The Role of the U.N. in Creating the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
August 26, 2013
Jewish residents of Jerusalem ride a police car and wave what would become the Israeli flag as they celebrate the previous day’s General Assembly vote recommending the partitioning of Palestine, Nov. 30, 1947. (Hans Pins/GPO via Getty Images)
The following article was published in the August 2013 issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, pages 20-21.
The United Nations was founded with the stated aim of maintaining peace among nations, but the reality is that not only has it consistently failed to prevent international conflicts, it has had no small part in causing them. One instructive case study was its role in its early years of helping to create the still-unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
According to the preamble to the U.N. Charter, signed by its founding member states in June 1945, the organization’s goal is “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and to “establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.” Article 1 of the Charter further describes the U.N.’s purposes as being to “maintain international peace and security…in conformity with the principles of justice and international law.” The Charter also explicitly recognizes “the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”
Nevertheless, the U.N. almost immediately upon its founding helped to exacerbate the unfolding situation in Palestine by acting contrary to its own declared principles.
Following the First World War, Great Britain, appointed the occupying power under the League of Nations’ Palestine Mandate, proceeded to implement policies that contributed to escalating hostilities between the native Arab and immigrant Jewish communities. After World War II, the League of Nations was replaced by the U.N., which assumed authority over the League’s Mandates. Britain, unable to reconcile its conflicting promises to both the Arab and Jewish communities, sought to extricate itself from the situation it had helped to create by requesting that the U.N. take up the question of Palestine. Thus, in May 1947, the U.N. General Assembly considered and adopted a resolution establishing the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to investigate and make recommendations.
At the time, the U.N. consisted of 55 members, including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Palestine remained the only one of the formerly Mandated Territories whose independence was not recognized. No representatives from any Arab nations were included in UNSCOP, however, whose membership comprised Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia requested that Britain’s Mandate be terminated and Palestine’s independence recognized, but this motion was rejected.
The population of Palestine at the end of 1946 was about 1,846,000, more than two-thirds of whom were Arab and one-third Jewish. While the growth in the Arab population was due to natural increase, the growth of the Jewish population was mainly the result of immigration, which was supported by British policy. Arabs constituted a majority and owned more land than Jews in every district in Palestine, including Jaffa, which included Tel Aviv. According to the UNSCOP report, Arabs were in possession of about 85 percent of the land, compared to only about 5.8 percent owned by Jews.
Despite these facts, the majority UNSCOP recommendation was that Palestine should be partitioned into two states, with the majority Arabs surrendering land to the Jews for their state. Under the proposal, 45 percent of the land would be for the Arab state, compared to 55 percent for the Jewish state. UNSCOP explicitly rejected the right of the Palestinian Arabs to self-determination, stating that this principle “was not applied to Palestine, obviously because of the intention to make possible the creation of the Jewish National Home there.” Arab representatives had proposed a unitary Palestine with a democratic constitution guaranteeing full civil and religious rights for all citizens and an elected legislative assembly that would include Jewish representatives. UNSCOP dismissed this as “an extreme position.”
India, Iran and Yugoslavia dissented from UNSCOP’s majority recommendation for partition, supporting instead the alternative proposal, which was, they observed, “in every respect the most democratic solution” and “most in harmony with the basic principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” Arab representatives naturally also rejected the proposed partition plan. After receiving UNSCOP’s report, the General Assembly established another committee that similarly rejected the majority recommendation as being “contrary to the principles of the [U.N.] Charter,” pointing out that the U.N. had no authority to “deprive the majority of the people of Palestine of their country and transfer it to the exclusive use of a minority in the country.” The new committee likewise proposed that the independence of Palestine instead be recognized.
Nevertheless, on Nov. 29, 1947, by a vote of 33 in favor, 13 against, and 10 abstentions, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 181, which recommended that the majority UNSCOP plan be implemented. The nonbinding resolution was referred to the Security Council—where it died. It is important to emphasize that, contrary to popular myth, the U.N. neither created Israel nor conferred upon the Zionist leadership any legal authority for its unilateral declaration on May 14, 1948 of the existence of the state of Israel.
Indeed, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Warren Austin, observed that the only way the UNSCOP plan could be implemented would be through the use of force, and that the Security Council had no such authority to enforce the partition of Palestine. He further noted that the expectation of the termination of the Mandate and withdrawal of the British from Palestine “would result, in the light of information now available, in chaos, heavy fighting and much loss of life in Palestine.”
