This article is written by Akshita Rohatgi, a student at GGSIP University, New Delhi. It analyses the role the UN Has played in the Palestine crisis, with recommendations for the future.
In May 2021, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, addressed the Palestine Crisis and called for a ‘genuine and inclusive peace process’. She condemned the acts of the pro-Palestinian militant group, Hamas, as well as Israeli airstrikes in dense areas, that claimed 242 lives. The international community and Human Rights activists around the globe watching the destruction ensue in horror had one question- is the statement all the UN can do? What is the importance of the United Nations- an organization made after World War II, to prevent future wars, if it can’t prevent this?
The Palestine situation: an overview
Pre- World War I
The theory of Zionism came up as a reaction against the persecution of Jewish people throughout history. It claimed that the only way out of this never-ending bigotry was for the community to have a separate state. The holiest site in Judaism was Jerusalem– considered the spiritual homeland for Jewish people. Jerusalem lies in the once- Palestine, now-Israeli territory. Over the years, more and more Jewish people started migrating there.
Post World War I
After the first World War, Britain gained control of Palestine and freely allowed the immigration of Jews. As their numbers grew, ethnic conflicts and violence increased. The rise of Nazism and persecution of Jewish people in Germany gave further impetus to the migration.
UN’s 1947 Plan
In 1947, the UN finally took cognizance of the conflict and gave its sanction to a British plan for separation of British Palestine, based on a communal majority. Jerusalem, a holy site of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, was given to the ethnic Arab Muslims, representing Palestinians. While the Jews accepted this plan, the Arabs looked at it as another form of colonialism by the Europeans. Consequently, they declared war on Israel.
Post-war refugee crisis
This war resulted in an Israeli victory. Now, Israel gained control of the western half of Jerusalem, along with other territories well beyond the UN-mandated plan. Israel’s forces also started expelling Arabs from its newly- acquired territory. This resulted in an enormous refugee crisis of around 7,00,000 Palestinian people. Before the war, the UN plan gave 56% of the total territory to the Israelites. After the war, it possessed 77%. Other Arab countries in the Middle East responded by expelling Jewish people from their territory. These settlers came to Israel.
1967’s Six-Day war
In 1967, a coalition of Arab Countries, mainly Jordan, Syria, and the UAE, declared war on Israel. This was due to the bad blood left behind after the Arab Countries supported Palestine in the 1947 war and the 1956 Suez crisis. The Suez Crisis involved Israel, UK, and France attacked Egypt in response to Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. This was followed by a series of border disputes of Arab Countries with Israel, and Egypt forces expelling a UN Peacekeeping force guarding the Egypt- Israel border.
The Six-Day war started with a pre-emptive airstrike by Israel to Egypt and its allies, which caused staggering damages. The war ended with a ceasefire brokered by the UN. In the war, Israel had seized significant parts of the neighbouring countries. This included Gaza and West Bank- erstwhile Palestinian territories.
Aftermath of the six-day war
In 1978, the US-brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt called the ‘ Camp David Accords’. This gave the territory of Sinai, seized by Israel during the war, back to Egypt. These accords represented a new era of peace between Israel and the Arab states. Now, the conflict transformed into an exclusively Israel and Palestine one.
Rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)
An organization claiming to speak for the Palestinians, called the Palestine Liberation Organization, came up around the time of the Six-Day War. Gradually, it came to be recognized as a representative of the Palestinians. Initially, it demanded a secular Palestinian state. Later, however, it changed its stance to a two-state framework. Increasing frustration among Palestinians after the Camp David Accords led the PLO to guerrilla warfare, and it attacked Israel from its bases in Jordan. In 1971, the Jordan army expelled the PLO from its territory.
Settlements in Israel-occupied territories
Around the same time, Jewish people started moving and forming ‘ settlements’ in the Israel- occupied territories. Reasons for this included subsidies by the Israeli government, as well as the desire to ‘mark’ their territories. These settlers had the support of the Israeli army and often forced Palestinians to leave their homes. These settlements were to make it all the more difficult for Palestinians to achieve their independent state. Most scholars consider these settlements illegal under international law.
