Briefing to the 8782nd session of the Security Council, May 27, 2021
Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Columbia University
Mr. President, distinguished members of the Security Council:
I am deeply grateful to the Council and to the Chinese Presidency for the opportunity to brief you, particularly at what may be a new juncture in the evolution of the question of Palestine. Palestinians, wherever they are — in occupied Arab East Jerusalem, where the latest round of violence started a few weeks ago; in the occupied West Bank; in besieged Gaza; inside Israel; and in the vast Palestinian diaspora — have responded to the events of the past several weeks with an unprecedented degree of unity. These events, and this show of unity, have provoked a worldwide recognition of realities on the ground, realities of systemic discrimination, of oppression and of settler colonialism, that can no longer be brushed aside and hidden by stale clichés. Young people and people of conscience the world over have responded to the images that emerged from different parts of Palestine, and that were diffused by social media, and even by the mainstream media. Public discourse has begun to shift in consequence.
On June 9, 1967, at the height of the June 1967 war, as a college student, I sat in the Visitors’ Gallery of this very chamber watching as a permanent member ensured the impunity which allowed a member state to ignore Security Council cease fire resolutions and continue its offensive for another 24 hours. This action nearly 54 years ago exacerbated problems that this body is still wrestling with. The same pattern of guaranteeing impunity for violations of international law and Security Council resolutions has recurred repeatedly since then, most recently during this Council’s deliberations on events in Palestine earlier this month.
As you all know, since the founding of the United Nations, the Security Council has passed multiple resolutions on the Palestine problem and the Israeli-Arab conflict. These issues that have taken up more of the time and energy of this body than any other global problem. Most of these resolutions have not been implemented or respected. They are dead letters. This systematic disrespect for Security Council resolutions, encouraged by the impunity I have described, has left this Council, and the United Nations itself, in justifiable disrepute. More seriously, this impunity has been a major obstacle to establishing peace, justice and security for all who live in Palestine and Israel.
I have not been asked to brief on the failings of the past, however. Instead I hope to offer suggestions based on my understanding of the history of this issue, to reinforce the efforts of this body to achieve lasting peace and security in Palestine and Israel in the future.
It is clear to me that whatever their merits, a number of palliatives currently under consideration are not by themselves going to produce a lasting solution for the problems of Palestine and Israel. They include rebuilding the degraded infrastructure of Gaza with no guarantee that it will not be destroyed for a fifth time; stressing quality of life for Palestinians without providing them with a clear and fixed political horizon; and yet again launching a meaningless “peace process” that is structured by the most powerful actors to avoid all of the difficult core issues central to achieving a sustainable resolution of this issue.
Any effort to achieve real peace and lasting security must belatedly grapple with these painful core issues, issues that go back to the first efforts of the General Assembly and this Council to deal with the question of Palestine in the earliest years after the establishment of the United Nations.
What are these core issues? They are:
- The dispossession of the Palestinian people starting in 1948;
- The status of Jerusalem;
- The supposedly temporary military occupation that has endured since 1967; and
- Ensuring that any projected solution is grounded in international law, and in the resolutions of this Council, and is not based on what happens to be convenient for the most powerful actors that are involved in this issue.
I am a historian of the modern Middle East, and a longtime observer of the proceedings of this body. My father worked in this Council for nearly two decades as a member of the UN Secretariat. I understand perfectly that power relations structure what is possible and what is impossible. I understand perfectly how difficult it is to make national agendas coincide, such that collective action becomes possible.
However, if ever there were moment to transcend these restraints, and for collective action to address a source of suffering that has endured for the better part of a century, this is it. The most recent upheaval in Palestine and Israel has sharpened contradictions, has aroused new passions, some of them ugly, and has awakened consciences. It has also pricked the bubble of cherished illusions, such as the illusion that no one in the Arab world or globally cares about Palestine. The solidarity marches, the social media explosion, the unprecedented nature of the mainstream media coverage of recent events, the unprecedented wave of solidarity with the Palestinians the world over, all of these phenomena together show that however much some might wish that this were not the case, Palestine is important, and cannot be ignored. They show as well that the Palestinians will not give up their struggle to achieve their inalienable rights as a people. A problem that for decades many have hoped would disappear, has reappeared, in an even more intense and troubling form.
This is therefore the time to call a spade a spade, and to abandon the cruel false equivalence that ignores casualty ratios of from four or ten or twenty to one, that places the occupier on the same footing as the occupied, and that puts a nuclear-armed regional superpower on the same footing as a people that has never been allowed to enjoy self-determination. If this false equivalence is maintained, and if the lopsided balance of power between the two peoples is allowed to dictate outcomes, there can never be an end to this bloodletting and oppression, and the Security Council will continue to issue empty resolutions with no force for the rest of the 21st century, as it has done for the past many decades.
