United Nations commemorates the 1948 flight of Palestinians from Israel

In a speech, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged the UN to suspend Israel’s membership unless it implements resolutions establishing separate Jewish and Arab states and the return of Palestinian refugees

War Israel Hamas
A group of Arab refugees walks along a road from Jerusalem to Lebanon, carrying their belongings with them on November 9, 1948.Jim Pringle (AP)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged the United Nations on Monday to suspend Israel’s membership unless it implements resolutions establishing separate Jewish and Arab states and the return of Palestinian refugees. Abbas spoke during the first official U.N. commemoration of the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from what is now Israel following the U.N.’s partition of British-ruled Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states 75 years ago.

Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Gilad Erdan, had sent letters to General Assembly ambassadors condemning the commemoration and urging them not to attend what he called an “abominable event” and a “blatant attempt to distort history.” He said those who attended would be condoning antisemitism and giving a green light to Palestinians “to continue exploiting international organs to promote their libelous narrative.”

Israel and the United States boycotted the commemoration of what is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe, but representatives from all regional groups at the United Nations addressed the gathering.

In a lengthy emotion-charged speech, Abbas asked the world’s nations why more than 1,000 resolutions adopted by U.N. bodies dealing with Palestinians had never been implemented. He held up a letter from Israel’s foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, after resolutions were adopted in 1947 and 1948 promising to implement them and said: “Either they do respect these obligations, or they stop becoming a member.”

The General Assembly, which had 57 member nations in 1947, approved the resolution dividing Palestine by a vote of 33-13 with 10 abstentions. The Jewish side accepted the U.N. partition plan and after the British mandate expired in 1948, Israel declared its independence. The Arabs rejected the plan and neighboring Arab countries launched a war against the Jewish state.

The Nakba commemorates the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes in 1948.

The fate of these refugees and their descendants — estimated at over 5 million across the Middle East — remains a major disputed issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel rejects demands for a mass return of refugees to long-lost homes, saying it would threaten the country’s Jewish character.

As the 75th anniversary approached, the now 193-member General Assembly approved a resolution last Nov. 30 by a vote of 90-30 with 47 abstentions requesting the U.N. Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People organize a high-level event on May 15 to commemorate the Nakba. The United States was among the countries that joined Israel in voting against the resolution.

Explaining why a U.N. commemoration took so long, Palestinian U.N. Ambassador Riyad Mansour told The Associated Press on Friday that the Palestinians have moved cautiously at the United Nations since the General Assembly raised their status in 2012 from a non-member observer to a non-member observer state.

U.N. recognition as a state enabled the Palestinians to join treaties, take cases against Israel’s occupation to the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, which is the U.N.’s highest tribunal, and in 2019 to chair the Group of 77, the U.N. coalition of 134 mainly developing nations and China, he said.

At the 70th anniversary of the 1948 exodus five years ago, Mansour said, “the word Nakba was used in a General Assembly resolution for the first time,” and Abbas then gave instructions to obtain a mandate from the U.N. to commemorate the 75th anniversary.

The Nakba commemoration comes as Israeli-Palestinian fighting has intensified and protests over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government and its plan to overhaul Israel’s judiciary show no sign of abating. Israel’s polarization and the Netanyahu government’s extremist positions have also sparked growing international concern.

Mansour said Friday that Palestinian refugees “are being forcibly removed from their homes and forcibly transferred by Israel at an unprecedented rate,” reminiscent of 1948.

In a speech to the U.N. Security Council on April 25, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Malki renewed his call for countries that haven’t yet recognized the state of Palestine “to do so as a means to salvage the moribund two-state solution.” He also urged countries to support the Palestinian request for full membership in the United Nations, which would demonstrate international support for a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians lived side-by-side in peace.

To hurt Israel economically, Malki urged countries to ban products from Israeli settlements and trade with settlements, to “sanction those who collect funds for settlements and those who advocate for them and those who advance them,” and to list settler organizations that carry out killings and burnings as “terrorist organizations.”

And he urged the international community to take Israel to the International Court of Justice. The General Assembly asked the court in December to give its opinion on the legal consequences of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories, a move denounced by Israel.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS