The United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine

The United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine
Negotiating Palestine after the Nakba

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United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP)

The UNCCP (comprising France as Chair, Turkey , and the United States ) meets with Israel’s delegation, from left to right: Miss I. Broza , Tuvia Arazi , Eliahu Sasson and Gershon Hirsch .

31 July 1949
UN Photo

The United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) was created in December 1948 to facilitate the implementation of General Assembly Resolution 194 of 11 December 1948 on a peaceful settlement of the Palestine question. The UNCCP is one of the lesser known UN bodies responsible for the Palestine question. This can be explained in large part by the commission’s diplomatic and technical inactivity for the past sixty-odd years and also from the fact that commission archives remain closed to researchers. A significant portion of UNCCP records have nevertheless been digitized and are accessible through the United Nations Information System on Palestine (UNISPAL). Scholarly works focus largely on the commission’s diplomatic efforts to facilitate the implementation of General Assembly Resolution 194 in the years that followed the 1948 war. A few examine the UNCCP’s technical program, in particular, the documentation and valuation of property losses as a result of the 1948 war.

UNCCP Mandate

The General Assembly requested the UNCCP to assume the functions of the UN Mediator on Palestine, Count Folke Bernadotte, to carry out the specific functions and directives in Resolution 194 along with additional ones that either the General Assembly or the Security Council might give. The Acting Mediator on Palestine, Ralph Bunche, who replaced Bernadotte after his assassination by Jewish militants in September 1948, retained responsibility for the conclusion of armistice agreements between Israel and neighboring Arab states that took part in the 1948 war. The UNCCP was also empowered to carry out, at the Security Council’s request, functions that the council had previously assigned to the UN Mediator and to the UN Truce Commission.

The UNCCP’s primary function was to assist the governments and authorities concerned to reach a final settlement of all outstanding questions between them, which included the delineation of borders and the future of those parts of Palestine (West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip) which remained under Arab control after the 1948 war. This was to be done through negotiations conducted either with the Conciliation Commission or directly between the parties. The General Assembly also gave the UNCCP three specific directives:

1. Holy Places should be protected and access to them assured. The assembly thus instructed the commission to formulate recommendations on protection of and access to Holy Places in Jerusalem and to consult political authorities concerned regarding on related guarantees for Holy Places outside of the city.

2. Jerusalem should be placed under effective United Nations control. The assembly instructed the commission to formulate proposals for an international regime in Jerusalem including surrounding villages and towns.

3. Refugees wishing to return to their homes should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and the responsible governments or authorities should compensate the refugees for the loss of or damage to their properties as a result of the war. The assembly instructed the commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement, economic and social rehabilitation, and payment of compensation to the refugees.

The UNCCP was comprised of representatives from the United States, France, and Turkey, who received instructions from their respective capitals. The commission established a small Secretariat, which advised government members and carried out other duties such as arranging informal meetings of the parties. It also established a General Committee consisting of the principal adviser of each Commission member and whose task was to carry out studies and prepare periodic reports about the commission’s work. The General Assembly also authorized the commission to establish subsidiary bodies and employ technical experts to discharge its functions and carry out its responsibilities under Resolution 194. On this basis, the UNCCP created a Special Committee on Jerusalem and Holy Places, a Technical Committee on refugees, an Economic Survey Mission, a Committee of Experts on Compensation, a Refugee Office, and a Technical and Valuation Office on property.

The General Assembly further instructed the UNCCP to maintain close relations with the UN Relief for Palestine Refugees (UNRPR). The General Assembly created the UNRPR in November 1948 to coordinate emergency relief to the refugees. The American Friends Service Committee, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the League of Red Crescent Societies delivered the relief. Based on recommendations of the Commission’s Economic Survey Mission, the General Assembly replaced the UNRPR in December 1949 with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In addition to the continuation of relief, delivered directly by UNRWA, the assembly also requested the agency to set up a public works program to facilitate the economic reintegration of the refugees in the region through repatriation or resettlement.

Together, the UNCCP and UNRWA comprised what is sometimes referred to as the Palestinian refugee regime, notwithstanding the UNCCP’s considerably broader mandate for a peaceful settlement of the conflict as a whole. The two bodies shared responsibility roughly along diplomatic and technical lines. Accordingly, the UNCCP was responsible for assisting the parties in reaching agreements on repatriation, resettlement, economic and social rehabilitation, and the payment of compensation to the refugees. UNRWA was to play a role in the implementation of the agreements. More specifically, compensation fell solely under the UNCCP’s mandate while UNRWA was solely responsible for the rehabilitation of the refugees. The two bodies shared responsibility for the repatriation, resettlement, and protection of the refugees. This approximate division of labor was also the source of disagreement. Commentators identify these conflicts, together with coordination problems with the UN Truce Supervision Organization, as the reasons for the UNCCP’s operational demise. Other contributing factors include the competence of commission members, tactical errors in carrying out the commission’s mandate, and the commission’s inability to bridge fundamental disagreements between the parties.. 

UNCCP Operations

The UNCCP’s work can be divided into three periods. Between 1949 and 1951, the commission focused on the implementation of the above-mentioned directives in the context of a negotiated settlement of all outstanding issues between Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. UNCCP-facilitated meetings took place in Lausanne, Geneva, and Paris. An intersessional meeting was also held in New York. These talks focused more on procedural issues, that is, “talks about talks” rather than substantive issues. The commission also undertook technical work, most of which focused on solutions to the refugee problem. The commission met Jewish and Arab delegations separately. The Arab delegations, a number of which had Palestinian advisors, took part as a group. The commission did not allow participation of a separate Palestinian delegation. It also met informally with the Arab Higher Committee, the de facto representative of Palestinians, and various refugee organizations. 