The first Intifada (1987- 1993)
In Arabic, ‘intifada’ means ‘uprising’. Initially, in the form of protests, this anger soon turned violent. The Israeli authorities responded with heavy brute force, in the form of university shutdowns, arrests, and deportations. This lasted for five years.
The casualties on the Palestinian side were high, over a thousand. According to Save the Children, 29.9 thousand children required heavy medical treatment due to beating by the Israeli forces. About 150 Israelis were killed, including about a hundred civilian Israelis.
This gave impetus to the formation of Hamas, an organization that considered the PLO too moderate. It did away with the PLO’s objective of a secular state, and demanded a Palestine state, trying to achieve it through violence.
In 1993, Oslo Accords were signed between the Israeli government and the PLO to make peace. An independent Palestinian Authority would be established to implement limited self-governance in some Palestinian areas. However, the final authority and military control would rest with the Israeli government.
This represented the recognition of the PLO by the Israeli government as a representative of the Palestine people. It also promised future negotiations with the PLO on the issues in contention. People from both camps tried to derail talks and committed various acts of violence for the same. Shortly after signing the accords, the Prime Minister was shot dead by far-right Israelis, who called him a “traitor”.
The Second Intifada (2000-2005)
In 2000, the Camp David summit between the US president and Israeli Prime Minister showed potential, and there were high hopes of success. However, the summit came up empty and different leaders gave contradictory statements on its outcome.
The lack of any result fed the despondency among Palestinians and led to a Second Intifada (uprising). This one was more violent than the first, and repression by authorities was even worse. Palestinian casualties ranged around 3,200 and around 1,000 Israelis were killed.
This led to a change in Israeli attitudes, and a peace process is now looked upon as less favourable. Israel authorities now built checkpoints to control its Palestinian population, and this move further alienated the ethnic Arabs.
Hamas takeover of Gaza
In 2005, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew from Gaza. According to the official statement, this was to improve Israel’s security, international relations, and its international status. After the withdrawal, there is a Hamas takeover of Gaza. This resulted in a civil war, causing a split between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, and a separation between the two Palestinian territories- Gaza and West Bank.
This led Israel to impose a stifling blockade on Gaza in 2007, declaring it a ‘hostile entity. This included heavy restrictions on imports, power cuts, and the closing of Israeli borders. Hamas responded by demolishing parts of the border with Egypt, causing large-scale emigration. The blockade is still present and is the main reason for employment in Gaza to have risen to 43%.
In 2014, Hamas allied with the Palestinian Authority’s ruling party. This further derailed the peace process and led to another cycle of violence between Hamas and the Israeli government. In 2020, the UAE and Brahin agreed to normalize their relations with Palestine in an Accord brokered by the US. These countries follow Egypt and Jordan, which normalized relations in 1979 and 1994, respectively.
The conflict is ongoing. Since the blockade was imposed, Gaza’s economy and its people have suffered. Jewish settlements in the West Bank have increased. This has led to various conflicts, sometimes violent. Palestinians keep losing hope of achieving their independent state, and common Israelis are mostly supportive of their government, or apathetic.
Since 2008, Palestinians have overwhelmingly suffered. According to the UN, the ratio of casualties of Palestinians to Israelis is around 2,236: 100. The UN recognizes 4.3 Million Palestinians as refugees in Gaza, West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. The future looks gloomy.
US aid to Israel
The US supported the creation of Israel in 1948. Since the first World War, Israel has been the largest recipient of US foreign aid. During the Cold War, the US supported Israel due to its democracy and anti-communist leanings. It saw it as a powerful ally in the Middle East and started giving it financial and military aid. After the Cold War, close relations with Israel persisted. After the 9/11 attacks, the US public came to view Israel as a democracy surrounded by hostile Islamic nations, fighting against terrorism, and public support for it soared. Most Americans still support Israel and oppose an independent Palestinian state.
Out of a total of 83 times, the US has exercised its veto power in the UN Security Council (UNSC), 42 have been against resolutions condemning Israel. According to its Negroponte doctrine, it would oppose any resolution containing condemnation of Israel without condemnation of terrorism, implied to be committed by pro-Palestine groups.
