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Geneva Holds Conference On Civilian Casualties In Mideast - 2001-12-04

Representatives from more than 100 countries are gathering in Switzerland to discuss whether the Geneva Conventions, international agreements governing the treatment of prisoners, wounded and civilians in wartime, apply to civilians in the Israeli-occupied Territories and East Jerusalem. The international conference begins Wednesday in Geneva.

The government of Switzerland says it is hosting the conference at the request of a majority of the 189 countries that approved the so-called Fourth Geneva Convention. Signed in Geneva in 1949, the fourth convention governs the treatment of civilians during war or military occupation. The Swiss government says the goal of the conference is to examine whether the convention can be applied to people living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel has urged the Swiss authorities to cancel or at least postpone the conference. Its ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Yaacov Levy, says recent terrorist attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers against Israeli civilians need to be taken into account.

"In light of the massacres in Jerusalem and Haifa over the weekend in which Israelis civilians were killed and hundreds wounded, convening the parties at this time could render the meeting even less meaningful than it could be otherwise," he said.

The Israeli government says it observes the Geneva Conventions, and argues that when the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip were captured by the Jewish state in 1967, the areas were under no legitimate rule. Therefore, Israel says, the territories cannot be considered occupied, taking them beyond the bounds of the Forth Geneva Convention. Israel has dismissed the conference as a pretext to misuse humanitarian law for political attacks against the Jewish state.

Critics say Israel, by building settlements in the territories and by its economic blockade of Palestinian-inhabited areas, is violating the Geneva conventions.

But Swiss officials defend the conference. Pierre-Yves Fux of the Swiss foreign ministry's political department says it is not meant to be a forum for attacks on any country.

"To avoid politicization, we have worked towards a consensus that is as broad as possible," he said. "That is, to avoid a split between the community of states-parties and to find a commonly agreed solution on the broadest basis. The second effort we have done is to focus purely on the humanitarian and legal aspect of the issue." Mr. Fux of the Swiss Foreign Ministry says if the conference can apply what is contained in the Geneva conventions to benefit ordinary people caught up in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the meeting will have achieved its goals.

"If we have less civilian victims, less violence and if we have a contribution to political solutions which take into account the interests of the civilians that would be the success," he said.

In addition to Israel, the United States is also expected to boycott the meeting, while the Palestinians will attend but not take the conference floor.