I. In Lausanne (April–September 1949), the UNCCP acted as an intermediary and sought to facilitate Arab–Israeli negotiations through a declaration of principles (Lausanne Protocol) under which the parties agreed to further talks on the basis of General Assembly Resolutions 181 and 194. The protocol was an effort to combine Arab concerns about refugee return with Israeli concerns about the delineation of borders. The above-mentioned Technical Committee on refugees was set up in June and reported to the UN Secretary-General in September, after which it was dissolved with members placed at the disposal of the Economic Survey Mission. A Mixed Committee of Experts on Blocked Accounts was also set up in June and tasked with submitting recommendations to the General Committee on procedures to unblock frozen assets, most of which belonged to the refugees. The UNCCP’s General Committee, meanwhile, looked into solutions for other more immediate problems such as the repeal of Israel’s Absentees’ Property Regulations. The UNCCP also appointed a UN representative to Jerusalem in August and submitted the report of its Special Committee on Jerusalem and Holy Places to the Secretary-General in September. The UNCCP thus considered that it had fulfilled the General Assembly’s specific directives on these two issues. Efforts in Lausanne to facilitate a solution on territory/borders and the implementation of the General Assembly’s specific directives on refugees ended without agreement.

II. In Geneva (January–July 1950), the UNCCP sought to facilitate progress toward a comprehensive solution through the establishment of bilateral working committees, a procedure meant to reconcile the desire of Arab states to negotiate as a bloc and their request for UNCCP mediation with Israel’s desire for direct negotiations facilitated through the commission’s good offices. The UNCCP also recommended creation of an additional committee responsible for multilateral aspects of the refugee problem. The Geneva talks also ended without agreement. In October, the UNCCP established an Expert Committee on Compensation, which marked the beginning of a shift in emphasis in commission efforts to facilitate implementation of the General Assembly’s directives on refugees. General Assembly Resolution 394 of 14 December 1950, which established the above-mentioned Refugee Office, and Resolution 393 of 2 December 1950, which created a Reintegration Fund, further elaborated the commission’s shift from the discussion of principles to making arrangements for a solution to the refugee problem. The Refugee Office subsequently carried out a wide range of technical reports on compensation, a global estimate of property losses arising from the 1948 war valued at around 100 million Palestinian pounds, a definition of a Palestinian refugee relevant to the implementation of Resolution 194, and an outline plan for a pilot project on the return and resettlement of a small group (40,000 in total) of refugees.

III. In Paris (September–November 1951), the UNCCP turned to mediation presenting its own Comprehensive Pattern of Proposals. The commission initially sought agreement on a nonaggression clause after which it focused on securing assent to the five points that comprised its last set of proposals to facilitate the implementation of Resolution 194. This included Israeli agreement on the return of a specific number of refugees, payment of compensation for the property of non-returnees, mutual release of blocked accounts, and mutual revision of the 1949 armistice agreements. The talks once again ended without agreement. In November, the UNCCP informed the General Assembly that it was unable to execute its mandate and further recommended the re-organization of the UN mission in the region. The General Assembly subsequently decided (Resolution 512 of 26 January 1952) to devolve responsibility for a political solution to the governments and authorities concerned. The General Assembly further recommended (Resolution 513 of 26 January 1952) that UNRWA explore the transfer of relief administration to Arab host states while the agency would continue the delivery of health, welfare, and education and cover the costs of the programs.

Between 1952 and 1964 the UNCCP focused largely on the documentation and valuation of individual property losses from the 1948 war. A Technical Office was set up in 1952 and submitted its final report twelve years later, which valued rural and urban refugee property losses at more than 200 million Palestinian pounds. In 1966, the Technical Office was closed. Assets held in block accounts were also released in 1952, 1954, and 1959. In 1961 the commission appointed a Special Representative to further explore options for a separate solution to the refugee issue. After two missions to the Middle East for consultations with Israel and Arab states, the Special Representative drafted a detailed proposal for a pilot project on refugee repatriation and resettlement. The initiative ended without agreement. The UNCCP has been largely inactive since 1965 apart from the digitization of its property records in the late 1990s to facilitate negotiations on the refugee issue during the Middle East peace process.

Selected Bibliography: 

Bick, Etta.  “Two Level Negotiations and U.S. Foreign Policy: The Failure of the Johnson Plan for Palestinian Refugees, 1961–1962.” Diplomacy & Statecraft 17, no.3 (2006): 447–74.

Caplan, Neil. Futile Diplomacy: The United Nations, the Great Powers and Middle East Peacemaking, 1948–1954, Vol. 3. London: Frank Cass, 1997.

Fischbach, Michael. Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab–Israeli Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Forsythe, David. United Nations Peacemaking: The Conciliation Commission for Palestine. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

Hamzeh, Fuad. United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine, 1949-1967. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1968.

Rempel, Terry. The United Nations Conciliation Commission and a Durable Solution for Palestinian Refugees. Bethlehem: BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency & Refugee Rights, 2000.

Waldman, Simon A. Anglo–American Diplomacy and the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1948–1951. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.