United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine

The following is the 4th in a series of articles being presented by Palestine & The UN regarding U.N. committees and bodies specifically related to the question of Palestine.  The articles focus on the establishment of those committees and bodies, as well as their histories, mandates, work and compositions. The 4th to be reviewed in this series will be the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP).

Since 1949, and until the early 1960s, the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) was the main U.N. organ dealing with the question of Palestine.  Its work encompassed the major political, legal, and economic aspects of the question.  After that, although still in existence, the Conciliation Commission did not play a significant role, and its annual brief reports to the General Assembly (GA) have indicated that, without substantial change in the political situation, the possibilities for action by the Commission would remain circumscribed.

The GA, following considerable debate on the recommendations contained in the report of the U.N. Mediator on Palestine (Count Folke Bernadotte) adopted resolution 194 (III) on 11 December 1948.  The resolution, inter alia, established the UNCCP, consisting of 3 U.N. Member States, which were designated as France, Turkey, and the United States, a membership that has remained unchanged until this day.

Resolution 194 specified the mandate of the UNCCP in three areas, namely conciliation, Jerusalem and the Holy Places, and refugees.  In the area of conciliation, the Assembly requested the UNCCP to assume the functions of the U.N. Mediator on Palestine. The UNCCP was also requested to establish contact with concerned parties and promote negotiations among the respective Governments and authorities, either with the Commission or directly between the parties, towards final settlement of all outstanding questions.

With regard to Jerusalem and the Holy Places, and in view of the need to protect the Holy Places in Palestine and ensure free access to the them, the UNCCP was requested to present detailed proposals to the GA regarding the permanent international regime for the Jerusalem area and recommendations for the Holy Places therein.  It was also authorized to call upon the political authorities of the area to give formal guarantees for the protection of and access to the Holy Places, including those outside Jerusalem. The Assembly resolved that the Jerusalem area should be placed under U.N. control and authorized the UNCCP to appoint a representative to cooperate with local authorities regarding its administration.

As for the refugees, in paragraph 11 of resolution 194 (III), the GA resolved that refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return or for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.  In that same paragraph, the UNCCP was instructed to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation, as well as to maintain close relations with the Director of the U.N. Relief for Palestine Refugees and with the appropriate U.N. organs and agencies.

To carry out its mandate, the Assembly authorized the UNCCP to appoint subsidiary bodies and employ technical experts as necessary for the effective discharge of its functions and responsibilities. The Assembly decided that the Commissions official headquarters would be established at Jerusalem.  In the final paragraph of the above resolution, the Assembly requested the U.N. Secretary-General (SG) to provide the necessary staff and facilities and to make arrangements to provide the required funds for carrying out the terms of the resolution, including the mandate of the UNCCP.

In undertaking its mandate, the UNCCP considered that its most pressing task was to employ its good offices to enable the parties, namely the Arab States and Israel, to reach a settlement. Soon after establishing headquarters in Jerusalem in January 1949, the UNCCP undertook a series of official visits to the Governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel to ascertain their views in a preliminary manner.  Following these initial contacts, the UNCCP invited the Arab States to hold meetings in Beirut (21 March to 15 April 1949) for the purpose of exchanging views on the issue of the Palestine refugees.

Similarly, the UNCCP met with the Israeli Prime Minister in Tel Aviv on 7 April 1949 to examine in depth the refugee question. At a later stage, it invited the parties to the Lausanne Meetings in Switzerland, held from 27 April to 15 September 1949. The Commission emphasized that such talks were not to be considered peace negotiations, but rather exchanges of views that might permit the achievement of concrete and positive results towards the ultimate resolution of the outstanding issues and conflict among the parties.

Throughout, the Commission stressed the interrelationship of all aspects of the conflict, particularly the refugee question and the territorial question, urging the parties to expand their dialogue to include all problems covered by resolution 194.  In this regard, the UNCCP requested the parties to sign with it a Protocol, which would constitute the basis of work.  The purpose of work was stated in the Protocol as to achieve as quickly as possible the objectives of the General Assemblys resolution of 11 December 1948, regarding refugees, the respect for their rights and the preservation of their property, as well as territorial and other questions.  The Protocol signed was accompanied by a map indicating the boundaries defined in GA resolution 181 (II) of 29 November 1947, commonly referred to as the Partition Resolution.

The Lausanne meetings were resumed in 1950 in Geneva from January to July, followed by meetings in Paris from September to November 1951. Ultimately, UNCCP efforts at conciliation and mediation proved unsuccessful due to the irreconcilable differences of the parties on fundamental issues and Israels intransigent refusal to abide by resolution 181 (II), as well as its refusal to comply with paragraph 11 of resolution 194 (III) on the Palestine refugees.  In terminating the Paris Conference in November 1951, the UNCCP concluded that neither side was prepared to fully implement the resolutions guiding its work, making it extremely difficult to carry out its mandate.

From 1961 to 1962, the UNCCP undertook efforts to explore, by means of a Special Representative, the views of the parties regarding possible actions that could be exerted to implement paragraph 11 of resolution 194 concerning the Palestine refugees.  Then, in 1963, the U.S. proposed that, as a member of the Commission, it would initiate a series of talks at a high level with the 5 governments concerned. However, these initiatives did not result in any progress in terms of the UNCCPs mandate for conciliation or its mandate for the Palestine refugees.

With regard to the part of its mandate pertaining to Jerusalem, the UNCCP established a Committee on Jerusalem and its Holy Places. This Committee was authorized to establish contact with interested authorities for the purpose of obtaining detailed information to carry out its responsibilities in this area. The Committee also conducted interviews with parties directly concerned, including representatives of Arab and Jewish local authorities and with religious representatives in Jerusalem and around the Middle East, seeking to encourage acceptance of the idea of the international regime for Jerusalem and thus facilitating its potential establishment.

