From Bunche to Guterres: how the UN furthers Palestinian oppression

Joseph Massad

Middle East Eye  /  September 30, 2023

The current secretary-general’s position on resistance is just the latest manifestation of the UN’s long record of dispossessing the Palestinian people of their lands.

A few weeks ago, Tor Wennesland, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, condemned Palestinian resistance to Israel’s ongoing settler-colonial military occupation as “terrorism”.

Wennesland is the latest in a long line of Norwegian diplomats whose views have guided Norwegian policy towards Israeli settler-colonialism and Palestinian resistance since World War Two. This record includes Norwegian officials who held UN positions, not least of whom was the first UN Secretary-General, Trygve Lie.

During a press conference earlier this month ahead of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, the current UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres responded to a question on whether the Palestinian people have the right to resist the occupation. While he did not quote Wennesland verbatim, he declared that the Palestinians must only follow Gandhi’s example in resisting:

“Let’s not forget the example of Gandhi. I think it’s important to recognize, to fully recognize the rights of the Palestinian people. I think it’s important to condemn any attempt to undermine the two-state solution, construction of settlements, eviction of Palestinian families and many other aspects. But, I do not think that it is with violence that the Palestinians will be able to better defend their interests. That is my humble opinion.”

Humble his opinion is not, especially as he heads the very organization that dispossessed the Palestinian people and legitimized (and continues to legitimize) the colonial theft of their homeland, which was brought about not solely by the machinations of the US and European powers, but also by UN personnel whose achievements in that regard continue to be celebrated today.

Like Wennesland, Guterres continues the tradition of UN officials furthering the oppression of the colonized Palestinians.

‘Sympathy’ for the Zionists

In August 1948, in the middle of the Zionist invasion of Palestine, the UN, under the leadership of the passionately pro-Zionist Secretary-General Lie, had dispatched the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte to mediate a ceasefire between the Israelis and the neighbouring Arab countries. But Bernadotte was assassinated in September by members of the terrorist and pro-fascist Jewish group Lehi, also known as the Stern Gang.

He was replaced by his deputy, the African-American intellectual and former US government operative, Ralph Bunche, who, after Bernadotte’s murder, was the one who negotiated the armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

In 1941, Bunche had become the highest-ranking Black official in the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. During his stint at the OSS, he wrote a series of propaganda pamphlets and handbooks for US military campaigns in North and West Africa. To control the local African populations, Bunche recommended that the US employ “carefully chosen American Negroes” who “could prove more effective than whites, owing to their unique ability to gain more readily the confidence of the Native”.

He was also in charge of preparing US soldiers for the African countries where they were to be stationed and advised them not to express their racial (read: racist) views. 

By the late 1940s, Bunche had been appointed as special assistant to the Secretary-General’s representative to the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). While the leaders of the Palestinians, represented by the Arab Higher Committee, refused to meet with UNSCOP or grant it legitimacy when it arrived in Palestine in the summer of 1947, Bunche was wined and dined by the Zionists, especially by the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. He also met secretly with the then fugitive and wanted terrorist Menachem Begin, with whom he maintained secret and “warm” contacts later, and whom he told, according to Begin’s account: “I can understand you. I am also a member of a persecuted minority.”

Bunche did not mince words when he declared in regard to the Zionists: “I have had a purely personal sympathy for their cause.” It was Bunche who drafted the UNSCOP report based on which the 1947 UN Partition Plan was adopted by the General Assembly in November.

Meanwhile, Bunche’s boss, Lie, had been meeting secretly with representatives of the Jewish Agency almost daily at his home after April 1947. He even went as far as passing “top secret British intelligence to the Jewish Agency” through a Norwegian UN official in Jerusalem, whom he had previously appointed.

While Bernadotte was selected by the General Assembly on 14 May 1948 to be the UN “Mediator in Palestine”, Bunche was appointed by Lie as “Chief Representative of the General Secretary in Palestine”. Lie was so partial towards Israel that he advised the Israelis on how to deal with Bernadotte during the negotiations. Bunche knew well that Lie “was anything but objective on major issues such as Palestine”.

Yet Bunche’s sympathy for the Zionists was in line with the pro-Zionist bias of the UN and the US government he served. It was also in line with Bernadotte’s, for whom impartiality meant treating the Zionist colonists and the colonized natives as equals who had equal claims to Palestine.

