53rd Session of the General Assembly Productive for Palestine

The 53rd session of the General Assembly adopted 24 resolutions relating to different aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including 20 resolutions dealing specifically with its crux: the Palestine question. Those Palestinian resolutions dealt with the same subjects as the resolutions adopted during the 52nd session, with one new resolution, entitled Bethlehem 2000. The subjects addressed in those resolutions included the following: Jerusalem, settlements, refugees and displaced persons, UNRWA, the right to self-determination, principles of peaceful settlement, permanent sovereignty over natural resources, and assistance. The resolutions also dealt with relevant committees and programs, namely the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (CEIRPP), the Division for Palestinian Rights, and the Special Information Programme on Palestine, as well as the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices. The titles and voting results of all those resolutions are included on page 3.

In addition to the resolutions, the General Assembly adopted a new decision, requesting the Secretary-General to use the term "Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem", when appropriate, in his reports. As for the Middle East peace process resolution of previous years, for the second consecutive year, the U.S., Russia, and Norway decided not to table that resolution due to the Israeli rejection of inclusion of the principle of land for peace in the draft. In terms of voting, three of the Palestinian resolutions were adopted by consensus: Bethlehem 2000, Assistance to the Palestinian People, and the resolution on the Working Group on the Financing of UNRWA. Among the other resolutions, there were two resolutions that Israel was the only Member State to cast a negative vote on. Those resolutions were Assistance to Palestine Refugees and Jerusalem. The rest of the resolutions were adopted by an overwhelming majority with only Israel and the United States voting against them, in one instance joined by Micronesia.

Resolution 53/27 on Bethlehem 2000 was the first to be adopted by the General Assembly under a new agenda item introduced by the Assembly upon the request of the CEIRPP. The resolution focused on engaging the U.N. in this important occasion and dealt with the religious, cultural and historical dimensions of the upcoming event in Bethlehem. It also focused attention on the "Bethlehem 2000 Project" of the Palestinian Authority and called for increased assistance in this regard. (As the one new resolution in the package, the text of Bethlehem 2000 is printed herein on page 3.)

The Palestinian side, while working hard to achieve consensus on this resolution, insisted on the need to emphasize the Palestinian identity of Bethlehem. After difficult negotiations with the U.S. and the European Union (EU), it was agreed that the following phrase would be used as the first preambular paragraph of the resolution: "the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, being the birthplace of Jesus Christ, is one of the most historic and significant sites on earth." Although the Israeli delegation agreed to join the consensus, it could not disguise its displeasure and, after adoption of the resolution, made a statement accusing the Palestinian delegation of "political manipulation" in the resolution. The Israeli statement was not understood by the delegates of the Assembly, as it was contrary to Israel’s agreement to accept the consensus and contrary to the positive atmosphere that prevailed that afternoon.

Some important changes took place in the package of resolutions as compared to the texts of last year. One of those changes related to the resolution on the Right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. This year’s resolution reaffirmed this inalienable right and added the following: "without excluding the option of a state." The resolution had a total of 71 cosponsors, including all the members of the EU, and was adopted by 162 votes in favor. Only the U.S. and Israel voted against it. Moreover, Norway finally joined the overwhelming majority and voted in favor of the resolution rather than abstaining on it.

A change also took place with regard to the resolution on the Applicability of the 4th Geneva Convention to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem, and the Other Occupied Arab Territories under agenda item 84 (Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices). A preambular and an operative paragraph were added to the resolution concerning the need to convene a conference of the High Contracting Parties to the 4th Geneva Convention on measures to enforce the Convention in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Jerusalem. The preambular paragraph noted the convening of the meeting of experts of the High Contracting Parties, from 27 to 29 October 1998 in Geneva, and the operative paragraph reiterated the need for implementation of the recommendations of the 10th Emergency Special Session for the convening of the conference. As such, the important issue of convening the conference remains at the forefront of the Palestinian agenda at the U.N., and this resolution is expected to lead to positive action by Switzerland, in its capacity as depository of the Conventions.

As for the resolutions on UNRWA, the first resolution under that item, Assistance to Palestine refugees, extended the mandate of the agency for another three years, as is traditionally done periodically. Also under UNRWA, the resolution on Palestine refugees’ properties and their revenues requested the Secretary-General to complete the modernization of the records of the U.N. Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP), thus enabling the Secretariat to complete the preservation of these important records in the near future.

With regard to the resolution on Assistance to the Palestinian people, last year’s language referring to "the West Bank and Gaza" was removed, while the term "Occupied Territory" was maintained. The EU continued its practice of sponsoring the resolution. Further, the decision mentioned earlier came about as a political necessity, as well as for practical reasons, including the matters of the assignment of "Standard Country or Area Codes for Statistical Use" by the U.N. Statistics Division and of a "top level domain identification" by the International Statistics Organization (ISO).

With regard to the resolutions under the agenda item "Question of Palestine", changes were made in the resolutions concerning the CEIRPP and the Division for Palestinian Rights. The changes were made to achieve more efficiency and effectiveness in their programs of work. For instance, it was decided that the practice of convening separate meetings for NGOS and governments would be halted and substituted by combined meetings for governments and NGOS, as well as other components of the civil society, with emphasis on specific themes for those meetings. Further, emphasis was put on specific projects such as UNISPAL (the U.N. information service on Palestine) and the modernization of the records of the UNCCP, as well as the training project conducted by the Division for young Palestinian Authority employees.

Apart from the resolutions, at the request of Palestine, the Chairman of the Coordinating Bureau of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Permanent Representative of South Africa, sent a letter to the Chairman of the Credentials Committee during the 53rd session, conveying the position taken by the NAM Summit with regard to Israeli credentials, which "reiterated that Israeli representation in the work of the General Assembly of the United Nations must be in conformity with international law, thus ensuring that Israeli credentials do not cover the occupied territories since 1967, including Jerusalem."

Overall, the 53rd session was a productive session, which reflected and reaffirmed the position of the international community in support of the Palestinian cause and the just struggle of the Palestinian people to achieve their rights and also reaffirmed support for the Middle East peace process and the full implementation of the agreements reached between the two sides.