On November 29, 1947, after Great Britain--the mandatory power in Palestine--had asked the United Nations to meet in a special session to discuss the "problem of Palestine," the General Assembly passed Resolution 181 (II) to end the British mandate by August 1, 1948. The centerpiece of this historic resolution, however, was to partition Palestine and call for the establishment, after a transition period, of "Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem."
This United Nations decision unleashed a catastrophe whose reverberations Palestinians continue to experience until today. Three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs--who were the majority of the population of historic Palestine--fled for their lives after experiencing or learning of massacres by Zionist paramilitary organizations, or were expelled from their homes during the ensuing Arab-Israeli war of 1948. By the 1949 armistice, the original partition lines had shifted violently so that Israel's footprint became much larger than envisioned by the proposed partition plan--it was accorded 55 percent by the plan, but seized an additional 23 percent of Palestinian territory. At present, the drastically reduced Palestinian land continues to be occupied by the Israeli military and Jerusalem is occupied and divided with Israel controlling and limiting access to religious sites. Palestinians originally displaced during the Nakba (the Arabic word for Catastrophe--what the Palestinians call the 1948 war when they lost their homeland) are still prevented from exercising the right to return to their homes in what is now Israel. And contrary to the resolution (and to the Fourth Geneva Convention) Israel has expropriated additional vast tracts of Palestinian territory for its own use and especially for the building and transfer of its own Israeli citizens to illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
Thirty years after the UN partition plan, the General Assembly passed a new resolution proclaiming an annual observation, on November 29th, to mark the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The particular date, the UN notes, "was chosen because of its meaning and significance to the Palestinian people... Of the two States to be created under this resolution, only one, Israel, has so far come into being."
UN Resolutions 32/40 (1977), 34/65 (1979), and subsequent General Assembly mandates enshrine the annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Observances at UN offices in New York, Geneva, and Vienna include special bulletins, cultural events, and meetings that feature high level speakers, such as the UN Secretary-General and the Presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council, as well as messages from the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority. The United Nations describes the day as providing
"an opportunity for the international community to focus its attention on the fact that the question of Palestine remained unresolved and that the Palestinian people are yet to attain their inalienable rights as defined by the General Assembly, namely, the right to self-determination without external interference, the right to national independence and sovereignty, and the right to return to their homes and property from which they had been displaced."
The fact is that this historic dislocation has resulted in a massive diaspora for the Palestinian people living in the Palestinian territories, Israel, Arab countries, and beyond. The total population of Palestinians numbered about 11.8 million as of the end of 2013, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. This figure comprises 4.5 million in Palestine, 1.4 million in Israel, 5.2 million in Arab countries, and approximately 665,000 in other countries throughout the world.
In November of 2012, exactly 65 years after the UN's partition plan, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to grant Palestine non-member observer state status at the United Nations. The report of the Secretary-General, one of the documents used to consider this vote, ended with the following words: "As Secretary-General, I will continue to ensure that the United Nations works towards the establishment of an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian State living side by side in peace with a secure Israel in the framework of a comprehensive regional settlement consistent with Security Council resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973), 1397 (2002), 1515 (2003) and 1860 (2009), and in accordance with the Quartet road map, the Arab Peace Initiative and the principle of land for peace."
Despite numerous declarations and resolutions by the United Nations concerning Israel and Palestine, the status of the Palestinian people remains unresolved, precarious, and unjust. They have not attained their rights to "self-determination without external interference, the right to national independence and sovereignty, and the right to return to their homes and property from which they had been displaced." In fact, about half of the world's Palestinian population continues to live as refugees and in exile. Those who are citizens of Israel are treated as second class citizens, while those in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem live under various levels of repressive military occupation and witness, daily, the continued expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.
Although UN member states have tried since the late forties to propose and gain support for resolutions that push for Palestinian human and national rights, their efforts have largely been derailed, particularly in the form of vetoes by powerful members such as the United States. At the same time, it is also important to remember that many UN agencies, especially UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), have played a crucial role in providing assistance to the refugees since 1950; UNRWA continues to serve as a lifeline to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.
The International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People honors all those who have struggled for Palestinian independence and all the Palestinians who have lived and died in wars, under occupation, as refugees, and in exile.
Zeina Azzam is executive director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center. The views expressed are her own.