Switzerland said Monday that Israel has been violating international law in its Gaza offensive by heavy destruction and endangering civilians in acts of collective punishment banned under the Geneva conventions on the conduct of warfare.
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"A number of actions by the Israeli defense forces in their offensive against the Gaza Strip have violated the principle of proportionality and are to be seen as forms of collective punishment, which is forbidden," the Swiss Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"There is no doubt that Israel has not taken the precautions required of it in international law to protect the civilian population and infrastructure," it said. The statement did not name the Geneva Conventions, but it referred to provisions of the 1949 treaty, which is regarded as the cornerstone of international law on the obligations of warring and occupying powers.
Switzerland, as the depository of the conventions, has a responsibility to call meetings if it finds general problems with the implementation of the treaty, but it does not have any special powers to interpret the document.
Both the principle of proportionality and the ban on collective punishment are found in the Fourth Geneva Convention, which spells out the obligations of occupying powers toward the civilian population under their control.
Israel has used tanks, troops, gunboats and aircraft to attack the Gaza area over the past week to press kidnappers to free Gilad Shalit.
When it launched its first large-scale military action in Gaza since withdrawing from the Strip last summer, Israel's declared purpose was to lean on operatives to release Cpl. Gilad Shalit. In statements since, government officials have said they also mean to disable the Hamas government and stop gunmen from launching rockets at southern Israel.
"They have criticized us even though we are showing restraint," Aviv Shir-On, Israel's ambassador in Bern, told The Associated Press. "We are disappointed that the Swiss government did not issue such statements when Israel's civilian population was constantly under attack from the Gaza Strip."
Shir-On said the criticism was unfair when Israel was supplying people in Gaza with electricity, water, fresh food and necessary medicine even though Hamas was sworn to the Jewish state's destruction.
Switzerland also called for the "rapid release" of Shalit, but said Israel had an obligation "to respect international humanitarian law in the measures it undertakes to liberate the captured soldier."
It said Israel's destruction last week of the main Gaza electricity power station and its attack on the office of the Palestinian prime minister was unjustified. It also urged Israel to free Hamas legislators, including eight ministers who have been seized.
"The arbitrary arrests of a large number of democratically elected representatives of the people and ministers ... cannot be justified," the statement said.
Switzerland said it had earmarked an additional 1 million francs ($820,000) to provide medical supplies to civilians in Gaza.