According to records of the UNCCP, the Arab delegations were generally prepared to accept the concept of an international regime for the Jerusalem area, provided that the U.N. offered the necessary guarantees for the stability and permanence of this regime. Israel, however, rejected this principle, accepting international control only of the Holy Places.

By September 1949, the UNCCP submitted a draft proposal to the GA regarding a special status for Jerusalem, including numerous provisions for how this could be effected.  Provisions included, inter alia, those for the establishment of a General Council of Arab and Jewish representatives for the city; for an international tribunal to ensure respect for the plan; and for the protection of and free access to the Holy Places.  At the same time, this special status would allow for normal powers of Government by the two adjoining states, namely Israel and Jordan, within the Jewish and Arab parts of Jerusalem respectively.  Although the UNCCP fulfilled the part of its mandate regarding Jerusalem, this proposal was never implemented.

With regard to its work concerning the Palestine refugees, the UNCCP determined that their repatriation or resettlement could not be effectively carried out without establishment of mechanisms to promote concrete actions to alleviate their plight.  This required preparatory work of a technical nature. Accordingly, the UNCCP established a Technical Committee in June 1949 to undertake several studies. According to the Committees estimates at the time, the population of Palestine refugees numbered approximately 711,000 persons.

The UNCCP subsequently dissolved the Technical Committee and established the Economic Survey Mission in August 1949. The Mission was charged with examining the economic situation in the countries affected by the conflict in ways to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees as well as the payment of compensation.            Following the Missions interim report to the GA, the Assembly adopted resolution 302 (IV) of 8 December 1949, which established UNRWA.

On 14 December 1950, the GA adopted resolution 394 (V), mandating the UNCCP to set up a Refugee Office in Jerusalem. The Refugee Office was established in May 1951 and determined that its immediate task was to arrive at a global estimate of the value of abandoned Arab refugee property in Israel.  The Office estimated that the expanse of land abandoned by the Arab refugees in the territory that came under the control of Israel was approximately 16, 324 sq. km., of which 4, 574 sq. km. were cultivable. The demilitarized areas and Jerusalem no-mans land were not included in these estimates.

The Office estimated the total value of this abandoned land to be about 100 million Palestine pounds. It also concluded that the approximate global value of movable property belonging to the refugees before their exodus was 20 million Palestine pounds. These estimates were strongly criticized by the Arab parties and refugee representatives. The Refugee Office also prepared an initial plan for individual assessment of refugee properties. This task was later assigned to the Commissions Office for the Identification and Valuation of Arab Refugee Properties (Technical Office), whose work spanned from 1952 to 1966.

The work of the Technical Office was carried out using microfilms of the land registers made available by Britain, which until 1948 was the mandatory power in Palestine. However, the registers alone were not enough for the recording purposes of the Committee, because they did not include unsettled land that was not officially surveyed and registered and due to the number of illegible prints. The missing information had to be amassed by cross-reference to land taxation records of the mandatory administration in possession of Israel and the Arab governments.

This project proceeded in 2 stages.  The 1st consisted of property identification and was carried out in New York and Jerusalem between late 1952 and August 1957.  The 2nd stage was the valuation of individual holdings as of the date of partition, which was carried out in N.Y. and was completed by 1964.  In general, this work involved the preparation of a separate record form (RP1s) for each parcel of land owned by Arab individuals, consisting of the most important particulars regarding the parcels - location, area, description of property, names of owners and their shares, rural or urban property tax category, encumbrances and particulars of any sale for two years prior to 1948.  Lists (RP3s) were also prepared for land owned by the state, other public authorities, Jews, and other non-Arab individuals.  Basic forms were prepared for approximately 453,000 Arab-owned parcels.

Regarding the work of valuation, the Technical Office did an analysis of sale prices and devised techniques of valuation to arrive at an estimate of the market value of each individual parcel. Tax classifications for different areas were also adopted as the main yardstick for comparing types of properties. Additionally, the data obtained through identification and valuation processes were compiled in an archive of about 210,000 index cards under the name of each owner, arranged by sub-district, town and village. The general figures reached by the Technical Office were different than those reached by the Refugee Office for obvious reasons.  The immovable property was estimated at a little less than 200 million Palestine pounds and the movable property at 30 million pounds. The Office also calculated interest on movable and immovable property, depreciation of the value of money, disturbance and compensation, hardship allowance, and communal property

The Arab countries strongly criticized the Technical Offices work, especially with regard to the non-inclusion of the vast majority of the Negev lands. Moreover, from their perspective, the Office was not entitled to consider compensation without repatriation. As for Israel, it reserved its right to make detailed observations at an appropriate time and reserved its position on the general question of compensation.

During the 1970s, the Commission, in response to formal requests from interested parties, decided to make available copies of certain land records, with the understanding that the recipients would continue to treat valuation figures on a confidential basis.

The technical work done by the UNCCP is indeed of great importance.  Recently, in GA resolution 51/129 of 1996, the Assembly requested the Secretary-General to undertake efforts to preserve and modernize the existing records of the UNCCP.  In response, the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People decided to reallocate part of its financial resources over the period of 2 years to cover the expenses of the modernization project in cooperation with the Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine to the U.N.  The project is being carried out by a private company under supervision of the U.N. Division for Palestinian Rights.

In an annual resolution regarding the Palestine refugees, the GA, in response to the yearly report of the UNCCP, expresses regret that paragraph 11 of resolution 194 (III) has not been effected.  It also expresses regret that the UNCCP has been unable to find a means of achieving progress in the implementation of that paragraph for the repatriation or compensation of the refugees, and requests the Commission to exert continued efforts towards its implementation and to report to the Assembly on the matter.