The U.S.-Proposed "Trusteeship Agreement" for Palestine: The UN-Styled Plan That Could Have Avoided Forcible Displacement of the Palestinian Refugees in 1948

Article excerpt

Abstract

In this article, the author examines the U.S.-proposed "Trusteeship Agreement for Palestine," circulated by the U.S. in the UN Security Council and in subcommittees of the General Assembly from March through May of 1948. The U.S. proposed a UN trusteeship for Palestine as a possible means to provide for a peaceful transition from the end of the British Mandate for Palestine into a new governmental entity that would provide equality under the law for all of its citizens. Notably, the proposed trusteeship arrangement would have avoided partition of Palestine. The author asserts that this, in turn, could have avoided the forcible displacement of three-quarters of a million Palestinian refugees in 1948, as well as Israel's subsequent refusal to repatriate them. The author argues that the U.S.-proposed Trusteeship Agreement for Palestine sheds light on important norms of international law that existed in 1948 and that could, and should, have been followed by the United Nations in providing for the welfare and legal rights of all the inhabitants of mandate Palestine as the clock ticked down on the announced British withdrawal from Palestine as mandatory authority as of 15 May 1948.

Introduction

This article will examine an important but often overlooked document that had the potential peacefully to forestall the outbreak of interstate hostilities in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1948. This document is the U.S.-proposed "Trusteeship Agreement for Palestine" (1) (hereinafter the Trusteeship Agreement), drafted by the U.S. and circulated first in the UN Security Council and then in subcommittees of the General Assembly from March through May of 1948. Had this plan been adopted by the UN Security Council in a timely manner in 1948, it could quite possibly have avoided (2) or reversed (3) the forcible displacement of the Palestinian refugee population in 1948. Consequently, study of the Trusteeship Agreement sheds light on certain important international law aspects of the Palestinian refugee dilemma, both at its origins and also at the heart of the current stalemate in the stalled peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The Trusteeship Agreement would have legally obliged United Nations member states to ensure the peaceful transition of the "British Mandate for Palestine"--which the British had announced they would terminate on 15 May 1948--into a newly created entity to be known as the "UN Trusteeship for Palestine" (hereinafter the Trusteeship). This new Trusteeship would have been supervised under the UN Trusteeship Council pursuant to Article 75 of the Charter of the United Nations. (4)

The potential impact of the Trusteeship Agreement in changing the course of history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be underestimated. Had it come into effect, there would have been no division of mandate Palestine into more than one state. The government that would have been set up--under the direct supervision of the United Nations--would have been a government for all its citizens. Because it was premised on a peaceful transition of government, forcible displacement of habitual residents from the territory of former mandate Palestine and subsequent refusal to repatriate them simply was not contemplated in the setting up of such a Trusteeship, nor could it have been justified under the terms of the Trusteeship Agreement. This is because the Trusteeship Agreement incorporated certain fundamental human rights norms that have come to be recognized as forming the bedrock core of human rights law today. Seen in this light, the importance of the Trusteeship Agreement becomes clear. From the viewpoint of the Palestinians who became refugees, it could have protected them from forcible displacement and Israel's subsequent refusal to repatriate them. From the viewpoint of the Yishuv--the pre-state, Zionist politically oriented and immigrant-based leadership operating in Palestine--implementation of the Trusteeship Agreement would have been an unmitigated disaster and could well have spelled the end of the Zionist enterprise. …