Posted by: aboutalbion | April 13, 2014

Palestine and Israel: did the UN act ultra vires in 1947?

The leaders of both the main UK political parties have visited Israel in recent weeks.  One of the main UK political parties includes supporters of each side of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.  The other main UK political party is biased towards Israel.  I think it is common ground that the effect of the gradual extension of new Israeli settlements around Jerusalem (and elsewhere) means that the door for a possible ‘two state’ solution is gradually being closed.

What concerns me is the next thirty years or so.  Between 2016 and 2048, it is foreseeable that there will be a series of centenary events to mark the steps that led to the foundation of the modern state of Israel.

Here are just six steps that come to mind.

(1) In 1916, the Sykes-Picot (secret) agreement between Great Britain and France gave control of Palestine to the British.

(2) In 1917, the UK Foreign Secretary, A J Balfour, signed a declaration (commonly known as the Balfour declaration) which recognised the right of Jews to a homeland.  I believe that the declaration stated that the British government viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.

(3) In 1923, the League of Nations confirms the British Mandate to rule Palestine.

(4) From 1936-39, there was an Arab revolt against British rule in Palestine

(5) On 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly received a majority report from the UN Special Committee on Palestine and adopted a resolution [181(ii)] to replace the British mandate to rule Palestine with a resolution to create independent Arab and Jewish states and an international (UN administered) city of Jerusalem (together with an economic union).  I think it is fair to say that this resolution was not well-received by the people on the ground in Palestine, and a civil war broke out, and no effective action was taken to implement it.  British troops were withdrawn from Palestine by May 1948.

(6) On 14 May 1948, the day on which the British mandate expired, and two months before the UN partition plan was due to come into force, the Jewish People’s Council proclaimed the state of Israel in Tel Aviv.  The state of Israel was immediately recognised by the US and the USSR.  And on that same day, the first Arab-Israeli War began between a coalition of Arab states and Israel, and this lasted for ten months.

Is it too much to hope that, as these centenary events unfold, the history of these events will lead to a reappraisal of the wisdom of this 1947 UN decision?  It seems that only the UN can revisit, and re-evaluate, and (if circumstances demand it) alter a previous UN decision.

Iran (and India and Yugoslavia) were members of the UN Special Committee on Palestine and dissented from the majority report (eventually adopted by the UN) in favour of a federal state of Palestine.

I think it likely that Iran’s case included the argument that no such right of Jews to a homeland existed in 1917, and that no such right to a homeland can be invented and asserted for one cultural group without being invented and asserted for all cultural groups.

From Iran’s perspective, the UN was creating an imaginary right of the Jews to a homeland over and above the right of the Palestinians to continue to occupy the land that their ancestors had occupied since before the (contested) time of ‘King David’.  How could the UN endorse a violation to the right of the Palestinians to national self-determination when that right was guaranteed by the UN Charter?  But was Palestine a state at that time?

The reluctance of the UN to consider a homeland for, say, the Kurds (or the Native Americans), suggests that the UN will not make another homeland decision like its 1947 decision.  Some would argue that the experience of the Kurds (and the Native Americans) demands that the terms of the UN Charter itself be revisited, and that it is probably only the vested interests of the Security Council members themselves which prevents this from happening.

I haven’t visited Malaysia, but I am tempted to consider that it suggestively supports the case for a federal state of Palestine.  In Malaysia, I believe that (broadly speaking) political power is in the hands of the long-established (Muslim) Malays and economic power is in the hands of the (relatively) recently-established (Buddhist) Chinese community.  There is separate development, but as I understand it from a distance, the two communities have a symbiotic relationship that supports both communities, and that (so far) tensions have been managed.

For me, it is an open question as to whether the UN acted ultra vires when it made its 1947 General Assembly decision.  I believe that the case for a federal state of Palestine has merit and should be discussable.

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