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Conference of High Contracting Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention

05-12-2001 Statement

Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 5 December 2001

  Press release  

1. Pursuant to the relevant provisions of international humanitarian law and to the mandate conferred on it by the States party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) established a permanent presence in Israel, the neighbouring Arab countries and the occupied territories in 1967 with a view to carrying out its humanitarian tasks in the region and to working for the faithful application of international humanitarian law.

2. In accordance with a number of resolutions adopted by the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council and by the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which reflect the view of the international community, the ICRC has always affirmed the de jure applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the territories occupied since 1967 by the State of Israel, including East Jerusalem. This Convention, ratified by Israel in 1951, remains fully applicable and relevant in the current context of violence. As an Occupying Power, Israel is also bound by other customary rules relating to occupation, expressed in the Regulations annexed to the Hague Convention respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land of 18 October 1907.

3. In general terms, the Fourth Geneva Convention protects the civilian population of occupied territories against abuses on the part of an Occupying Power, in particular by ensuring that it is not discriminated against, that it is protected agai nst all forms of violence, and that despite occupation and war it is allowed to live as normal a life as possible, in accordance with its own laws, culture and traditions. While humanitarian law confers certain rights on the Occupying Power, it also imposes limits on the scope of its powers. Being only a temporary administrator of occupied territory, the Occupying Power must not interfere with its original economic and social structures, organization, legal system or demography. It must ensure the protection, security and welfare of the population living under occupation. This also implies allowing the normal development of the territory, if the occupation lasts for a prolonged period of time.

4. More precisely, the Fourth Geneva Convention sets out rules aimed at safeguarding the dignity and physical integrity of persons living under occupation, including detainees. It prohibits all forms of physical and mental ill-treatment and coercion, collective punishment, and reprisals against protected persons or property. It also prohibits the transfer of parts of the Occupying Power's civilian population into the occupied territory, forcible transfer or deportation of protected persons from the occupied territory, and destruction of real or personal property, except when such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.

5. In the course of its activities in the territories occupied by Israel, the ICRC has repeatedly noted breaches of various provisions of international humanitarian law, such as the transfer by Israel of parts of its population into the occupied territories, the destruction of houses, failure to respect medical activities, and detention of protected persons outside the occupied territories. Certain practices which contravene the Fourth Geneva Convent ion have been incorporated into laws and administrative guidelines and have been sanctioned by the highest judicial authorities. While acknowledging the facilities it has been granted for the conduct of its humanitarian tasks, the ICRC has regularly drawn the attention of the Israeli authorities to the suffering and the heavy burden borne by the Palestinian population owing to the occupation policy and, in line with its standard practice, has increasingly expressed its concern through bilateral and multilateral representations and in public appeals. In particular, the ICRC has expressed growing concern about the consequences in humanitarian terms of the establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The settlement policy has often meant the destruction of Palestinian homes, the confiscation of land and water resources and the parcelling out of the territories. Measures taken to extend the settlements and to protect the settlers, entailing the destruction of houses, land requisitions, the sealing-off of areas, roadblocks and the imposition of long curfews, have also seriously hindered the daily life of the Palestinian population. However, the fact that settlements have been established in violation of the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention does not mean that civilians residing in those settlements can be the object of attack. They are protected by humanitarian law as civilians as long as they do not take an active part in fighting.

6. The ICRC has also drawn the attention of the Israeli authorities to the effects of prolonged curfews and the sealing-off of certain areas by the Israel Defense Forces. The resulting restrictions on movements have disastrous consequences for the entire Palestinian population. They hamper the activities of emergency medical services as well as access to health care, workplaces, schools and places of worship, and have a devastating effect on the economy. They also prevent, for month s on end, Palestinian families from visiting relatives detained in Israel. The concern caused by these practices has grown considerably during the past 14 months as measures taken to contain the upsurge of violence have led to a further deterioration in the living conditions of the population under occupation.

7. The ICRC has reminded all those taking part in the violence that whenever armed force is used the choice of means and methods employed is not unlimited. Today, in view of the sharp increase in armed confrontations, the ICRC has to stress that Palestinian armed groups   operating within or outside the occupied territories are also bound by the principles of international humanitarian law. Apart from the Fourth Geneva Convention, which relates to the protection of the civilian population, there are other universally accepted rules and principles of international humanitarian law that deal with the conduct of military operations. They stipulate in particular that only military objectives may be attacked. Thus indiscriminate attacks, such as bomb attacks by Palestinian individuals or armed groups against Israeli civilians, and acts intended to spread terror among the civilian population are absolutely and unconditionally prohibited. The same applies to targeted attacks on and the killing of Palestinian individuals by the Israeli authorities while those individuals are not directly taking part in the hostilities or immediately endangering human life. Reprisals against civilians and their property are also prohibited. When a military objective is targeted, all feasible precautions must be taken to minimize civilian casualties and damage to civilian property. To avoid endangering the civilian population, those bearing weapons and those taking part in armed violence must distinguish themselves from civilians.

8. Demonstrations against the occupying forces by the civilian population under occ upation or stand-offs between them are not acts of war. They should therefore not be dealt with by military methods and means. When faced with the civilian population, Israeli forces must exercise restraint: any use of force must be proportionate, all necessary precautions must be taken to avoid casualties, and the lethal use of firearms must be strictly limited to what is unavoidable as an immediate measure to protect life.

9. Access to emergency medical services for all those in need is also of paramount importance in the current situation. Such access must not be unduly delayed or denied. Ambulances and medical personnel must be allowed to move about unharmed and must not be prevented from discharging their medical duties. All those taking part in the violence must respect and assist the medical services, whether deployed by the armed forces, civilian organizations, the Palestine Red Crescent Society, the Magen David Adom, the ICRC, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies or other humanitarian organizations.

10. Article 1 common to the four Geneva Conventions stipulates that the " High Contracting Parties undertake to respect and ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances " . This conference is to be viewed within that context. The ICRC has always welcomed all individual and joint efforts made by States party to the Geneva Conventions to fulfil this obligation and ensure respect for international humanitarian law. These efforts are all the more vital as violations of humanitarian law are far too common around the globe.

11. The means used to meet these legal and political responsibilities are naturally a matter to be decided upon by States. Whatever the means chosen, however, the ICRC wishes to emphasize that any action States may decide to take at international level must be aimed at achieving practical results and at ensuring application of and compliance with international humanitarian law, in the interests of the protected population.

12. Beyond all legal considerations and in view of the current humanitarian situation, the ICRC again calls upon all parties concerned to make every possible effort to spare civilian lives and preserve a measure of humanity.

13. For its part, the ICRC will continue to do its utmost to assist and protect all victims in accordance with its mandate and with the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence which govern its humanitarian work. It counts on the full support of the parties concerned in promoting compliance with the humanitarian rules and facilitating humanitarian activities, which may also help pave the way towards the establishment of peace between all peoples and nations in the region.

14. The steady deterioration of the humanitarian situation over the last few months and, in particular, the tragic events of the past few days have highlighted the need to break the spiral of violence and restore respect for international humanitarian law.