It is also actively involved in the Israel-Palestine peace process, playing a mediator. However, its proposed solutions have often been criticized as being biased towards Israel. In 2018, the US Government relocated the US Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to reflect its recognition of Jerusalem as rightfully Israel’s. The US-brokered the Abraham accords that normalized relations of the UAE and Brahin towards Israel.
As of 2020, the cumulative aid amounted to $146 Billion. According to a 2016 Memorandum of Understanding, the US is to provide $38 Billion in military aid to Israel. Currently, it is also the biggest supplier of arms to the Jewish state.
Role of UN’s human rights agencies in the crisis
In 1948, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution upholding the Palestinians right to return to their homes and made Israel’s membership contingent on this. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established for this purpose. However, the UN’s General Assembly (UNGA), with all the world’s nations, gradually came to be excluded from decision making. Instead, the UNSC’s veto-wielding member, the USA, gained considerable influence.
The UN was proactive in providing peacekeeping forces and diplomatic help, but its influence was severely limited by the US. After the 1967 war, the UN advocated strongly for an international peace conference with all parties, to end the conflict, but the US voted no. In 1996, Israel under ‘operation Grapes of Wrath’ bombed a UN centre for refugees in Lebanon, which created anger in UN circles. However, no actual change took place after. The failed Camp David summit of 2000 had completely sidelined the UN.
A major win for the UN was a 1974 resolution to recognize the right of the Palestinians to self-determination, only opposed by 4 states (including the US and Israel). However, this was not enforceable. This incident reflects that apart from the US, Israel does not have many supporters of its excessive use of force against civilians. Yet, that is what prevails.
Currently, the UN’s most important role in the crises is fact-finding, reports and most importantly, aid to the refugees.
UN Relief and Works Association (UNRWA)
The UNRWA was created in 1949, specifically with the mandate to help Palestinian refugees. It provided aid to Palestinian refugees living in Israel till 1952 when the Israeli government took over responsibility for them. It operates primarily in the Gaza Strip, West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, providing the refugees with education and healthcare. The association covers 5.7 Million refugees eligible to access its services, and 2.8 Million of them were provided health service by it.
UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC)
The UNHRC has tabled a total of 85 resolutions concerning the Israel-Palestine dispute, condemning the violation of international humanitarian law. However, these are simply expressions of political commitments and do not necessarily equal any tangible measures being taken.
In 2009, the UN established a fact-finding commission, called the ‘Goldstone report’. It was to investigate allegations of violation of international human rights and humanitarian law by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially the Gaza strip. This commission was to focus on the operations between December 2008 to January 2009. Israel refused to cooperate, claiming that the UNHRC was biased against it. The end report criticized the Israeli government, as well as Palestinian militants for violating international human rights law. It was ratified by the UNHRC. This report was significant as it especially focused on fact-finding, thus giving a direction to other human rights organizations and future reports. This report also led the way for another UN fact-finding report on the 2014 Gaza conflict, that reached the same conclusion.
The UN, over time, has created various platforms to ensure the voice of the Palestinian people is heard. These include the UN’s Division for Palestinian Rights, Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People, and the UN Information System on the Question of Palestine (UNISPAL).
Additionally, the UN declared November 29th of each year as an ‘International day of solidarity with the Palestinian people’. This was to commemorate the UN’s 1947 plan that divided the territory into two separate nations.
It has also put forward various resolutions concerning the situation. However, most are simply expressions of opinion of the UN General Assembly and are non-binding. So, they do not lead to any tangible measures.
Scholars around the globe are uncertain about an end to this conflict. A pragmatic solution to solve the crisis has not yet materialized. In the midst of all this, Micah Goodman, published a book Catch-67, presenting his argument that the focus should not be on ‘solving’ the conflict. Instead, it must be on de-escalation, concessions, and presenting a road towards peace.
