On anniversary of human rights treaties, 46% of those surveyed don't think conventions have helped.
By JUDY SIEGEL-ITZKOVICH
Exactly 60 years after the ratification of the Geneva Conventions - four treaties and three protocols that establish the standards of international law for humanitarian treatment of the victims of war - the vast majority of Israelis have heard of them but 46 percent don't think they have contributed anything to preventing wars from escalating.
The event was marked in Geneva on Wednesday at a ceremony headed by International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) president Jakob Kellenberger, and by public opinion polls conducted of citizens in nine countries - including Israel - that have been harmed by armed disputes or other types of violence.
Since 1949, the conventions have been ratified by 194 countries, and also by non-state actors such as the Palestinian Authority. Organizations that rule over territory, such as Hamas, are bound by "customary law" to observe all the treaties and protocols, according to Yael Segev-Eitan, a spokeswoman of the ICRC in Israel and the territories.
Nevertheless, she added, Hamas has consistently ignored these basic rules and repeatedly refused to allow any communication with IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, who has been held captive since being captured by Hamas on June 25, 2006 and whose 23rd (Hebrew calendar) birthday was marked on Wednesday.
"There is an unfortunate gap between what should be and what exists," Segev-Eitan told The Jerusalem Post. "Most of the countries in the world observe the conventions, but it has been violated by Hamas, by Iran which has targeted Israel for annihilation, in the Georgian-Russian war a year ago, in Darfur and elsewhere."
But they were observed in the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Falklands War and the First War in Lebanon," she added.
The conventions were born out of the horrors experienced by millions of people during the World War II and its aftermath, Kellenberger said at the ceremony. "The essential spirit of the Geneva Conventions - to uphold human life and dignity even in the midst of armed conflict - is as important now as it was 60 years ago. Thank you for doing all you can to keep that spirit alive."
The articles of the conventions define the basic rights of those captured during a military conflict, establishing protections for the wounded and addressing protections for civilians in and around a war zone. They specifically protect people who are not taking part in the hostilities - civilians, health workers and aid workers - and those who are no longer participating in the hostilities, such as wounded, sick and shipwrecked soldiers and prisoners of war.
However, even though they call for measures to be taken to prevent or put an end to all breaches, they continue to be violated, especially in the case of Schalit.
The third Geneva Convention applies to prisoners of war like Schalit and contains 143 articles that precisely define the conditions in which they are incarcerated and their right to receive humane treatment and medical care, as well as be in touch with their families.
The ICRC's survey of 500 Israeli Jewish adults who comprise a representative sample was conducted by the local polling company, Geocartography. It found that 52.6% think refusal to give medical care, necessary food and water to civilians is absolutely forbidden, while 36.3% said that military attacks on medical, religious and educational institutions is absolutely forbidden (even if they harbor terrorists).
But when asked whether contacts with family members who were separated as a means to weaken the enemy, 28.9% said this was permissible and 28.1% said it was absolutely forbidden.
Fifty percent of Israelis think it is prohibited to attack enemy fighters in populated areas knowing that many women and children would be killed, although they think that sometimes there is no choice but to go ahead and do so.
Among those who said that attacks on civilians were permissible in some cases, 49.1% said it was to enable soldiers to protect their lives or those of their comrades on the battlefield. Nearly 30% said that one could shoot a person coming at him in such circumstances even if not certain that the person is an unarmed civilian or an armed enemy.
When asked why they opposed certain actions forbidden by the conventions in an armed conflict, 32% said their view emanated from their personal values and principles, while only 7% cited the Geneva Conventions as the reason.
Pierre Wettach, the ICRC head of delegation in Israel and the territories, said that "many Israelis seem to think that civilian casualties are unavoidable, although when presented with specific scenarios, a majority believe that there are limits to what is permitted in war.
"The gap between the awareness of the rules and their perceived impact is perhaps an indication that people want to see better respect for and implementation of the law," continued Wettach. "We will continue our efforts to promote understanding of and compliance with instruments of international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, but it is ultimately the responsibility of political authorities and armed forces and groups to uphold the law and to ensure that even wars have limits."
Compared to citizens of the other eight countries, Israelis were much more aware of the Geneva Conventions and more pessimistic that they can prevent abuses.
The ICRC Web site at www.icrc.org did not mention the results of the Geocartography poll, but it did have the results of surveys in Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia and the Philippines.
Segev-Eitan, an Israeli, explained that it was the only survey not to be conducted from Geneva and that publication of the results of the Israeli poll on the ICRC site was delayed "for technical reasons" until Thursday.
The questions covered people's personal experience of armed conflict and violence, the specific impact that it has on them, views on the acceptable conduct of combatants, the effectiveness and desired actions of related organizations and third parties, awareness of the Geneva Conventions and the role of health workers during armed conflict.
The aim, said the ICRC, was to "develop a better understanding of people's needs and expectations, to gather views and opinions and to give a voice to those who have been adversely affected by armed conflict and other situations of armed violence."
Some 75% of those surveyed across the eight countries feel there should be limits to what combatants are allowed to do in the course of fighting their enemies; just 10% say that there should be no such limits. The remainder are undecided.
All Colombians and 99% of respondents in the Philippines identify certain behavior that should be "off limits."
Percentages are somewhat lower in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (79%), Afghanistan (78%), Liberia (73%), Haiti (56%) and Lebanon (54%).
In Colombia and Georgia, more people today want civilians always to be left alone than those questioned in a 1999 poll. In Afghanistan and Lebanon the trend has shifted, with more people saying today that civilians should be left alone only "as much as possible" rather than "always to be left alone."
In Afghanistan, the percentage of people holding this view has risen from 32% to 47%, and in Lebanon from 29% to 63%.
Planting land mines, even though civilians may step on them, received the highest rejection in the countries polled by the ICRC. Almost all respondents opposed attacking religious and historical monuments. Virtually everyone (96%) accepts the principle that all wounded or sick during an armed conflict should have the right to health care.
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