre-1967 border.

The attorney general's recommendation was widely viewed as a reflection of growing unease on the part of Israeli diplomats and government officials over the potential repercussions of harsh international criticism of Israel's policies in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian officials have made it clear that they intend to use the world court opinion as a springboard for seeking condemnation of the barrier -- and of Israel's overall treatment of Palestinians -- in a variety of international forums. The U.N. General Assembly last month gave overwhelming approval to a resolution endorsing the world court ruling.

Traditionally, Israel has shrugged off General Assembly resolutions criticizing its actions, relying on its ally the United States to exercise a veto if such measures are brought in binding form before the Security Council. But many other mechanisms exist for punishing states that are seen as acting outside internationally accepted norms.

Mazuz's recommendation regarding the Geneva Convention was contained in the same lengthy confidential memo he submitted to Sharon last week on the possible consequences of the world court ruling. Its main points were reported at the time by Israeli media, but this particular aspect was disclosed only Tuesday, in a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Because the Haaretz report was based on a leaked document, the prime minister's office refused to comment on it. However, two senior advisors to Sharon, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said they believed it was extremely unlikely that the government would seriously consider adopting the Geneva Convention.

If the convention were adopted, it would cloud Israel's long-standing contention that Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza are legal. The convention specifically prohibits an occupying power from moving its own civilians onto occupied land.

"One can only guess that the reason Israel refuses to acknowledge that the Geneva Convention applies to the territories is that Israel never wanted to admit these lands are occupied," legal affairs commentator Moshe Negby said.

Sharon has edged closer to accepting such a stance, however. Last year, the prime minister stunned right-wing supporters when he declared that the more than 3 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza were a population living under occupation, and suggested that continuing to exert control over them was ultimately harmful to Israel.

That was a prelude to Sharon's initiative, unveiled early this year, to relinquish the settlements of Gaza and some minor ones in the West Bank. The proposal has been bogged down by infighting in Sharon's Likud Party, but aides insist the prime minister intends to move ahead with it.

Israel often contends that outsiders do not understand the dilemmas faced daily by its forces in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli troops Tuesday raided the compound of a maternity hospital in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, seizing two wanted Palestinian militants.

Some of the medical staff expressed anger at the Israeli troops for endangering patients with gunfire, but also denounced the militants for trying to hide on the hospital grounds.

The Israeli commander in Bethlehem, Col. Nadav Padan, said a large arms cache was seized in the raid.

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