‘Palestine Arabs lose’

Bunche described the Arab leaders as “children” and the Jewish leaders as “much more intelligent and sensible”. When the Israelis attacked him and Bernadotte for not allowing them to seize more territories in their conquest of Palestine, he was accused of being an “anti-Semite”.

The ultra-Zionist WEB Du Bois joined the pro-Israeli chorus in the US and Israeli press and, in an infamous speech he delivered to the American Jewish Congress, apologized “in the name of the American Negro for the apparent apostasy of Ralph Bunche … to the clear ideas of freedom and fair play, which should have guided the descendant of an American slave”. Du Bois added that Bunche was linked to the alleged “disgraceful betrayal” of the Jews by the US State Department. Bunche never forgave him, especially when Du Bois himself was targeted in 1951 by the US Justice Department for his opposition to the Cold War.

Bunche negotiated the armistice agreements between the Israelis and the neighbouring Arab countries in the first seven months of 1949, mostly in Rhodes, Greece. Expectedly, they were to the advantage of the Israelis in all cases, though with a good liberal’s acknowledgement that the agreements represented “another deal, and as usual the Palestine Arabs lose”.

For his efforts in advancing the settler-colonial Israeli regime and its expansion of its territories, Bunche received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 (the first Black man to ever do so). His defence of the US despite its white supremacist system of government remained constant, so much so that the 1960s Black radical student movement labelled Bunche an “Uncle Tom”.

Similarly, Adam Clayton Powell (who as a Protestant pastor had travelled to Palestine in 1938 during the Great Palestinian Revolt and wrote a pro-Zionist Orientalist book about his trip) and Malcolm X had both called him “an international Uncle Tom”.

Given Bunche’s celebration of the racist settler-colonial American democracy as “the greatest experiment in the history of human society”, his position on the Palestinians was hardly anomalous. Bunche also understood that European and US support for Jewish settler-colonialism was rooted in their anti-Semitism, writing that they “will support Jewish Agency claims for a Jewish State as a means of dumping world Jewry on the Arabs”.

He further quoted the Canadian delegate to UNSCOP, Ivan Rand of the Canadian Supreme Court, who supported a Jewish State in Palestine “so we can dispose of them [the Jews] once and for all and they won’t be bothering us all the time”.

Still, Bunche did not identify with the Palestinians as also the victims of European Jewish racism and colonialism. Rather, he identified with the Palestinians’ killers and usurpers as they had been the victims of European Christian anti-Semitism. It was as though identifying with European Jews was only possible through supporting Jewish settler-colonialism in Palestine.

Unlike Bunche or Du Bois, Malcolm X, who was highly influenced by the Bandung Conference of 1955 and Third World anti-colonial struggles, was clear when he wrote in his famed article “Zionist Logic” that what the Zionists had done to the Palestinians would be as legal and moral as for Black people in the Americas to return to Africa, dispossess the Africans living there, and establish a nation for themselves there:

“There are over 100 million of our people in the western hemisphere who are of African origin. Just because our forefathers once lived here in Africa would this give Afro-Americans the right to come back here to the mother continent to drive the rightful citizens of Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Tanganyika, or Uganda from their cities, confiscate all their property for ourselves and set up anew Afro-American nations…as the European Zionists have done to our Arab brothers and sisters in Palestine? According to this warped Zionist logic, all the whites would be forced to leave the entire western hemisphere, and those two vast continents turned back to the original owners, the American Indians.”

Unlike the African diaspora, European Jews, of course, did not go to Europe from Palestine but were European converts to Judaism. Malcolm X ridiculed the religious-based claims of the Zionists to Palestine and wondered if Ralph Bunche was “the Messiah of Zionism”. Yet Bunche continues to be celebrated at the United Nations today, with a new adulatory biography of his life published earlier this year.

The recent condemnation of Palestinian resistance as “terrorism” and Guterres’s advice that the Palestinians abandon armed resistance to unrelenting Israeli colonial violence are just the latest manifestations of the UN’s long record of dispossessing the Palestinian people of their lands and expecting them to go on hunger strikes and write letters of protest in response.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York; he is the author of among others Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism