The Partition of Palestine
A story of the international success of Zionist diplomacy and organization, and an ongoing Palestinian struggle for statehood.
There are few nations on Earth whose statehood is as contested as that of Palestine. Home to some of the holiest sites of the three Abrahamic religions, Palestine had been ruled by the Ottomans until the end of the first World War in 1918, and then subsequently ruled by the British Empire for decades later under the British Mandate for Palestine (Morris 1999). Today this region is contested between the modern state of Israel, and Palestinians struggling for their right to self-determination and a unified independent state. The majority of Palestinians live in the West Bank where illegal Israeli settlements have created a two-tiered system that many liken to apartheid due to the unequal application of law — Israeli civil law for settlers and martial law for Palestinians (Zureik 2015). Many more live in the Gaza Strip, governed by Hamas, where Palestinians face crippling economic conditions due to an Israeli blockade restricting freedom of trade and movement (UN General Assembly 2020). Lastly, millions of Palestinians live as permanently displaced refugees without a right to return to their homeland from which they were forced to flee during the 1948 war when Israel established its statehood (Akram 2011). The issue of statehood for Israel and Palestine can be traced back to the 1947 United Nations Resolution 181, which recommended that the British Mandate of Palestine be partitioned into an Arab state, a Jewish state, and a special international zone for Jerusalem. This resolution is the product of the Zionist and Arab conflict, beginning in the later years of the Ottoman Empire and intensifying during British rule. The passage of the UNSCOP partition resolution, its eager acceptance by the Zionists, and near-unanimous rejection by the Arabs would pave the way for the modern state of affairs in the region, and how this ever-evolving conflict has been interpreted. Given the nature of the incompatible visions Zionists and Palestinian Arabs had for the future of Palestine, the ensuing conflict after its passage was all but inevitable.
During the late 19th Century, Palestinian Arabs, living under the feudal Ottoman system and working as tenant farmers on land owned by noble A’ayan families, found themselves increasingly displaced by Zionists who had arrived to settle in Palestine and to build a Jewish homeland in what they termed Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel). These Zionists arrived on the shores of Palestine for many reasons. Some were driven by religious visions of reestablishing the Jewish homeland from which they had to flee centuries ago. Many more sought an escape from European antisemitism, and they saw the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine as their path to emancipation from the age-old oppression Jewish people endured in many civilizations (Pappe 2006, 10–11).
The Zionist movement viewed Eretz Yisrael as “a land without people for a people without land” (Shapira 1992, 41–42). But Palestine was far from a land without people, and the Palestinian people developed a national identity in antagonism to the threat of displacement they faced from the emergent Zionist movement (Gelvin 2014, 93). Waves of violence occurred during both the Ottoman and British administrations of the land. One of the most significant of these events was The Arab Revolt of 1936 to 1939 — an uprising by the Palestinian Arabs against the British Mandate, demanding their independence and end of Zionist migration. The Arabs led a general strike and a violent revolt against British rule, but many also engaged in violent attacks on Jewish communities living in Mandatory Palestine (Morris 1999). Although their revolt was ultimately crushed and many of the movement’s leaders were killed or forced into exile, the Arab Revolt would make the British realize the infeasibility of the mandate. The British considered the cause of the revolt in the Peel Commission, which would also be the first serious consideration of partition as a solution to the Arab-Zionist conflict.
Publicly the Zionist movement claimed all of Palestine as the Land of Israel but privately they saw partition, even a small one, as a suitable compromise (Morris 2008, 18). For the Zionist movement, even the smallest concession in the form of partition would be a victory as it would set the groundwork for future expansionist objectives. Ben-Gurion — who would go on to become the first Prime Minister of Israel and one of its principal founders — was quoted as saying “No Zionist can forgo the smallest portion of the land of Israel” (Morris 1999, 138). He wrote in a letter to his son, “a Jewish state in part of Palestine is not an end, but a beginning… Establishing a small state… will serve as a very potent lever in our historical efforts to redeem the whole country” (Morris 1999, 138).
“a Jewish state in part of Palestine is not an end, but a beginning… Establishing a small state… will serve as a very potent lever in our historical efforts to redeem the whole country” — Ben-Gurion in letter to his son 1937
For the Arabs, any partition would be a concession and they feared exactly what Ben-Gurion had hoped for — the expansion of even a small Israeli state into a large dominating power that would take over even more land in Palestine (Morris 1999, 138). The Peel Commission also recommended the population transfer of 225,000 Arabs and 1250 Jews, to ensure a Jewish majority in the part of the land allotted to Jews. They would financially compensate those who would transfer but would compel them by force if necessary. Population transfer was also favored by the Zionists who saw a Jewish majority as a necessity in a Jewish state and believed that Arabs would have to move to accomplish this (Morris 1999, 144). The recommendations of the Peel commission were rejected by the Arab High Commission, who vehemently opposed the idea of Arabs living under Jewish rule or forcefully moved off their land. Given the Arab dissatisfaction with the British proposals, a second phase of the revolt resumed in 1937 and continued on until 1939 when Britain issued a White Paper limiting Jewish immigration and land purchases (Hughes 2019). The recommendations of the Peel Commission were ultimately rejected by the British government who viewed it as “impractible” (United Kingdom Government 1938) but the idea of partition would not be out of the picture for Palestine quite yet.
