On September 20, the 54th General Assembly of the
United Nations will convene. The following backgrounder reviews Israelís
experiences at the UN in the last session. As this session opens, negotiations
between Israel and the Palestinians are progressing. Despite this improved
atmosphere, however, Israel may still face challenges and conflicts at the UN.
As has been true since its initial membership in the world body over 50 years
ago, in the 1998-1999 session Israel faced a number of political and diplomatic
attacks, initiated primarily by the Arab group at the United Nations.
While long-term challenges for Israel at the UN persist, such as being denied
membership into any regional group and thereby being excluded from certain high
level positions within the UN structure, this year Israel faced two new harsh
and politically motivated campaigns initiated by the Palestinian Authority. In
the hopes of garnering international pressure against Israel, the Palestinians
worked to reconvene the 4th Geneva Convention on the topic of Israeli
settlements and to resuscitate the 1947 UN Resolution 181, which called for the
partition of Mandate-era Palestine. As the General Assembly reconvenes for the
54th session, these issues and strategies continue.
Below are summaries of the two campaigns:
The Fourth Geneva Convention
The Fourth Geneva Convention on Rules of War was adopted in 1949 by the
international community in response to Nazi atrocities during World War II. The
international treaty governs the treatment of civilians during wartime,
including hostages, diplomats, spies, bystanders and civilians in territory
under military occupation. The convention outlaws torture, collective punishment
and the resettlement by an occupying power of its own civilians on territory
under its military control. In the fifty years since its adoption, the Fourth
Geneva Convention has never been reconvened to dispute world atrocities
including those in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Tibet, etc.
Since 1997 the Arab group at the United Nations has been trying to invoke the
Fourth Geneva Convention against Israel, in regard to its settlements in the
West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in particular at Har Homa in Jerusalem. The UN
General Assembly has adopted a number of non-binding resolutions condemning
Israeli settlements, and calling for a convening of the signatory nations of the
Fourth Geneva Convention. In February 1999 the GA adopted a resolution calling
for a special UN session to be held on July 15, 1999 in Geneva to examine
"persistent violations" by Israel.
Israel rejects applying the 4th Geneva Convention to Israeli
settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, stating that those territories were
captured in 1967 as a result of a defensive war against countries which had
illegally occupied them since 1948.
Switzerland is the Depository for the 4th Geneva Convention. This
means that the Swiss are technically responsible for organizing and convening a
meeting of the signatory nations. However, the Swiss may only convene the
meeting if a majority of the signatory nations agree to do so.
ADL has vigorously opposed convening the Fourth Geneva Convention in regard
to Israeli settlements arguing that it could dangerously politicize the
international legitimacy and high standings of the Geneva Conventions. It could
open a Pandoraís box across the globe haphazardly applying the convention to a
plethora of nations. Furthermore, it would give credence to the Palestinian
tactic of using the international community to air grievances regarding the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and thereby threatens the peace process
International efforts led by the United States were successful in scaling
down a special UN meeting in Geneva held on July 15, 1999. The closed-door
meeting lasted a mere 45 minutes. However, a resolution was unanimously passed
stating that the Fourth Geneva Convention does apply to Israeli settlements in
the "occupied territories."
UN Resolution 181
The United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 in 1947, which
recommended the partition of land west of the Jordan River into "a Jewish
state" and "an Arab state." The Jewish state was to comprise
approximately 60 percent of the land, including the Negev Desert, while the Arab
state would be comprised mainly of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. According to
the Resolution, Jerusalem was to maintain a special status, "corpus
separatum," under international authority.
The Zionist leadership accepted Resolution 181 viewing it as an opportunity
to achieve even a small bit of sovereignty and security. In its 1948 Declaration
of Independence the fledgling Jewish State reiterated its willingness to uphold
the Resolution. However, the Arab states rejected the Resolution on the grounds
that it did not come from the UN Security Council and therefore lacked the force
of international law. Following Israelís Declaration of Independence her Arab
neighbors resorted to armed force in the hopes of preventing the implementation
of Resolution 181. As a result of the Arab rejection of the resolution and Arab
aggression as well as subsequent UN resolutions, Israel has long deemed
Resolution 181 "null and void."
Recently, however, the Palestinians have resurrected Resolution 181 at the
United Nations as a political attempt to put international pressure on Israel in
the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Palestinians at the UN have argued
that the Resolution provides the legal basis for the existence of a Palestinian
State, whether it is created through negotiations, unilateral declaration or
otherwise. (According to Palestinian-Israeli Oslo agreements "final
borders" is an issue to be determined during the permanent status
negotiations.) Israel rejects this Palestinian argument arguing that besides
Resolution 181 being "null and void" it is outside the structure of
the Oslo process - which the Palestinians agreed to.
In 1998 Palestinian leaders began resuscitating Resolution 181 as a central
component of their diplomatic campaign to garner international support for a
Palestinian state. The Palestinians continued to raise 181 on many fronts. In
March 1999 the German Ambassador to Israel, acting on behalf of Germany in its
capacity as President of the European Union sent a letter to the Israeli Foreign
Ministry describing the EUís policy on Jerusalem as "Corpus Separtum,"
language taken directly from the 1947 Resolution.
In April 1999 the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva passed a resolution,
sponsored by the Arab bloc with European support, which called for Palestinian
self-determination on the basis of UN Resolution 181-only Israel and the United
States did not vote in favor of the Resolution. As the issue of 181 continued to
appear in the international limelight Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian
Authority Chairman Arafat, worked vigorously to gain more and more attention for
Finally, on May 23, 1999, United States Vice President Al Gore broke the
diplomatic silence against the legitimacy of 181ís revival when he stated that
the United States rejects Resolution 181, which called for the partition of
Palestine, as a basis for Israeli-Arab peace. Since that time the American
administration has made clear its opposition to the revival of Resolution 181.
The Session Ahead:
In the upcoming General Assembly session, observers predict that Israel will
continue to face challenges at the United Nations, including those related to
the 4th Geneva Convention and Resolution 181. However, with the newly
rejuvenated negotiations, there is a possibility that Israel may benefit from an
improved environment at the U.N., and may facilitate increased international
support to defeat anti-Israel resolutions, and assistance in entering a regional
Prepared by the Department of Middle Eastern Affairs and International
September 14, 1999
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