By Nigel Thorpe
Chief of the English Copy Desk.
Over thirty years ago, Israel invaded Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Sinai Desert, and the Golan Heights during the Six Day War. More than thirty troubled years of occupation have also passed since singer Bob Marley and his group “The Wailers” released their hit song “Who Killed the Sheriff”. Sadly after six days of demonstration, over fifty deaths, and over seven hundred additional casualties, there are now many wails of Palestinian pain, anguish and despair in the occupied territories.
“We will have funerals tomorrow, and the situation is still tense and explosive. “Nabil Aburdaineh, a senior advisor to Palestinian President Yassar Arafat told the New York Times on Sunday night (October 1st). The next day, against a dismal backdrop of black smoke billowing from burning tires and trash cans, weeping funeral processions snaked their way over the rocky hills of the West Bank and along the sands of the Gaza Strip. With mourning verses from the Quran as their funeral march, Palestinian soldiers held aloft the bodies of young men draped in Palestinian flags which had been recently collected from the overflowing morgues. What made the deaths of these unarmed young men particularly tragic and unforgivable was that they had been killed by heavily armed military units in blatant violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Last year, an Amnesty International News Release (MDE 15/37/99) concluded “Israeli open fire regulations in use in the Occupied Territories breach international standards for the use of firearms,” Disturbing reports carried by the London Observer Newspaper and the New York Times also suggest that Israeli troops violated the Fourth Geneva Convention when they shot and killed two ambulance drivers who were attempting to save the lives of injured Palestinians.
“Ambulances and military hospitals shall be recognized as neutral, and as such, protected and respected by the belligerents as long as they accommodate wounded and sick.” These requirements, first stated in Article 1 of the ”Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field Geneva, 22,”
should be as true today as they were when they were penned in August 1864.
Eighty-five years later, in August 1949, Article 12 of the “Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in armed forces in the field”
stated that “members of the armed forces and other persons mentioned in the following Article, who are wounded or sick, shall be respected and protected in all circumstances. They shall be treated humanely and cared for by the Party to the conflict in whose power they may be, without any adverse distinction founded on sex, race, nationality, religion, political opinions, or any other similar criteria.
(Bold not original)”. Article 35 continued “Transports of wounded and sick or of the medical equipment shall be respected and protected in the same way as mobile medical units.”
As reported by Reuters on February 10, 1999, “The UN General Assembly called on Tuesday for a conference to be held on July 15 to ensure that the Fourth Geneva Convention on protecting civilians is respected in the Israeli-occupied territories.” In the words of Amnesty International USA “it was a supreme irony that, on the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, a conference that was set up to bring back to the limelight the plight of the protected population in the Occupied Territories lasted only ten minutes. Today marks a scandalously missed opportunity to reaffirm international humanitarian law.” A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in defense of Israel’s veto of the proposal that “the Palestinian request for the Geneva Convention to discuss the conditions in Palestinian areas constituted a ‘gross violation’ of Israeli-Palestinian agreements.”
As Ambassador Gold (Permanent Representative of Israel) commented in February 1999, in a speech to the UN, “Fifty years ago, 63 governments sent delegations to a diplomatic conference in Geneva, Switzerland, held from 21 April to 12 August 1949, in order to establish new international conventions for the protection of victims of war. The four Geneva Conventions that were concluded at the end of the conference were motivated, in part, by the fresh memories of the delegates of the horrors of the Second World War, and the atrocities committed against mankind in general, and the Jewish people, in particular, in Nazi-occupied Europe.” As noted, however, by the 1999 Amnesty International report “ There are 188 High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Conventions, including Israel, which signed the conventions on 8 December 1949 and ratified them on 6 July 1951. Israel has stated that it does not regard the Geneva Conventions as applying de jure to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories occupied in 1967, although it has repeatedly affirmed that Israel would respect in practice its “humanitarian provisions.”
Ambassador Gold referred to these “humanitarian provisions” in his 1999 UN speech when he said “The Geneva Conventions are extremely important for the State of Israel. For this reason, the Fourth Geneva Convention has in fact been applied in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Today, the Fourth Geneva Convention continues to be applied. Israel’s military administration operated in accordance with the rules of the Geneva Convention. Palestinian residents of the territories have come under the protection of the Israeli Supreme Court which has based rulings on the Convention; even Israeli soldiers carry a copy of the principles of the Fourth Geneva Convention when they serve in these areas. The Fourth Geneva Convention has in fact been annexed to the formal orders of the Israeli General Staff to the Israel Defense Forces. The plain truth is that Israel is the only country in the world that applies the Geneva Conventions at all.”
Sadly, however, the “plain truth” is that a yawning gap exists between the erudite diplomatic language on the floor of the UN, and the practical conduct of Israeli troops in the occupied territories. The reports emerging in the international press over the last few days are not the first to mention Israeli troops firing on ambulances. The Salam Organization reported that during the April 1996 Israeli attack on Lebanon, “the Israeli planes even hit ambulances, protected from military actions under the Geneva convention, killing innocent women and children.”
On the second day of the current demonstrations, the Observer newspaper reported that a bullet fired by the Israeli army penetrated an ambulance windshield killing the driver who was transporting Palestinian wounded to hospital. The most harrowing incident was a tragic codicil to the shocking pictures of the death of 12-year-old Mohammad Jamal al-Durra and the wounding of his father broadcast worldwide by television channels. As reported by the New York Times, the father tried to protect his son as they cowered behind a cement block shouting, to no avail, to the Israeli soldiers to hold their fire. An ambulance driver who tried to rescue the boy was also killed.
The excruciating scenes, including the boy’s screams as he was hit by the fatal gunfire and the father’s cries of horror, were broadcast on Israeli and Palestinian television on Saturday. Roni Daniel, a veteran Israeli television journalist, saw the footage for the first time as he was delivering the news. "I lost my voice," he said as shots rang out to punctuate his words. "I've been doing this for many years, and I'm not exactly a vegetarian. But my brain went dead, and my tongue went limp. To see a little boy killed before your eyes . . ."
The same evening, the Voice of Palestine radio broadcast unprecedented appeals in Hebrew for Israeli soldiers to restrain themselves, saying, "our babies' blood is as red as your babies'. "
“In Palestinian eyes, and in the eyes of many Israeli leftists, the present violent conflict is seen as the story of a devil and an angel," said Muhammad Abu Hatem, a Gazan laborer and one of many who used the same words. As these people see it, the "devil" is Mr. Sharon, and the “angel” is 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah, who was killed in the crossfire in Gaza while his father tried to shield him.
Afif Safieh, the Palestinian Representative to the United Kingdom commented, during an interview on the CNN program “Q and A” on Monday October 2nd that, “the Israeli soldiers say they are firing into the air. They are; they are firing into the air in our lungs.”
It is to be hoped that the current UN emergency sessions on the disturbances in the occupied territories will meet with a greater success than earlier Middle East debates. It is time for the international community to insist that, until a lasting just peace is negotiated, the Israeli occupation forces follow the edicts of the Geneva Convention of which they are co-signatories.
Bob Marley’s song was seen by many as the Jamaican singer’s protest against the discrimination shown by police towards African Americans. Thirty years on, the answer to the question “who killed the ambulance driver” is stark and simple; the “sheriffs”, ignoring the articles of the Geneva Convention, killed the ambulance drivers and many other innocent civilians. If the perpetrators of these barbaric and heinous crimes are not brought to trial immediately, “the future prospects”, in the words of Amnesty International, “for upholding humanitarian principles and protecting human rights throughout the world will be grim indeed.”
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)