The Government House Complex in Jerusalem - whose is it?
The Government House Complex in Jerusalem - whose is it?

One of the strangest stories in the history of modern Jerusalem is the enigmatic status of the area known as Government House Complex, a strategic set of structures  built on the high ground near Armon Hanatziv, south of the Old City, overlooking the valley of Hinnom, the Old City, David’s City and beyond that to the Mount of Olives and the distant mountains of Moab. Israel is at present standing by and watching as the UN expands it and gives it a new face. Is all of Jerusalem part of Israel or is it not?


After ruling vast areas of Eastern Europe, South-western Asia, and North Africa for centuries, the Ottoman Empire lost all its Middle East territories in World War One. The Treaty of Sèvres of August 10, 1920 abolished the Ottoman Empire and obliged Turkey to renounce all rights over Arab Asia and North Africa. It was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. The status of the former possessions was determined at a conference of the Allied Supreme Council (comprising of Britain, France, Italy and Japan) in San Remo, Italy on April 24-25, 1920 with the United States having observer status. Syria and Lebanon were mandated to France while Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the southern portion of the territory (Palestine) were mandated to Britain, with the charge to implement the Balfour Declaration.

These conference's resolutions were confirmed unanimously by all fifty-one member countries of the League of Nations on July 24, 1922 and they were further endorsed by a joint resolution of the United States Congress in the same year. Subsequently in the Anglo-American Treaty on Palestine, signed by the US and Britain on December 3, 1924, the text of the Mandate for Palestine was incorporated. The treaty protected the rights of Americans living in Palestine under the Mandate and more significantly it also made those rights and provisions part of United States treaty law which are protected  under the US constitution.

The League of Nations was the first international organization whose principal mission was to maintain world peace. Its primary goals, as stated in its Covenant, included preventing wars through collective security and disarmament and settling international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. On 19 April 1946, the League Assembly decided to dissolve the League and to transfer its services, mandates, and property to the United Nations (UN) 


When High Commissioner Herbert Samuel was appointed in 1920 he made his headquarters in the 1910 constructed German Augusta Victoria building on Mount Scopus. His successor, Lord Herbert Plummer, detested the German building and requested a substitute be found. British architect, Austen St. Barbe Harrison, a relative of Jane Austen, was given the commission and commenced the design in 1927 for a new Government House. Construction was undertaken by the Italian construction company, Ernesto D. A. Da Faro, employing 400 workers including highly skilled craftsmen from the whole of the Middle East.

The complex’s location was selected due to its symbolic and strategic basis on the high ground, south of the Old City, overlooking the valley of Hinnom, the Old City, David’s City and beyond that to the Mount of Olives and the distant mountains of Moab. The complex was completed in 1933 and was at that time the most magnificent building in Jerusalem. The interior was designed in Arabic style, clearly reneging on the Mandate to establish a Jewish State (1). 


The British High Commissioner, Sir John Cunningham, departed from Government House at 8.00 a.m. on the morning of May 14, 1948. Dr. Dov Joseph, who was the Israeli Military Governor of Jerusalem in 1948, provides concise details of events that took place subsequent to the departure of the British High Commissioner (2).  

In January 1948, British Mandatory Officials invited the International Red Cross to help minimize suffering in the conflict on a humanitarian level.  The delegation arrived in March 1948 headed by a Swiss Red Cross Official, Mr. J. de Reynier.  On April 22, 1948 the IRC announced it was setting up security zones known as “Geneva Houses” for women and children under the Red Cross flag.  These “Geneva Houses” were to serve as refuges for non-combats when fighting took place in their vicinity.  

The houses were located in the King David Hotel, Terra Sancta and Government House.  These locations were remote from highly populated Jewish areas and as such no Jewish women or children found shelter in these zones.  The Jewish authorities had requested that these “Geneva Homes” be set up in exposed places in highly populated Jewish areas.

At the time, the impression was gained that the British had an interest in ensuring the three designated buildings did not fall into Jewish hands and that de Reynier was prepared to collude to this.  Irrespective of that, the Arab forces under the leadership of the Arab Legion commanded by John Glub, disregarded the presence of the said zones when they bombed the city.  

On July 18, 1948, de Reynier demanded that Israeli forces move out of the King David Hotel, which they had moved into as the United Nations had moved out.  De Reynier, on the refusal of the Israeli authorities to hand over the King David Hotel, advised he was intending to discontinue the Red Cross working in Jerusalem.  Dov Joseph advised him that it appeared that the Red Cross wished to give up the Security Zone as well as the YMCA building opposite and as there were no residents in the immediate vicinity, there was no need to maintain the hotel as a refuge for non-existent refugees.  

On July 22, 1948 the flag of the IRC was lowered from its office in the YMCA building and Josef’s view was that the IRC had neglected their duty to help the women and children, non-combatants, in Jerusalem.  It appeared to him that the IRC was making efforts to place Jerusalem under their control which was the exclusive prerogative of the UN.  The IRC then directed its efforts into setting up security zones, but while maintaining control of the zones they did not provide help to the refugees there.  

Refusing to return the King David Hotel, the IRC then withdrew into Government House.  

At the end of September 1948, the IRC suddenly departed from its zone around Government House and from the whole of the City of Jerusalem.  Josef relates that the IRC gave no prior notice of its intention despite the assurances given by de Reynier that the area would not be evacuated without prior notice to both sides.  When de Reynier was challenged regarding rumors of the intention, his response was, he had not been instructed to lower the IRC flag.  When pressed for clarification, this was not provided. Josef, as Israeli Military Governor of Jerusalem, wrote to him with regard to previous correspondence from the IRC which indicated the IRC did not intend to leave the building.  No response was forthcoming.

On September 30, 1948 the IRC left Government House without prior notification, despite the fact that notification had been promised by them.  Without any consultation with the Israeli Authorities, they handed over Government House to the United Nations Observers who put up the UN flag as the IRC flag was lowered.  

Josef met the head of the UN Observers, Colonel Millett at 6:00 p.m. to discuss the Red Cross Zone, but Millett did not mention that the IRC would be leaving.  In Josef’s mind, it appeared that the IRC had a secret agreement with the UN and Josef advised Shertok (Moshe Sharett) to issue a formal protest to IRC in Geneva regarding this conduct which could only be called deliberate deception.  

Bernard Wasserstein (3) advises that De Reynier had at an early stage called for Jerusalem to be turned into a Red Cross City.  However, the British High Commissioner simply responded, “He would, until May 15, have authority and the power to take the decision that seemed best to him.”  The IRC plan was reported to the Security Council three days later and the Russian delegate, Gromyko, dismissed it with scorn stating, “Who has ever entrusted the administration of any city or country?  No one could ever have conceived such an idea. And yet we have before us a proposal to make the Red Cross master of Jerusalem.  Needlessly to say this would obviously be tantamount to making two or three countries the masters who would use the IRC as their instrument to establish in Jerusalem the regime they considered necessary.”  

Wasserstein states that the area around Government House had been partly occupied by Egyptian troops who repulsed the unsuccessful attack by Israeli forces.  Subsequently, both Arab and Israeli forces on September 4, 1948 agreed to withdraw from the area and on September 30 the UN took over the Red Cross zone around the High Commissioner’s residence.It subsequently became a UN zone outside the jurisdiction of any state. Initially, prior to the arrival of UN guards, it was guarded by two detachments of the Arab Legion and Israeli soldiers.

Thus the UN area became part of no man’s land in the 1949 Armistice Agreement between Jordan and Israel. A demographic analysis of the location of Jewish populated areas in Jerusalem in 1947/48 (4) clearly shows that “Geneva Houses” were NOT in the vicinity of these areas and hence there is evidence that the IRC had ulterior motives not commensurate with its humanitarian goals. 

Documentary evidence relating to ownership and status of Government House complex under the UN between 1948-67 is unclear but it is clear that according to the Armistice Agreement between Israel and Jordan signed at Rhodes in 1949 the area was designated as a demilitarized NO-MANS LAND. Following the Six Day War in 1967 subsequent developments clarify it is not UN property. At some stage prior to ‘67 the UN also erected a structure on the opposite hill, south of the complex on which was located a huge radio transmission mast – Antenna Hill. This was outside the boundaries of Government House complex.


At 11:25 on the June 5, 1967, without provocation and despite messages from Israel to keep out of the war, the Jordanians attacked and occupied the Government House Complex. 

According to UN yearbook 1967(5) “ Despite assurances received from Israel and Jordan by the Chief of Staff of UNTSO that they would respect the inviolability of the UNTSO headquarters in Jerusalem, Jordanian soldiers had occupied the garden of Government House and an exchange of fire had begun between them and Israeli soldiers. The Secretary-General said that he had sent an urgent appeal to the King of Jordan for the immediate removal of Jordanian troops from the Government House compound. The Chief of Staff of UNTSO had reported that the Jordanian soldiers in the Government House compound had been attacked and later driven out by Israeli troops, who had subsequently forcibly occupied Government House and that he and his staff had been escorted into Israel.”

That day the UN Secretary General sent the following cable to Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol.

“His Excellency Mr. Levi Eshkol Prime Minister of Israel Jerusalem (Israel), 

"I understand that Israeli forces have now displaced the forces of Jordan in the Government House Compound in Jerusalem. Whatever the circumstances leading to the Israeli occupation of Government House and its grounds, its continued occupation by Israeli troops is a most serious breach of the undertaking to respect its inviolability.

"I therefore request the Government of Israel to restore the grounds and buildings of the Government House Compound urgently to exclusive United Nations control. When this has been done I propose to seek a formal undertaking from both sides to respect UNTSO's occupation of Government House in the future”

In the battle to displace the Arab Legion from Government House 21 IDF soldiers made the supreme sacrifice.

