The year 2018 was the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, known in Arabic as the Nakba. It was another year of talks among the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP). It was also another year of negotiations and threats, both on the floor of the General Assembly, and on the frontline of the conflict. The United Nations (UN) has held a day observing the Nakba every year since 1978, called the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. During the most recent commemoration in November, it was sometimes difficult to find hope, not just for the future of Palestinians but for the millions of people around the world whose lives have been shaped by conflict.
History and Context
The United Nations is an institute imbued with nuance, and its commemoration of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People is no exception. Palestinians are not the only group in the region with a challenging history. And, ironically, the United Nations was itself a key player in establishing Israel through documents and agreements like Resolution 181, adopted on November 29, 1947. Resolution 181 divided the region known as Mandate Palestine into two parts, an Arab State and a Jewish State.
Before Resolution 181 and the UN’s involvement in the area, British colonization was controlling Mandate Palestine with a heavy hand. In 1916, France and Great Britain passed the Sykes-Picot Agreement which, with the approval of the Russian Federation, divided Southwest Asia into areas to be ruled under the French and the British. .[i] This agreement was part of these powers’ extended effort to defeat the Ottoman Empire. Mandate Palestine fell under the governance of Great Britain.
Rampant anti-Semitism drove thousands of European Jews into British-held Palestine between 1896 and 1948. Near the end of the 19th century, writer and activist Theodor Herzl began promoting Zionism, the idea that there should be a reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Herzl argued that the creation of a Jewish sovereign state would not only benefit Zionists, but also anti-Semites, who wanted to live separately from Jews.[ii] Arabs in Palestine who had already experienced British colonization saw the Zionist movement as a continuation of Western powers invading their territory.
In 1917, Great Britain released the Balfour Declaration, stating that in accordance with the Zionist movement, the British government would “favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”[iii] This agreement was negotiated by British and Jewish leadership, including both Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews. Palestinian influence was absent.
In 1923, the League of Nations passed the British Mandate for Palestine, establishing the “national home for the Jewish people” that the Balfour Declaration had iterated. The mandate gave Britain control over the part of the defeated Ottoman Empire between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The ensuing quarter century saw steady conflict between Zionist militias and Palestinian nationalists and with the British Mandate authorities, with marked escalation in 1947, two years after the end of World War II. Finally, Britain sought the involvement of the newly formed United Nations, and the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was formed. [iv] In just three months, UNSCOP put forward a plan of partition, creating two states, one Arab and one Jewish through Resolution 181. UNSCOP’s actions officially solidified the UN’s role in Palestine.[v] The British Mandate in Palestine ended in May 1948, with the Zionist leadership declaring Israeli statehood on May 14 of that year. War broke out immediately after. With British withdrawal and the Israeli declaration of independence, armies from neighboring Arab countries joined in the fighting.
During the course of the fighting in 1948 and 1949, more than 700,000 Palestinians fled from their homes, or were forced out by Jewish militias.[vi] The Palestinian people came to call this period Al-Nakba, or “the catastrophe.” The war was essentially “won” by Israel, who was now in control of 78 percent of what had been Mandate Palestine.
It seems ironic that the UN, which approved Resolution 181, would also commemorate an International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People each year. On Wednesday, November 28, the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRRP) held a debate among the UN General Assembly (GA), which was followed by closed consultations with civil society, including both Palestinian and Israeli NGOs. Marc Lamont Hill, an activist and political pundit, was the keynote civil society speaker this year. Hill gave an impassioned and controversial speech on the need for human rights in Palestine and provided comparisons between Israeli control and the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Hill also called out the irony of the UN commemorating the 70th anniversaries of both the Nakba and the International Declaration of Human Rights this year.
High level UN figures such as the President of the General Assembly, the President of the Security Council and the Secretary General gave remarks as well. While the UN remains committed to addressing the plight of Palestinian refugees, there is much work to be done. The UN community routinely recognizes Palestine as one of the most pressing issues of this era. Resolutions regarding Palestine are brought to the Security Council frequently, yet the “Question of Palestine” is still unanswered. There are, of course, many dimensions to the conflict, but the reality remains that there are millions of Palestinians seeking the fulfillment of their human rights.
On the day after the Day of Solidarity, the GA held another meeting addressing the Question of Palestine. I sat in on the meeting and witnessed firsthand the frustration that these meetings invoke. Representatives from Palestine and Israel often use stubbornly different framing when they speak, making it seem as though they are addressing two entirely different issues. Framing is an important element in this conflict. While Israel’s government frames the conflict from a land-conflict and religious standpoint, Palestine (along with most UN member states and many NGOs working in the field) frame it as a human rights and colonization issue. Here is more information about the settlements often brought up under this framework.
Power dynamics are a crucial factor in understanding this conflict as well. The UN categorizes Israel as an occupying power, with some members of the UN drawing ties between Palestine and Israel, and Apartheid South Africa.[vii] The complexity of this makes me wonder how any solution can be found.
It seems as though no actor in the international community is willing to admit fault before calling out the wrongs of others. It is difficult to see through the smoke-screens of political posturing to understand the focus on Palestine. But there is a reason, and that is simply that there is no just peace for Palestinians yet.
A new photography exhibition was opened in the visitor’s center of the UN on November 29th, titled “Unrealized Rights, Unfulfilled Promises.” Organized by the CEIRPP, the exhibit explores the past, present and future of Palestinians, highlighting the Nakba. The photography was emotional and often hard to look at, and yet it still held a message of hope. It is easy to get disillusioned by multilateralism or to feel lost among the incompatible opinions that state actors have. But above all that, what keeps us going at the end of the day is hope.
Seeking just peace and healing is not easy. There are many days where no changes are seen, despite years of effort. But there have always been people who strive to come together in solidarity in the pursuit of hope.
Victoria Wiebe is a Program Assistant at the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office.
[iii] The Avalon Project, “The Balfour Declaration 1917, November 2, 1917.