There Could Have Been Peace

By Nizar Sakhnini

Count Folke Bernadotte’s report and recommendations were submitted to the UN Security Council on 16 September 1948.  On the following day, 17 September, Bernadotte arrived at Kalandia, just north of Jerusalem. After lunch with Dov Joseph, the Governor of Jerusalem, the UN party proceeded to inspect various UN and Red Cross facilities in the Jewish sector.

In the Katamon quarter of Jewish Jerusalem, the three UN vehicles were stopped by an Israeli jeep occupied by several men wearing the dark khaki uniforms typical of the Israeli army.  One of the men put a machine gun through the left rear window and sprayed bullets point-blank at Bernadotte.  The UN vehicle rushed to Hadassah Hospital but it was too late.

Those who had planned and carried out the assassination were never really punished.  One of them, Yitzhak Ysenitsky, using the name Yitzhak Shamir, later served as Israeli Foreign Minister under Menachem Begin, whom he succeeded as Prime Minister.

Bernadotte’s final proposals to end the conflict were published on 20 September.

“It would be an offence against elemental justice,” Bernadotte wrote, “if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right of return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine and indeed, offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries”.  According to Bernadotte, “no settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the Arab refugee to return to his home.”  He further stated, “as a result of the conflict in Palestine almost the whole of the Arab population fled or was expelled from the area under Jewish occupation.”  He was conscious that the Israelis were stealing Arab property and land while destroying those homes that were not suitable for use by Jews.  Bernadotte noted that, according to “numerous reports from reliable sources”, there was, “large-scale looting, pillage and plundering and destruction of villages without apparent military necessity” in Israeli controlled territory and affirmed Israeli liability, “to restore private property to its Arab owners and to indemnify those owners of property wantonly destroyed”.  He proposed that Jerusalem would be internationalized while the Negev and Lydda-Ramle would be part of an Arab state.  The entire area of Galilee including portions still in Arab hands would be given to Israel.

Operation Hiram in the Galilee on 29 October and Operation Horev on 22 December in the Negev made it clear that with an army of 70,000 the new Jewish State was willing and able to take the territory by force of arms.  Moreover, Sharett asserted that Israel did not consider that Bernadotte’s report had provided a basis for discussion (1).

UN General Assembly resolution # 194 of December 11, 1948 expressed its “Deep appreciation of the progress achieved through the good offices of the late UN Mediator in promoting a peaceful adjustment of the future situation of Palestine, for which cause he sacrificed his life”.  The resolution also “established a Conciliation Commission” to assume the functions given to the UN Mediator on Palestine by resolution 186 (S-2) of the General Assembly of 14 May 1948 and “to carry out any other functions and directives given to it by the General Assembly or by the Security Council with a view to the final settlement of all questions outstanding between the Governments and authorities concerned”.

In addition, the resolution stipulated that the Holy Places, including Nazareth, should be protected and free access to them assured.  And that “the Jerusalem area, including the surrounding villages and towns from Abu Dis in the east, Bethlehem in the south, Ein Karem in the west, and Shu’fat in the north should be placed under effective UN control”.  Moreover, the resolution resolved that “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return”.  It also instructed that “the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees”.

During the Palestine Conciliation Commission (PCC) discussions in 1949, the Arabs were ready to make peace with Israel provided the refugees were allowed to return to their homes.  Israel rejected the offer.  The “return” and “rehabilitation” of the Palestinian refugees are inconsistent and incompatible with the Zionist objective of building an exclusive Jewish State.  Ussishkin was very clear in this respect when he stated in 1938 that “There is no hope that this new Jewish State will survive, to say nothing of develop, if the Arabs are as numerous as they are today.”  Ussishkin, who was addressing the “Transfer Committee” at the time, added, “The worst is not that the Arabs would comprise 45 or 50% of the population of the new state but that 75% of the land is owned by Arabs.”  This land was desired for waves of Jewish immigrants who would populate the Jewish State.

On 17 March 1949, eight hundred delegates convened in Ramallah (The Ramallah Congress of Refugee Delegates) and discussed the terrible conditions of refugee life as well as political issues.  The congress demanded the return of the refugees “without awaiting the ultimate settlement for the Palestine question” – that is, the country’s political fate.

A high-ranking delegation representing the Ramallah congress was sent to the PCC.  Their presentation and demands were so impressive that the Arab governments and other refugee committees had no alternative but to meet with them to co-ordinate presentations before the Arab League, the PCC, and other UN agencies.

