LEGAL: Topic 3 – Issue Briefing Pack

Topic 3 – The Question of Palestine: how should the UN deal with competing sovereignty claims by nations?


When considering the question of competing sovereignty claims, it is critical to ensure that any solution reached is able to minimise conflict to the greatest extent possible.

Historically, the area surrounding Israel has been home to ethnic and religious conflict, with competing claims to land being made chiefly by the Arabic and Jewish populations.. Following the Second World War, the United Nations proposed that Palestine should be partitioned to contain a separate Jewish State. Despite the support of the UN as a whole, all major Arab powers objected to the idea of a separate Jewish state. Since the official partition in 1947, conflict has continued, including the question of to whom Jerusalem belongs.

In recent times, there have been a number of attempts to solve the ongoing conflict. In 1993, the Oslo Peace Process began, with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) condemning terrorism and recognising Israel as a sovereign nation. However, negotiations fully broke down in 2000, after a proposal by the Israeli government was rejected without counter-offer by the Palestinian government.

In recent times, the Obama administration encouraged the Israeli government to cease its creation of new settlements on the West Bank, with Obama stating in Cairo that the US did not recognise these new settlements as legitimate. While President Netanyahu stated he was open to the idea of a Palestinian State, he demanded that Palestine revoke its demands for a ‘right of return’ of all property, a demilitarised Palestine and sole control of Jerusalem. At present, Palestine exists as a non member observer of the UN. President Trump’s affirmation of Jerusalem being the capital of Israel has left the question of legal sovereignty in this area complicated.

General overview

The complexity of this case stems in part from the lack of a legal agreement with regards to whom land belongs. In many disputes, the UN has been able to mandate a solution. However, conflict within the UN has prevented this from being implemented. The UN has tried to encourage both sides to engage in diplomatic negotiations, but this has been difficult. While Palestine asserts that it should have sole control of Jerusalem and a right to return for their people, Israel continues to assert that it has a right to the land it currently controls. As Palestine has non member observer status of the UN, it has not had the opportunity to voice its position to the UN in formal debate. President Trump’s assertion that Jerusalem belongs solely to Israel suggests that Palestine’s status in the UN is unlikely to change soon. Hence, the UN must establish a fair, just and long lasting solution to the question of border sovereignty within this contentious area. The Legal Committee must ensure that the decision established creates a powerful precedent for future disputes.

The two key ideas which must be balanced are the rights of sovereignty of both nations and the rights of the individual civilians within each region. The importance of the former must be ensured, as the UN must not undermine the rights of a nation in its determination to establish justice. The rights of the latter are mandated by the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

At the present moment, Palestine only has partial recognition as a State. While certain members of the UN (especially those within the UAE) recognise its right to territory, other nations would rather see Israel control much, if not all of the region. One area of contention is the control of Jerusalem, while control of both banks of the river Jordan has also raised concerns, as Israel has been asked to stop building settlements in disputed territory, but has refused. Without Palestine being a full member of the UN, nor either nation a party to the Rome Statute (2001) of the International Criminal Court (ICC), there are limited legal consequences which can be brought forward, such as charges of Crimes of Aggression, which can’t be brought against countries which haven’t ratified the statute. For this reason, delegates must think outside of the traditional responses to ensure that the needs of both nations are respected, without undermining state sovereignty.

With regards to human rights, the Committee must ensure that the rights of the individual are not sacrificed in this border dispute. Delegates must consider the right to life, food, water, housing and medical care, among others, for citizens of both regions, endeavouring to prevent either government from violating these rights. One solution is to provide aid to those living in border areas, who have been the victims of the conflict. However, it is likely that the ongoing safety of these citizens can’t be guaranteed without peace in the region. Hence delegates should decide how best to de-escalate the situation before further violations are committed.

Significant UN resolutions already passed

The question of the legal status of Israel and Palestine has been a significant issue for the UN since its beginnings, and Israel remains a permanent item on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Commission. Several resolutions have been passed by the General Assembly, but these are some of the most important:

1948 — the UN accepted the partition plan for the territory of Palestine to create the modern State of Israel with the United Kingdom acting as the mandatory power, causing huge discord and tumult amongst the Muslim countries of the region

1958, resolution 127 — brought by UK/USA: encouraged Israel to give up claims to the entirety of Jerusalem 

1967, resolutions 233-236 — brought by the Security Council: attempts to challenge the development of the Six Day War

1973, resolution 338 —  brought by USSR and USA: called for a ceasefire in the Yom Kippur War

1991, resolution 694 — brought by the Security Council: ‘deplored’ Israel’s deportation of Palestinians (not the first resolution of its kind; continued violations by Israel) 

2016, resolution 2334 — brought by Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal and Bolivarian Republic of

Venezuela: called for an end to illegal Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and other areas

Positions of international governments

USA — one of the most vocal supporters of Israel in the world, supplying it with huge amounts of aid, weaponry and political support; in 2019, President Trump controversially moved the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the US withdrew from the UNHRC specifically in defence of Israel

UK — also a strong supporter of Israel and continues to deal arms to the Israeli government, but is less involved than the USA

Iran — hugely anti-Israel (supports and funds Hezbollah) but is caught up in conflict with other Middle Eastern nations such as Saudi Arabia so does not see Israel and Palestine as its main concerns. However, Iran’s potential development of nuclear weapons poses a constant threat to Israel.  

Jordan — borders Israel and is deeply affected by Palestinian refugees and conflicts

China — significant trade partner with Israel, contributing significantly to the Israeli economy, but maintains friendly relations with the Muslim world and in the past has supported Hezbollah 

Israel maintains good business and political relations with the European Union, as well as European non-member states such as the Vatican City.  

Questions for delegates to consider

  • If and how the contested land should be divided
  • Who will be viewed as Palestine’s government? Several conflicting groups claim to represent the Palestinian people
  • Palestine’s membership of the UN
  • The division of resources — Israel lacks water, and dividing the state to ensure all inhabitants have equal access to water will require careful consideration 
  • Custody of religious sites — Jerusalem is a significant religious site for both Jews and Muslims, so how will delegates ensure that both groups are able to access their holy places safely? 
  • The reactions of the neighbouring Islamic and Arab countries, which could be violent and result in huge military support for Palestine and offensives in Israeli territory
  • The reactions of the P5 countries, which have conflicting interests in the region 

Sources: – The International Criminal Court – Rome Statute (2001) – International Court of Justice.