The Swiss government has just announced that it plans to convene a conference, set to take place on December 17th, in which the ‘status quo’ of the Palestinian Territories will be discussed with the States party to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The decision comes five years after the General Assembly passed Resolution 64/10, recommending the Swiss government to convene such a conference, and discuss measures to enforce the convention in the Palestinian Territories.
The Fourth Geneva Convention, an imperative instrument in the field of international humanitarian law, concerns the treatment of civilians and other protected persons during an armed conflict. It also outlines the rules applicable in cases of occupation, and states what the occupying power is required to do or not to do in the territories it occupies. One of the main points of contention in discussions on the applicability of the convention to the Israel-Palestine conflict is whether the Palestinian Territories are in fact ‘occupied’. The UN argues that they are, and that Israel is breaching the provisions of the convention by transferring part of its population into the occupied territories, amongst other actions. Israel argues that they are not, since the West Bank and Gaza previously belonged to Egypt and Jordan, respectively, who have both removed their claims to the territories, whereas the inhabitants of East Jerusalem are entitled to Israeli citizenship and are thus not living in ‘occupied’ territory. In addition, Israel says there never was a ‘State of Palestine’, and the territories can hence not be considered occupied Palestinian territories.
There is no doubt that the December 17th conference will hear remarks from the participants slamming Israel. There is no doubt that the conference will appear one-sided at best and bluntly biased at worst. Despite all of that, I believe that Israel should refrain from boycotting the event, and attend it. Here’s why.
First of all, the problem isn’t going to go away. The conference will still proceed as planned, and the subject matter will still be discussed. Rather than boycotting the event, Israel should attend, and make its voice heard. Not attending signals defeat, and appears as though it has something to hide. According to Israel, it is not in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention – so why not go there and say it?
Second of all, the conference is an excellent opportunity for Israel to do a bit of its own naming and shaming. In April 2014, the “State of Palestine” became an official party to the Geneva Conventions. Even though at least certain rules reflected in the conventions bind non-State actors in a non-international armed conflict as well, the State of Palestine’s official accession to the convention clarifies the rules applicable to it, and displays the intent of the “State” to partake in the rights and obligations stemming from this convention. While the status of the Israel-Palestine conflict as either a non-international or an international one remains disputed, the State of Palestine’s accession to the Geneva Conventions suggest that the rules applicable are those pertaining to an international armed conflict; a set of rules more expansive than those applicable to a non-international one.
We recall that in June 2014, the PA, Fatah, and Hamas entered into a ‘unity-government’ to rule the State of Palestine. As a result of this newly-formed unity government, which still has not been dissolved, it would appear that for the purposes of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the actions of Hamas constitute actions taken by the State of Palestine. This means that since June, the State of Palestine will likely find itself having violated, for instance, Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, prohibiting acts of violence against civilians, Article 28 of the convention, prohibiting the use of ‘human shields’, and Article 34 of the convention, prohibiting the taking of hostages.
Instead of making angry fruitless statements advocating for a boycott of the conference, a far more beneficial statement would be to attend the conference and not shy away from a confrontation Israel has the capacity to defend itself against.