Today marks the 67th anniversary of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the most recent and significant revision of the treaties first envisioned in 1864. Since August 1949, 196 countries have become signatories to these agreements, which have become the de facto parameters of acceptable state behavior during times of conflict. These agreements have attempted to draw necessary red lines and to buttress a common moral compass dictating the acceptable treatment of combatants and, especially, civilians living within areas gripped by military conflict.
The year before the formalization of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the state of Israel declared “independence” within the former British Mandate of Palestine. This declaration, in a measure that sits at the heart of the current unrest within historic Palestine, dictates the state’s borders only by referring to Eretz Israel – the “Land of Israel” or “Greater Israel” – with no mention of the current existence or future possibility of a Palestinian state. Israel would go on to sign the Conventions in 1951. The irony of an infant state signing on to these treaties, when the state itself was established upon the ruins of hundreds of Palestinian villages and the ethnic cleansing of at least 750,000 Palestinians, is thick. Today, the state of Israel continues its systematic and routine violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Here are two specific ways in which this happens:
1) Collective punishment – Article 33 clearly states:
“No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.”
Two Israeli policies in particular directly violate this mandate.
First, according to the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Israel has demolished more than 48,000 Palestinian structures in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1967. This includes the demolition of thousands of family homes.
Many of these demolitions have been carried out as punitive measures. While Israel claims that it demolishes the homes of Palestinians who have carried out attacks against Israeli civilians or military targets, many homes have been demolished based on a mere suspicion of involvement in hostile activities. To be sure, many have also been destroyed due to ulterior territorial motives – the hallmark of a settler colonial project. Regardless of attempts to classify demolitions and ultimately justify this practice, the destruction of a home belonging to an extended family, with members who are not even suspected of committing a crime, is a clear case of collective punishment and is in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Secondly, the siege placed on the Gaza Strip in 2006, which continues to this day, amounts to one of the most egregious acts of collective punishment in recent memory. Blockading the territory – by land, sea, and air – has led to a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The unemployment rate is above 40 per cent, 80 per cent of households live below the poverty line, and the UN has reported that, if the current blockade continues, Gaza could become uninhabitable by 2020.
According to Israeli military and governmental figures, the blockade of Gaza is a response to the presence of Hamas as the governmental body of the territory. Discussions of Hamas’ democratic election in the 2006 Palestinian legislative election aside, the placement of a full military blockade upon a population nearing 2 million, purportedly because of the actions of their government, is a textbook example of collective punishment.
Collective punishment violates the Fourth Geneva Convention and is considered a war crime.
2) Israeli settlements – Article 49(1) reads:
“The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”
Since 1967, Israel has engaged in an official military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Although the occupation of Gaza has evolved into a comprehensive control of the territory from the outside in, the occupation of the West Bank remains a much more classic example, complete with checkpoints, military courts, a separation wall, and more instruments of control.
Also since 1967, Israel has directly violated Article 49(1) by building Jewish only settlements within occupied Palestinian territory. The number of Israeli settlers living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is more than 500,000, with the construction of new settlement units unimpeded by any significant internal or external political pressure. That these settlements directly violate international law is a position held by the United Nations, the United States and even, at one time, the Israeli Foreign Ministry. In 1967, Theodor Meron, then legal council to the Foreign Ministry, stated that, in his opinion, “...civilian settlement in the administrated territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.”
As such, the continued expansion of illegal settlements within the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a war crime.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Current Israeli policies also infringe upon or directly violate articles of the Geneva Conventions that deal with disproportionate force, the treatment of children, protection of civilian areas, and more. These examples do, however, adequately illuminate the way in which Israel is allowed to operate outside of the largely accepted framework of international law in its endeavor to actively deny Palestinian self-determination and the establishment of a Palestinian state. It is the whitewashing of these violations that, in part, perpetuates a false paradigm of parity, one that suggests an equal share of responsibility for the current political impasse in historic Palestine. In actuality, it has been the assertion of an Israeli settler colonial project – one that necessarily employs policies of domination and displacement that are antithetical to the sentiments of the Geneva Conventions – that has led to the current state of the “conflict.”
To be sure, international law itself is not a panacea for addressing social, political, and economic disparities. The paradigm often privileges the globe’s most powerful states while leaving marginalized communities unsatisfied. It is fair to say, however, that if a state such as Israel cannot even be expected to abide by the Geneva Conventions, even after it has become a signatory to the agreements, then the ability to hold it materially accountable for the way in which it treats the population it militarily occupies becomes increasingly difficult. An alternative such as the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement – a movement that pursues a rights-based approach, is formulated and fostered at the grassroots level, and exposes the inability of international law to wholly address the situation in Palestine/Israel – is one tool that we can turn to as a viable alternative.