On July 10, 1967 Israel set up a committee to decide what to do with the Government House Complex (5). In the summer, when Israel decided to annex Jerusalem, Government House posed a problem. Moshe Dayan told his fellow ministers, we can’t say we’re the sovereign in Jerusalem without behaving as a sovereign, and that includes agreeing with the UN on the status of their building in our sovereign territory. Justice Minister Shapira recognized the UN was hardly about to sign an agreement with Israel accepting the building for its use, since this would entail UN recognition.

Eventually they wrote to UN Secretary General that Israel was putting the building and gardens (not the surrounding area) at the UN’s disposal and would not insist on a contract or even official communication. Begin insisted the letter should state specifically that Israel was putting “its building” at the disposal of the UN but lost the vote the next morning. A week later on 14 July 1967, Government House Complex was registered at the Israel Land Registry (Tabu) Reference 445/67 with the status of State Land belonging to the State of Israel.

In April 1971 The UN Secretary General (7) reported there had been an exchange with Israel concerning the status of Jerusalem and the UN premises at Government House. A reply from Israel on March 8, 1971 to UN Secretary General letter of January 26, 1971 stated “the Government of Israel wishes to place on record its reservations to the various legal and considerations advanced in these two notes, and more particularly to the references in them to claims of the UN 'to the occupancy and possession of the whole of the premises ‘of Government House.'"

On April 12, 1971 the UN Secretary General responded with respect to the January 26, 1971 notes requesting the return of the whole of the UN premises at Government House as constituted on June 5, 1967, the Secretary General notes that the reply contains no direct response to this request. The Secretary General then reiterated his request for the unreserved return to the UN of the remainder of its Government House premises.

However, the people in Israel did not agree with the decision, a thorn in the side of the state, since in essence it gives de facto recognition that the UN rules Jerusalem by staying on the commanding southern heights overlooking the ancient city without any title deed to the property. The buildings were de jure British Mandate property that should have been handed over in 1948 to Israel and not the IRC which illegally passed them over to the UN. This was an example of the duplicity of the UK government which hoped for a ‘Corpus separatum’ according to the UN Partition plan of 1947.

On 31 July 1988, King Hussein announced the severance of all legal and administrative ties with the 'West Bank' that Jordan had illegally occupied from 1948-1967. As such the UN presence in Government House Complex no longer had any legal validity, if it ever did,  or geopolitical reason save to act to overrule the Jewish right of Jerusalem.


In 1973 the UN constructed a dirt track outside the original Government House Complex (44.5 dunams) extending the area by an additional 33 dunams. Two years later it began using this "annexed" area for container storage and vehicle parking. By 1990 the first permanent building was constructed in this area. In 1994 the existing and extended area was surrounded by a new fence. Twenty years later a large hanger type building was erected in the extended area. Subsequently, in 2015 a new building was erected in the original area of the Government House Complex to be followed in 2016 by yet another building not far from the western entrance gate to the Complex. In the last year the UN has undertaken work to modify the original Government House structure, externally and internally.

(Reprinted with permission from Regavim: Lto R: Building 1, Building 2, gas station)

There are no Jerusalem Municipality records regarding applications by the UN for any building permits and no records of the issuance of building permits. In addition, the Jerusalem Urban Planning Scheme delineated a delimitation line for public buildings on the site, and five buildings have been identified as being built outside this demarcation line. Furthermore, as these are historic buildings no modification can take place without the authorization of the appropriate institution of the State of Israel.

The Israeli land appropriation watchdog organization, Regavim, has in the last few weeks applied to the Israel Supreme Court challenging the inaction of the appropriate government and municipal institutions to take appropriate actions for the UN to comply with the law. For photo, see here.

In April 2017 UNESCO passed a resolution stating that “any action taken by Israel, the Occupying Power, to impose its laws, jurisdiction, and administration on the City of Jerusalem, are illegal and therefore null and void and have no validity whatsoever”. This was endorsed by the Executive, ironically, on Yom Ha’atzmaut.

In response PM Netanyahu declared Israel will withhold $1 million from its annual contribution to the United Nations  Education, Science, Culture and Communication Organization - a completely unacceptable response, The proper response should have been to completely remove all UN organizations and agencies from Government House in Jerusalem, thus providing a definitive message to the world instead of a meek and  mild one, given that Israel is in arrears to the tune of $8.59 million anyway, with the last payment having been made in September 2011! 

2. Dov Joseph “The Faithful City” (Siege of Jerusalem 1948) Simon & Schuster NY 1960
3. Bernard Wasserstein “Divided Jerusalem” (The struggle for the Holy City) Profile Books London 2001
4. Martin Gilbert “Jerusalem” (illustrated Historical Atlas) Board of Deputies London 1977
5. UN Yearbook 1967 
6, The English Language Blog of the Israel State Archives (extracted from files 7910/30-א and 12796/12-ג)
7. UN Security Council Document S/10124/Add.1 20 April 1971