and in all situations of armed conflict, it is in both desperation and hope that we write to call for the urgent reconvening of the Conference of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The past two weeks have witnessed the heaviest aerial bombardment of the Gaza Strip since 1967, and the situation of the protected civilian population there is more critical than ever before.
At approximately 11:30 am on 27 December 2008 Israel launched “Operation Cast Lead,” a large-scale aerial offensive in the Gaza Strip. The continuing air strikes have been followed by Israeli ground troops, which invaded the Gaza Strip on the night of 3 January 2009. To date, these attacks have resulted in the death of at least 729 Palestinians, 603 of whom were civilians, including 173 children, and the further wounding of over 3,200 more. In addition, the Israeli military attacks have resulted in the widespread destruction of civilian property such as homes, schools and mosques.
While Palestinian armed groups have acted in violation of international humanitarian law in launching indiscriminate weapons towards Israel, these unlawful attacks do not justify equally unlawful attacks by the Israeli occupying forces. Israeli Foreign Minister Livni’s comments that such groups “don’t make a distinction, and neither should we,” show disregard for the law and reveal a criminal intent to target civilians. In keeping with this statement, “Operation Case Lead” has displayed a disproportionate and often indiscriminate use of force against densely populated civilian areas throughout the Gaza Strip. A full analysis of Israel’s violations of the international humanitarian law principles of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack, and of grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention committed, can be found in Al-Haq’s legal brief, available here
In December 2001, the Conference of High Contracting Parties convened and called upon Israel, “to fully and effectively respect the Fourth Geneva Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.” Such political dialogue, however, void of any concrete measures of action by the High Contracting Parties to ensure respect for the Convention, inevitably failed to induce Israel’s compliance with international humanitarian law. In August 2004, the UN General Assembly invited Switzerland, in its capacity as the depository of the Geneva Conventions, “to conduct consultations and to report to the General Assembly […] with regard to the possibility of resuming the Conference of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention.” Having done so, Switzerland reported back to the General Assembly in June 2005, explaining that informal consultations with the High Contracting Parties had resulted in the opinion that reconvening the Conference was “not the course to be pursued” at that moment. Hopes raised by “encouraging political developments” such as Israel’s so-called ‘disengagement’ from the Gaza Strip, and the need to place faith in an apparently nascent ‘peace process’ were cited as the basis for that opinion. In the three and a half years that have since passed, the peace process has been shown to be a mere façade, while Israel’s intensification of attacks and collective punishment against the occupied civilian population of the Gaza Strip has precipitated a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions.
The failure of the High Contracting Parties to effectively engage their own clearly defined legal obligations to ensure respect for the Fourth Geneva Convention 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.
There is no longer any possible justification for the Conference of the High Contracting Parties not to be resumed. Thus, in the interests of respect for both international humanitarian law and the notion that informs and underpins it—basic humanity—we urge the High Contracting Parties to reconvene with a view to establishing consensus on immediate and concrete collective measures that can be taken under the framework of the UN, in order to ensure Israel’s compliance with its legal obligations and to bring to an end the violations of international humanitarian law currently being committed with impunity in the Gaza Strip. We further urge individual initiatives by High Contracting Parties aimed at ensuring respect for the Fourth Geneva Convention under Article 1, and at holding perpetrators of grave breaches responsible under Article 146.
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.
Adalah – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel
Ad-Dameer Association for Human Rights
Addameer, Priosners’ Support and Human Rights Association
Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights
Arab Association for Human Rights
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Defence for Children International/Palestine Section (DCI/PS)
Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center (DWRC)
Ensan Center for Democracy & Human Rights
Independent Commission for Human Rights (ICHR)
Jerusalem Legal Aid & Human Rights Center (JLAC)
Palestinian Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, Musawa
Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR)
Ramallah Center for Human Rights Studies (RCHRS)
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
The Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations‘ Network - PNGO
Women‘s Center for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC)