The United Nations is supposed to be the guardian of peace and justice in the world. Founded in 1945 “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind,” the UN was sadly flawed from its inception.
But those familiar with the struggle for Palestinian human rights will know about the many ways the authority of the UN is cited to back the right to Palestinian self determination and to the return of Palestinian refugees. UN General Assembly and even Security Council resolutions are cited tirelessly in reference to the illegality of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Syria’s Golan Heights.
And well they might be: citing the authority of international law is a useful and persuasive tool in campaigning for human rights.
The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) provides essential services to Palestinian refugees both in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as in regional Palestinian refugee camps. And there is also the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, on 29 November each year.
That day came as part of the successful campaign of international diplomacy launched by the PLO in the mid 70s, which brought many important diplomatic ties around the world. The man to thank for that, even more so than Yasser Arafat, was the late PLO diplomat Shafiq al-Hout, as recounted in his memoir (published in English by Pluto Press as My Life in the PLO).
Arafat’s Fatah from the mid-1970s onwards gradually abandoned the goal of a unified democratic state in the whole of historic Palestine, in favour of (at first) a “two-sate” vision and (later) the deeply compromised position of the Palestinian Authority (which has no authority an is ultimately not really Palestinian, relying as it does on Israel for its survival). But al-Hout remained critical of the Oslo accords till his death: after the details were revealed, he suggested to Arafat, with typical acidic humour, that he should “retire to a cottage on a Tunisian hillside”.
But take a closer look at the history of the UN and its role in Palestine and there are many, many problems.
They start in 1947, with the partition plan made to divide Palestine into an “Arab state” and a “Jewish state”. This was rejected by the Palestinian people, giving as it did, more than 56 percent of the land to a minority of the population (Jews), who had mostly arrived as part of a settler-colonial project backed by the British imperial occupation of the country anyway (and the land allocated them included the most fertile coastal plains).
Most of the Zionist movement ostensibly accepted the 1947 partition plan. But soon after, when they launched the mass ethnic cleansing of Palestine (the Nakba), expelling more than 750,000 Palestinians, they occupied more territory still – leaving the familiar West Bank of today only because they were opposed by the Jordanian army, Palestinian volunteer defence forces and other Arab armies.
The UN is regularly denounced by Israel in modern times: in Israeli propaganda, the UN is little more than an anti-Semitic conspiracy committed to the destruction of Israel. Time and again, General Assembly resolutions condemn the Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Syrian lands. In recent years, Palestinian Authority efforts to be recognised as the “State of Palestine” have been welcomed by big majorities of UN member states. This is because the majority of the world recognises the basic injustices done to the Palestinian people by Israel, and the imperial, and settler-colonial countries that often support Israel (the US, Canada, Australia and the UK especially) compromise a minority in the General Assembly.
And yet, in 1947, the hated partition plan that helped bring Israel into existence and thus ushered in the 1948 catastrophe that literally wiped Palestine off the map, was voted in by a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly.
How could this be?
The simple answer is that in 1947, the era of decolonisation had not yet begun. Although India, which had only just been founded, voted against (along with the Arab countries, Iran, Cuba and others), it was nowhere near enough: almost all of the African continent was still under the thumb of British and French imperialism (along with other European empires) and thus had no vote. At that time, the resolution passed in the General Assembly by 33 votes to 13, with 10 abstentions. By now, the same body has 193 members.
There is also the question of the remit of UNRWA: it is the only UN organization created for a specific refugee population to the exclusion of all others. It was meant to be a temporary organization, but it is now as old as Israel itself. Why does the UN’s normal Refugee Agency, the UNHCR not care for Palestinian refugees? Surely the functions and budget of UNRWA could be progressively folded into UNHCR in a phased manner over a sensible period?
But the US (a major UN funder) would never allow that to happen due to its long-standing political support for Israel. Why not?
The answer is simple: as part of its remit UNHCR offers refugees “the option to return home voluntarily” – this would of course mean the (by now) millions of Palestinian refugees would be returning to their homes all over historical Palestine – which Israel now claims as its own by force. UNRWA (laudable as much of its work is) has no such remit. So in a way, the very existence of UNRWA is a barrier to Palestinian rights.
The most recent reminder of this troubled legacy over Palestine at the UN came this week.
The Electronic Intifada revealed that the UN had admitted that in the whole period since Israel’s lethal summer 2014 attack on Gaza, the UN has provided assistance to just one family to rebuild its totally destroyed home. This despite all the hot air from donor nations soon after the war about rebuilding Gaza.
In large part, this inaction of the UN is down to the Orwellian-sounding “Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism” – whose main function to date has been to ensure that Israel can block any real rebuilding of Gaza.
This mechanism is a scandal of epic proportions, and a reminder that the troubled legacy of the UN’s role in Palestine is still very much a live issue.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London and an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.