On the other hand, Austin argued, the U.N. did have authority to take action, including the use of force, to prevent such a violent outcome. The Council “can take action to prevent a threat to international peace and security from inside Palestine,” he stated, as well as “to prevent aggression against Palestine from outside.” He urged the Council: “The United Nations cannot permit such a result. The loss of life in the Holy Land must be brought to an immediate end. The maintenance of international peace is at stake.”
The U.N. however, did nothing as the Zionist leadership under David Ben-Gurion implemented a campaign of ethnic cleansing, the expulsion of the Arab population being a prerequisite for the creation of a demographically “Jewish state.” As Ilan Pappe wrote in his groundbreaking book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (available from the AET Book Club), “U.N. agents and British officials stood by and watched indifferently” as Zionist forces systematically attacked major urban centers of Palestine. Similarly, by the end of April, “U.S. representatives on the ground were by now fully aware of the expulsions that were going on.”
By the time the British occupation came to an official end on May 14, 1948, a quarter of a million Palestinians had already been expelled from their homes by Jewish military forces. The same day, the Zionist leadership issued its unilateral declaration of the existence of Israel, which falsely cited U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 as having granted legal authority for the establishment of their “Jewish state.”
As predicted, war ensued as the neighboring Arab states attempted to muster a military response. In the end, the Arab forces only managed to hold onto the areas known as the West Bank (west of the Jordan River) and the tiny Gaza Strip. Three-quarters of a million Arabs had been ethnically cleansed from Palestine by the time armistice agreements were signed in 1949. To Israelis, this was a “War of Independence,” but Palestinians refer to it as the “Nakba”—their “catastrophe.”
In November 1948, Israel requested membership in the U.N., declaring that it “unreservedly accepts the obligations of the United Nations Charter and undertakes to honor them.” The following month, the General Assembly passed Resolution 194, which recognized the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes from which they had been ethnically cleansed. Israel rejected the resolution and refused to permit the refugees to return. The U.N. Security Council in March 1949 nevertheless proceeded to lend legitimacy to the Zionists’ unilateral declaration of statehood and ethnic cleansing of Palestine by declaring in Orwellian fashion that “Israel is a peace-loving State…willing to carry out the obligations contained in the Charter” and recommending to the General Assembly that Israel be admitted to the U.N. as a member.
Resolution 194 also established the Conciliation Commission for Palestine to assume the functions of U.N. mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, whom Jewish terrorists assassinated on Sept. 17, 1948. In April 1949, the Commission issued a report stating that it “had no difficulty in recognizing the truth” that “Israel not only had not accepted” the principle of repatriation for refugees, “but had endeavored to create ade facto situation which would render the practical application of the principle more difficult and even impossible.”
When the General Assembly debated Israel’s application for membership the following month, the representative from Lebanon, Charles Habib Malik, observed that admitting Israel as a member while it rejected the principle of repatriation of Arab refugees “would be tantamount to a virtual condemnation of one million Arabs to permanent exile,” which, he predicted, would “give rise to serious political, social, economic and spiritual disturbances in the Near East and in the whole world for generations to come.”
To admit Israel, he continued, would be to “reward” it “for its defiance of the Assembly’s wishes” and would mean “the perpetuation of the homelessness of the Arab refugees.” Furthermore, Israel had not declared its own borders, and it now controlled territories well beyond those envisioned under the partition plan for the Jewish state and “had no intention of giving them up.” Thus, admitting Israel would be “equivalent to giving it a blank check to draw its frontiers wherever it wished.”
“In effect,” Malik argued, “it meant condoning, by a solemn act of the United Nations, the right of conquest,” and “would be prejudicial to the negotiations on the demarcation of boundaries now in progress.”
Nevertheless, by a vote of 37 in favor, 12 against, and 9 abstentions, the General Assembly on May 11, 1949 adopted Resolution 273 deciding, despite all evidence to the contrary, “that Israel is a peace-loving state which accepts the obligations contained in the Charter” and admitting Israel as a member into the United Nations.
While it is impossible to know how history might otherwise have unfolded had the U.N. not played the role it did, it must be recognized that the conflict that still rages today between the Israelis and the Palestinians is in no small part a consequence of the decisions made and actions taken by member states of the United Nations that were contrary to the very principles the organization was ostensibly founded to uphold.
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