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Colonizing Jerusalem

Rhetoric and Inaction at the UN

By Marya Farah

The ongoing Nakba, as deliberately exercised in Jerusalem, has placed the city as the epicenter of Israel’s settler-colonial project, where Palestinians face an imposed reality that systematically targets them and transforms their city. In parallel, it has highlighted the disconnect between the international community’s rote discourse on the religious and historical importance of the “Holy City” and its failure to uphold international law or even its own objectives toward the city.While not the starting point of the international community’s aspirations, United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 181 has become a baseline when discussing the status of the city. The resolution, passed in November 1947, called for the partition of Palestine and the establishment of Jerusalem as a “corpus separatum under a special international regime… administered by the United Nations.”i The resolution defined Jerusalem to include the then-municipality and span from Shu’fat to Bethlehem, as the most northern and southern points, to Abu Dis and Ein Karem, as the most eastern and western areas, respectively. This proposed internationalization of the city was due to the influence of Catholic States at the UN.iiThe attempted taking of Jerusalem, and the partition plan in general, was neither within the mandate of the General Assembly to execute nor in line with international law. Importantly, although some states raised such concerns and called for the International Court of Justice to review the matter prior to voting on the resolution, the General Assembly moved ahead with its adoption.iii

“The fact that most of these internal exiles are still alive, or have immediate offspring who are alive, renders their patrimony more present than historical.”

Salim Tamarixi

A little over a year later, and following the violent, mass transfer of Palestinians from the western areas of Jerusalem by Zionist forces, the UNGA reiterated its call for Jerusalem to be under the effective control of the United Nations in Resolution 194 of December 11, 1948.iv It also underscored that Palestine refugees should be permitted to return to their homes and “that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property […].”v Another year later, as Israel continued to entrench its control over the western part of the city, including by declaring Jerusalem as its capital, the UNGA adopted Resolution 303 of December 9, 1949, which again called for the city’s internationalization.

Within the broader context of a persistent lack of political will to uphold international law, this pattern of UN resolutions and Israeli impunity continued, and undoubtedly served to embolden and lay the groundwork for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed, almost immediately after the start of the occupation, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 2253 (ES-V) of July 4, 1967, underscoring that all “measures taken by Israel to change the status of”vi Jerusalem were invalid and should be rescinded. Once again Israel failed to comply with the UNGA resolution. In lieu of substantive action by the international community, the Security Council took a strong and clear position on Jerusalem via Resolution 252 in May 1968. It underscored that “all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, including expropriation of land and properties thereon, which tend to change the legal status of Jerusalem are invalid and cannot change that status,” and went on to call on Israel to “desist forthwith from taking any further action which tends to change the status of Jerusalem.”vii

An estimated 970 Palestinians, including 424 children, are at risk of forced eviction in East Jerusalem – a practice incompatible with international law. un ocha.xii

In the decades since, resolutions by UN bodies continued to emphasize the illegality of Israel’s actions in Jerusalem and throughout the occupied Palestinian territory. Moreover, in line with the principle of nonrecognition, UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions have also called on states to refrain from establishing diplomatic missions in the city.viii

Occupying East Jerusalem in 1967.

Despite over 75 years of UN resolutions, states have failed to effectively uphold the rights of Palestinians in the city and throughout Palestine. They have failed to halt or provide substantive accountability for the myriad of unlawful policies and practices that not only impact the daily lives of Palestinians but also have generational, widespread political, legal, social, and economic consequences. So, for example, while the UN Security Council may condemn annexation measures that have altered the demography and geography of the city and declare them “null and void,”ix there remain over 14,000 Palestinians who have had their East Jerusalem residency revoked since 1967 and over 60,000 who became refugees from the Jerusalem environs alone during the Nakba.x These individuals and their families continue to be displaced from their city, waiting for the now “final status” issue to be determined, which, along with the systematic violations of international law, have become part of the status quo.

Nonetheless, Palestinians retain de jure sovereignty over Jerusalem and continue to challenge and resist Israel’s policies and practices that target them and transform the city itself. While reemphasizing the legal status of Jerusalem via UN resolutions will not lead to change, a recounting of the history of both foreign and Israeli colonial ambitions towards Jerusalem and the impunity they have enjoyed – as described both implicitly and explicitly in the various resolutions – elucidates the clear context of settler-colonialism and apartheid today.


i UN General Assembly Resolution 181 (III), November 29, 1947, Part III. Para. a.

ii “Moreover, Catholic countries persuaded the UN to make Jerusalem an international city, given its religious significance, and therefore UNSCOP also rejected the Zionist claim for the Holy City to be part of the future of the Jewish State.” Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld, 2006, p. 32.

iii Al-Haq Briefing Paper, “70 Years On: Palestinians Retain Sovereignty Over East and West Jerusalem,” pp. 8–9.

iv UN General Assembly Resolution 194, December 11, 1948, Para. 8.

v UN General Assembly Resolution 194, December 11, 1948, Para. 11.

vi General Assembly Resolution 2253 (ES-V). Measures taken by Israel to change the status of the City of Jerusalem, July 4, 1967, available at: https://www.un.org/unispal/document/auto-insert-187842/. This was followed by General Assembly Resolution 2254 (ES-V) on July 14, 1967, which noted Israel’s noncompliance with the previous resolution.

vii Security Council Resolution 252, May 21, 1968, paras. 2 and 3.

viii See, for example, UN Security Council Resolution 478 of 1980, and UNGA Resolution A/ES-10/L.22 of 2017.

ix Security Council Resolution 476 (1980).

x See: John Quigley, “Sovereignty in Jerusalem,” Catholic University Law Review, Volume 45, Issue 3, Spring 1996, p.771–772.

xi Salim Tamari, Jerusalem 1948: The Phantom City, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1999, available at https://oldwebsite.palestine-studies.org/jq/fulltext/78215.

xii “Protection of Civilians Report, 30 May to 12 June, 2023,” UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, June 18, 2023, available at https://www.ochaopt.org/poc/30-may-12-june-2023.

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