The delegation of the Ramallah congress insisted on the right of the refugees to return to their homes, and argued that that was the only way to guarantee peace and security in Palestine and in the Middle East.  The delegation also expressed its readiness to discuss directly with Israel the question of return, compensation, and peace in Palestine.  It explained to the PCC the harm and danger that would result from dispossession, neglect, and denial of the rights of the refugees, and from the perpetuation of their life in exile:

“There is no human force that could stop the personal revenge of individual refugees against the party that sentenced them to death.  It is inconceivable that the refugees should be left to die with their children in caves and deserts in Arab lands, while watching European families of various extractions living by force in the homes that they had built with their own sweat and blood, enjoying a peaceful life.  Nothing could prevent these refugees from infiltrating, as individuals, and blowing up those houses over their own heads and the heads of those now living in them (2).”

The PCC took two steps to try to break the logjam:

1.  Set up a Technical Committee on Refugees to workout measures for implementation of the provisions of UN resolution # 194.

2.  Called an international conference at Lausanne where, under PCC chairmanship, the parties could discuss the whole range of issues – refugees, Jerusalem, borders, recognition – and hammer out a comprehensive peace settlement (3).

The PCC conference was opened in Lausanne, Switzerland on 26 April 1949.  Under the threat that the U.S. would prevent Israel’s admission to the UN, Israel finally agreed to attend the conference.  President Truman threatened Ben-Gurion: “If the government of Israel continues to reject the basic principles of the UN resolution of Dec. 11, 1948, and the friendly advice offered by the U.S. government for the sole purpose of facilitating a genuine peace in Palestine, the U.S. government will regretfully be forced to the conclusion that a revision of its attitude toward Israel has become unavoidable” (4).

Another delegation of the Ramallah congress traveled to the Lausanne conference to be close to the negotiations related with the refugees’ problem, borders, and peace.  The delegation was instructed to adhere to the UN resolution # 194 calling for repatriation of the refugees and was free to meet with all international and political bodies involved in the negotiations.  The AHC sent its own delegation to Lausanne and a number of Palestinian notables were included as members of the official delegations of the Arab states.  All the Palestinian delegations were united on a common platform, namely, to focus the debate on the fundamental problems of the refugees.  “Two options were put forward to the delegations of the Arab states.  The first was that they present their demands to Israel concerning borders, refugee rights, finances, and commitments, threatening to re-ignite the war if no agreement was reached.  The second was to accept Israel as it existed on the condition that each refugee be allowed to return to his home, whether it was under Arab or Israeli jurisdiction (5).”

Israel was admitted as a member to the UN on 11 May 1949.  Simultaneously, the Arab states and Israel signed a protocol stating that the UN Partition Resolution and the partition map included in it constituted the basis for negotiations.  The Lausanne protocol stated that the aim of the conference was to achieve “as quickly as possible the objectives of the General Assembly resolution of December 11, 1948, regarding the refugees, respect for their rights, and the preservation of their property, as well as territorial and other questions”.  By signing the Lausanne protocol, the Arabs had in fact accepted the legitimacy of the UN Partition Resolution.  They had abandoned the idea of Palestine as a unitary Arab state, accepted the reality of Israel, and agreed to solve the dispute by political means.

Ahmad Shukairy, a Palestinian member and chief spokesman of the Syrian delegation, proposed direct negotiations between the Palestinian refugees and Israel on the basis of the Lausanne protocol, independent of the negotiations with the Arab states. Eliyahu Sasson, the Jewish Agency’s chief Arab affairs expert, dismissed the offer.  In his guidelines to the delegation in Lausanne with respect to negotiating peace, Sharett pointed out that “it behooves us to do so not with haste and trepidation but by revealing strength and the ability to exist even without official peace.”  According to Sharett, since official peace was not a vital necessity, Israel had nothing to lose from procrastination (6).

The efforts of the PCC were unsuccessful.  It called for a return of the refugees to their homes.  Israel simply rejected that.  Palestinian homes and lands were coveted and needed to settle Jewish immigrants coming from all corners of the world.  It also called for the assumption of the functions of mediation started with Count Bernadotte to arrive at a “final settlement of questions outstanding between the Governments and authorities concerned”.  This meant final borders for Israel and peace with its neighbors, which would limit the Zionist plans for expansion.

Failure of the PCC to bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict was repeated with a multitude of efforts for peace that followed ever since.  Peace means respect for the other and respect for human rights and international law, which is incompatible with the Zionist goal to occupy more lands and push more Arabs into exodus.


(1) Michael Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from their Homeland, London/Boston: 1987, pp. 158-162.

(2) Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities.  New York: 1987, pp. 214 – 222.

(3) Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Cambridge, 1987, p. 260.

(4) Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities.  New York: 1987, p. 214-222.

(5) Ibid, pp. 214 – 222.

(6) Ibid, p. 215, citing ISA 120.02/2447/3 & ISA 93.03/2487/11)

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