To achieve this, Israel must tone down the military presence, and there should be a reduction of activities by extremists on both sides, using concessions. Derailment of peace talks through violence must be clamped down upon. For pro-Israel extremists, the Israeli government must do a better job at clamping down. This would be a concession and give impetus to negotiations with Hamas. Convincing Israel of this would be strenuous, which is where the role of the international community comes in.
The International Community
The current situation does not demand a military offensive against Israel or military support to the PLO or Hamas. These measures would simply lead to an escalation and prolonging the conflict. Foreign powers would throw their military weight behind one nation, which would attract opponents of these powers to support the other side. Instead, de-escalation and giving the people of Palestine their right to self-determination is key.
Economic and Diplomatic initiatives across the world need to convince Israel to allow the Palestinians to exercise their right to self-determination. The biggest suppliers of arms to the Israeli military- the US, Germany, Italy, and the UK must stop this support. The UN must speak in a unified voice, condemning the occupation unequivocally. This unanimity and diplomatic pressure would incentivize Israel to treat Palestinians humanely and stop the unstable occupation. UN’s secondary status to Palestinian refugees
A prominent critique levelled at the UN is a denial of the same refugee rights to Palestinians as other refugees. While UNRWA simply provides relief, the UNHCR focuses on finding temporary or permanent homes for refugees- by repatriation to the original country or resettlement at the new one.
By giving UNRWA sole jurisdiction over the Palestinian refugees in Gaza Strip, West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, the UN excludes the jurisdiction of UNHCR. Thus, the scope of UNHCR’s activity is severely limited. This must be rectified. The UN must also increase diplomatic pressure against Israel, as much as it can in the face of the USA.
US dominance in the UN
In 2018, the US Government stopped funding for a UN Relief agency that provided aid to Palestinian refugees. This is especially significant as the US is the largest donor to the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), contributing one-third of its total budget. Out of the total, the US currently contributes to over one-fifth of the UN budget, which gives it considerable influence over decision making. The UN is also physically located in the US, and a considerable number of its bureaucracy resides in the US, which adds to its influence. The UN is bound to have some unfair leaning towards Israel in this dispute, considering that the US is a close ally of the country.
As an appraisal of the current situation has shown, the US is the most prominent source of failure of UN initiatives condemning Israel. The current composition of the UN makes it impossible for any major UN initiatives to pass through without the assent of the US.
The only way to resolve this systemic issue is a restructuring of the UN. This starts with the removal of veto powers of the security council and making it more representative. However, this is a mammoth task, since the US has veto power to veto this too. Its dominance in current world politics makes the task next to impossible. Options, like military opposition by other states or coercive economic or diplomatic measures against the US, do not seem to hold out much hope, considering its power
A way out of this stalemate is the superpower’s well-oiled domestic democracy. Convincing American people to stop meaningless wars is a way out. Though a daunting task, this strategy worked to put an end to the Vietnam war. However, American support in the Vietnam war included military troops in Vietnam which stoked anger among those forced to part with family members for the war. In the case of Israel, it is mostly in monetary terms and support at the UN. Thus, the challenge is much more daunting. One way that this can be achieved is by NATO. The US is accountable to its North American and European allies, which form part of its formidable military alliance- NATO. Putting pressure on these institutions to convince the US seems to be the most pragmatic way for restructuring the UNSC.
In the meantime, putting pressure on the US government, through its people, to stop supporting the war via aid to Israel is favourable. Instead, it can also use its vast diplomatic expertise to be an ‘honest broker’ and help reach a solution acceptable to both parties. It must also stop the veto of UN resolutions condemning Israel unequivocally, to up the ante on diplomatic pressure. This wouldn’t immediately solve the problem, since Israel has a well-functioning domestic weapons industry. However, it would give Israel an incentive to lower the costs of war. As of now, this is the best the international community can do. This is, however, a temporary fix to the UN’s problem. It would last till the US supports another war in other countries.
Measures like convincing the US to stop support to Israel, and instead promote initiatives for peace in the region hold out hope. However, these are temporary fixes, and would not solve the structural impasse within the UN. A complete restructuring of the UNSC is needed. This would prove to be impossible without an upheaval in the current world order. However, it is essential to implement the UN’s primary task i.e., preventing wars.
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