Mr. President, Excellencies:
How can the impunity which enormous power grants to one side be overcome?
What are needed are both small steps and big ones. Small ones can include this body urgently demanding – not requesting from the blockading powers but demanding – under penalty of sanctions, that the humanitarian and medical and dietary and other basic needs of the people of Gaza be freed of cruel political considerations, and that the collective punishment of 2 million people be ended. Surely this small step is within the power of the Security Council. I think all can see how doing this, which requires forceful action, would ameliorate the situation in Palestine.
Small steps include the Security Council working to help cement the unity of the Palestinian people on a democratic basis, a unity that the colonial power has worked ceaselessly to undermine. This could include United Nations-mandated and -supervised elections that can be obstructed neither by the occupying power, nor by outside powers that cultivate proxies and meddle in Palestinian affairs.
Small steps include the demand that the status quo regarding the holy sites in Jerusalem, a status quo that has been systematically infringed upon, be strictly respected by all concerned. This status quo goes back not only to the many UN resolutions on Jerusalem, or to the British Mandate period: it is rooted in the era of Ottoman rule, and it was hammered out over many decades of war and diplomacy. As we have seen in recent weeks, it is playing with fire, an unholy fire, to allow this status quo to be trampled upon, as has been happening for all too many decades, in both the period of Jordanian rule of the eastern part of the city, and especially since the Israeli occupation and annexation of 1967.
Larger steps include reiterating forcefully the basic building blocks of the international order as far as Palestine is concerned, as these have been laid down in Security Council and other UN resolutions. These include the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force as laid out in UNSC 242, the illegality of the colonization of occupied territory by the occupier’s citizens as specified by the 4th Geneva Convention, the right of refugees to return and to compensation as conformed by UNGA 181, and the necessity of an international role in resolving the question of Jerusalem as specified in multiple UNSC resolutions. For the Council simply to reiterate clearly and explicitly that these building blocks, rooted all of them in international law and UN resolutions, are the only possible basis of a just and lasting solution would ameliorate the situation measurably, difficult though it may be to achieve unanimity today even on points every single one of which has been voted for unanimously or nearly unanimously by this Council or other UN bodies in the past.
Another larger step would be for the Council to assert its prerogatives and push forcefully for a more multilateral and less unilateral structure for resolution of the Palestine question. The unilateral approach, which has prevailed since the Gunnar Jarring mission was eclipsed toward the end of the 1960’s, a half century ago, has manifestly failed to bring peace to Palestine, and it is time for it to take a back seat to more multilateral and less biased efforts. Power has its prerogatives and cannot be ignored, but it is time to realize that a century of unmitigated failure should bring this body to search for a better, a more multilateral, way to structure a negotiation than the unilateral one that has been followed with no success until now.
A much bigger step, albeit one that should not be so hard for this body and the world community to accept, is the principle that in any projected solution in Palestine-Israel, all citizens of both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples, and both collectivities, must enjoy rights and security on a basis of complete equality. Whatever rights one enjoys, the other must enjoy as well. These rights include the right of self-determination, and political, civil, human and religious rights.
This is not such a far-fetched notion. In November 1947, the UN General Assembly voted for the creation of two states in Palestine. One was eventually established, one was not. For all its many flaws, and the injustice to the overwhelming Arab majority of the population that it embodied, that resolution contained one kernel that we can look back on and build on: this is the indisputable principle that there are two peoples in Palestine/Israel. In whatever way these two peoples are to structure their relations in future – whether on a two state, or on some other basis – the weaker cannot be left to the mercies of the stronger, with its powerful ally putting its large thumb on the already tilted scales. This is where the Security Council can and must play a role, by insisting that the principle of complete equality of rights and international law be the essential basis of any lasting solution.
I know a little bit about the difficulties that your Excellencies, and the states you represent, must confront in dealing with this intractable issue, one that often has profound resonance within the internal politics of your countries, and provokes intense passions on all sides. This is the moment to grasp that sharp nettle, to bring concepts of right, principle, justice and equality to bear, in order to overcome the decades of expediency that have given us the hollow shell of a “process” but have manifestly not brought peace to Palestine or to the two peoples who live there. As I have recently written, rather than bringing lasting peace, the efforts of the United Nations and outside parties in Palestine have all too often failed to prevent further war, displacement and misery. May the opportunity presented by the most recent crisis in Palestine and Israel lead this Council to efforts that will break this pattern, and set their two peoples on the path towards a just, lasting and sustainable peace and real, equal security.