This July 15th, US President Bill Clinton was feeling giddy about welcoming new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Washington. He described his anticipation for reporters earlier in the week: "I'm eager as a kid with a new toy." It took a veteran White House correspondent to explain to him why this was condescending to many Israelis - the thought that Israel and its leader were something for him to play with - but his meaning was clear. Clinton was stoked about a new chance for peace... for a respectable legacy... perhaps even for a Noble prize.

On the same day, in the pristine setting of Geneva, Switzerland, the nations of the world had gathered to "toy" with Israel in their own way. One-hundred-and-three countries were convening to condemn Jewish settlement activity in the very heart of their ancient homeland under the canopy of one of humanity's most respected moral codes - the Geneva Conventions.

The conference had been imposed upon the reluctant depository country, Switzerland, after a UN General Assembly "emergency session" last February condemned building at the Har Homa site in southern Jerusalem. The host country objected that no such meeting of the signatories of the Fourth Geneva Convention had ever occurred, despite ample instances of mass violations in the past 50 years, and that the treaty did not provide for such a mechanism. Israel, the US, and leading human rights activists joined in opposing the move as an act of selective enforcement, arguing the Palestinians and Arab states were undermining the universal moral force behind the convention by using it for narrow political purposes.

But the Palestinians and their Arab and "non-aligned" friends would not be deterred. Sure, Clinton and Barak were meeting that very day to talk about reinvigorating the Middle East peace process. And sure, the Palestinian Authority was violating its Oslo commitment to resolve such matters solely in direct talks with Israel. But here was another shot at an automatic majority condemning Israel. Here was a cleverly crafted way around the US veto at the UN Security Council.

After engaging in an intensive effort to cancel the extraordinary gathering, Israeli diplomats claimed some measure of victory when the conference adjourned within 30 minutes of starting. It seemed a major row had been evaded even as Israel's new government appears bent on renewing peace talks with the Palestinians. And the decisions by the US, Canada and Australia - countries that take human rights seriously - to boycott the session was no minor achievement.

But the damage was already done when the conference, before adjournment, adopted a consensus statement that "reaffirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the Occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem." Technically, the forum determined that the clause in the Convention forbidding forced transfer of population and demographic changes in conquered territory applied also to "occupied east Jerusalem and other occupied Palestinian territories."

From an academic standpoint, this determination is highly flawed. As a Jerusalem Post editorial on 1 July succinctly noted:

In fact, Israel has a solid case that the Fourth Geneva Convention does not even apply to the West Bank. First, the West Bank is not "occupied territory" because it does not belong to any other nation. Legally, the Mandate of the League of Nations is still in force there, Article 6 of which provides for "close settlement by Jews on the land, including state land not for public use." Second, Israeli settlers are not forced to move there, nor have they displaced the Arab population of the area. Thirdly, nothing in the Oslo Accords prohibits Israeli settlement activity.

The irony of the situation is that Israel is the only country that has ever explicitly and practically implemented the Fourth Geneva Convention, despite the fact that it does not apply to the West Bank.

From a moral standpoint, more importantly, it is repugnant for the Jewish return in this century to the land of their forefathers to be equated with the worst atrocities of this century, the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews. The Fourth Geneva Convention was enacted in 1949 explicitly to outlaw the sort of genocide and ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Hitler and his accomplices against this very same people during World War II. To conclude that the only similar acts committed in the past 50 years - even in the past year - were by Israel is malicious. As Israel's Swiss ambassador lamented, it is time for many countries, especially the Europeans, to do some "soul searching."

THE HIDDEN IRONY is that Europe's moral conscience, as expressed in the Geneva Conventions, was first awakened by a Swiss Protestant named Jean Henri Dunant (1828-1910), who was considered one of the greatest humanitarians of his day. As a young businessman travelling in Italy, he witnessed by chance the battle of Solferino in 1859 and the atrocities of modern warfare. Over 40,000 French and Austrian soldiers lay dead or dying. He was shocked at the lack of care given the wounded and wrote Recollections of Solferino, which drew much public attention to their sufferings. The book had a tremendous impact on the European powers, provoking 16 nations to adopt the first Geneva Convention for the treatment of wounded and prisoners in 1864. Dunant's humanitarian pleas were the driving force behind the establishment of the Red Cross movement at the same time.

Dunant soon went bankrupt and largely disappeared, until re-emerging in 1901 to share in the first Nobel peace prize. During these intervening years of obscurity, Dunant committed himself to helping the suffering Jews of Eastern Europe flee persecution and return to Palestine. He viewed their resettlement in the land of their fathers as a just cause, with tremendous benefits for the whole Middle East. Although most of his efforts to organize large-scale immigration were not as successful as his earlier philanthropy, he deemed Zionism equally worthy and noble.

It is incredibly disturbing to consider how this one man's distant, magnanimous cry for justice has now become a poison in the hands of the modern forces of depravity.

David R. Parsons

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