The United Nations, Israel and Palestine – A Brief History

The United Nations has been working on the question of Palestine and Israel since the first special session of the General Assembly on 28 April 1947, which established a body to investigate the issue and return with its recommendations. Over 60 years later, the range of the UN’s work on the issues has continued to adapt to meet new challenges and address changing realities on the ground.

A brief history

Following the end of World War I and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine was placed under the administration of Great Britain through the Mandates System of the League of Nations.

In 1947, the United Nations inherited the question of Palestine from the British, who, faced with increasing levels of violence and an inability to reconcile the Jewish and Arab populations, withdrew from the Palestine Mandate.

That same year, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181, which proposed the partition of the mandated territory into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with the Jewish state receiving about 56.47 percent of the land, the Arab state about 43.53 percent. Under the resolution, Jerusalem would have become an international region. While the plan was innovative, it was imperfect. Arab leadership was especially opposed to the proposed distribution of land. Conflict over the agreement escalated throughout 1947 and 1948, culminating in violence between Jewish and Palestinian Arab forces.

Israel proclaimed independence in 1948 and, in the ensuing war, occupied 78 percent of the territory of the Palestine Mandate.

After the 1948 Cease-Fire Agreement, Security Council Resolution 50 established the UNTSO (United Nations Truce Supervision Organization) peacekeeping mission to monitor the cease-fire agreement.

In 1948, General Assembly Resolution 194 called for the cessation of hostilities and established the Right of Return: “The refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

In 1967, Security Council Resolution 242 called Israel to withdraw from territories it occupied in the 1967 War and established the “land for peace” principle.

In 1974, General Assembly Resolution 3236 reaffirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination, to national independence and sovereignty, and to return. General Assembly Resolution 3237 granted the Palestine Liberation Organization the status of observer in the Assembly and in other international conferences held under United Nations auspices.

In 1975, General Assembly Resolution 3376 established the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People to make recommendations for how the Palestinian people could exercise their rights.

In 1979, Security Council Resolution 446 stated that Israel’s policy and practice of establishing settlements had no legal validity and constituted a serious obstruction to achieving a just and lasting peace. The Resolution called upon Israel “as the occupying Power, to abide scrupulously by the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, to rescind its previous measures and to desist from taking any action which would result in changing the legal status and geographical nature and materially affecting the demographic composition of the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, and, in particular, not to transfer parts of its own civilian population into the occupied Arab territories.”

In 1988, General Assembly Resolution 43/177 acknowledged the proclamation of the State of Palestine by the Palestine National Council on 15 November 1988; and decided that, effective as of 15 December 1988, the designation “Palestine” should be used in place of the designation “Palestine Liberation Organization” in the United Nations system, without prejudice to the observer status and functions of the PLO within the United Nations system, in conformity with relevant United Nations resolutions and practice

In 1992, Security Council Resolution 799 condemned the action taken by Israel, the occupying Power, to deport hundreds of Palestinian civilians, and expresses its firm opposition to any such deportation by Israel. This Resolution also reaffirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to all the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem.

In 2002, Security Council Resolution 1397 affirmed the vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side within secure and recognized borders.

In 2003, Security Council Resolution 1515 endorsed the “Road Map to Peace.” The Road Map formalized the creation of the “Quartet”—the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations.

On July 9, 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) released an Advisory Opinion on the legality of the security barrier being built in the West Bank. The advisory opinion affirmed that Israel “has the right, and indeed the duty, to respond in order to protect the life of its citizens.” However, the opinion stated that Israel is bound to do so “in conformity with applicable international law.” It found that the construction of the security barrier is contrary to international law and that Israel is under an obligation to cease further construction and to dismantle the structure that has been built. The opinion clarified the status of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, as under military occupation; therefore the Fourth Geneva Convention is fully applicable in the Occupied Territories. It further clarified that it is the location of the barrier, not the concept, which is illegal. If Israel builds the barrier on its own side of the Green Line, it would not violate international law.

In 2009, Security Council Resolution 1860 called for an immediate ceasefire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and requested unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance in Gaza.

In 2010, General Assembly Resolution 65/16 called the parties to the conflict “to act on the basis of international law and their previous agreements and obligations, in particular adherence to the road map, irrespective of reciprocity.” General Assembly Resolution 65/502 reaffirmed the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including the right to their independent State of Palestine.

In 2011, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process issued a report Palestinian State-Building: A Decisive Period that notes in the six areas where the UN is most engaged, governmental functions of the Palestinian Authority are now sufficient for a functioning government of a state.

Read more:

All General Assembly Resolutions by year

All Security Council Resolutions by year

History of the question of Palestine, Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information

The question of Palestine and the United Nations (pdf), Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information

Presbyterian Policy

Since 1948 General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and its predecessor denominations have repeatedly addressed the Middle East and particularly Israel and Palestine. The Presbyterian position has consistently been to affirm the right of Israel to exist as a sovereign state within secure, internationally recognized borders and the right of the Palestinians to self-determination, including the right to the establishment of a neighboring independent, sovereign state toward the end of establishing a just and durable peace. Read actions of Assemblies from 1997 to 2010.

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