The Zionist movement would also use violence for their political goals. As the Arab revolt intensified after 1937, the Irgun — a Zionist militia that operated during the Mandate period — would engage in terrorist attacks on Arab civilian populations (Morris 1999, 147). However, Zionist violence and resistance to the British Mandate reached greater heights in later years after the rebellion when Britain limited Jewish immigration, land purchases, and completely reversed course on any promise of a Jewish homeland to appease the Arab population during WWII.
The British felt compelled to make compromises with the Arab population during World War 2 because they did not want the Middle East — a key strategic point on the route to India and rich in oil — falling to the Axis. Many in the Arab community were against British rule and sought independence for themselves. Taking advantage of this friction, German and Italian propaganda promised that Arabs would be granted independence after the British were defeated. The Arabs also viewed the British Empire as pro-Zionist due to the Balfour Declaration and Peel Commission (Morris 1999, 162). Given such sentiments, the British feared that Arabs were much more likely to side with the Axis powers than the Jewish community for whom the Nazis were an existential threat (Morris 1999, 155). To appease the Arab population the British administration passed a White Paper in 1939 where they proposed to greatly limit Jewish immigration down to only 75,000 over five years, severely restrict Jewish land purchases, and promised an independent Palestinian state over 10 years (Morris 1999, 158). Despite most Palestinians supporting the White Paper due to its favorable terms for them, the Arab High Commission rejected the White Paper because it did not immediately halt all Jewish immigration, and it pushed independence down the road and made it conditional on positive Arab-Jewish relationship (Morris 1999, 158). The Zionists were furious, viewing the White Paper as a betrayal of Britain’s promise of supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Balfour Declaration, and restricting Jewish immigration at a time when it was most essential.
Facing an influx of refugees and immigrants to Mandatory Palestine due to the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany, the British administration attempted to curb illegal immigration by deporting ships of refugees to island camps. Zionists militia groups like the Haganah and LHI responded with terrorist attacks, blowing up ships with refugees who were to be deported, and attacking British immigration offices (Morris 1999, 163). After the war, an Anglo-American committee was formed to decide the fate of Jewish displaced persons (DPs) and where they would live after the war. The committee published their report where they found that most DPs wished to live in Palestine and recommend that 100,000 of them should be admitted. Furthermore, the report found restrictions on Jewish land purchases to be discriminatory and called for their removal. US president, Harry Truman, endorsed the findings and recommendations of the report, but the Arabs were furious, responding with riots and official condemnation of the report.
Britain did not change their stance on immigration and Haganah attacks against the Mandate continued even after the publication of the report. In retaliation against the British for curtailing down on Zionist militias, the Irgun blew up the King David hotel in Jerusalem where the British military was headquartered, killing 91 people of various nationalities (Rodger 2017, 81). Having depleted their resources fighting WW2, facing resistance from Zionists and Arabs alike, and having lost India — which Palestine served as a critical route to — holding on to Palestine was more trouble than was worth it for the British empire. Thus, they decide to, as Benny Morris puts it, “dump the problem in the lap of the United Nations’’ (Morris 2008, 37).
The General Assembly of the United Nations created a specialized body of inquiry to investigate the situation in Palestine and recommend a solution — the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Created in May 1947, UNSCOP began its on-the-ground investigation in Palestine in June of 1947. From the very formation of the committee, the rift between Zionists and Arabs on the future of Palestine and any potential solution was well evident. It was also evident that the Zionists were far more persuasive to the international committee tasked with handling the matter.
The Arab delegations of the UN General Assembly opposed a UNSCOP investigation and proposed a General Assembly debate on the independence of a majority Arab Palestinian state. They failed to do so, and when UNSCOP began its inquiry the Arab High Commission boycotted it, with most Palestinian Arabs refusing to talk to committee members, viewing it as pro-Zionist. It was believed among many in the Palestinian Arab community that UNSCOP had already decided on the partition, and that due to suspected pro-Zionist biases among committee members, the results of their inquiry would be a foregone conclusion thus there was no reason in convincing UNSCOP (Ben-Dorr 2007). The Arabs also viewed the creation of a Jewish state as a potential threat, both to Palestine which they worried might be taken over by an expansive future state of Israel, and neighboring Arab states. Finally, there was the concern of self-determination. As one scholar presenting the Arab perspective argues, “granting a state to a group of immigrants, who did not even comprise one-third of the population, and depriving the native inhabitants, who comprised two-thirds of the population, of their right to self-determination, was beyond logic and natural law” (Yusuf 2002).
“granting a state to a group of immigrants, who did not even comprise one-third of the population, and depriving the native inhabitants, who comprised two-thirds of the population, of their right to self-determination, was beyond logic and natural law” — Yusuf, Muhsin. “The Partition of Palestine — An Arab Perspective.”
Despite these concerns, the boycott of the committee by the Palestinians, the uncompromising tenure of the Arab delegates who met with UNSCOP, and inconsistent messages from Arab leaders — such as King Abdullah of Jordan who told UNSCOP he would accept partition if the Arab part of the state was given to Jordan — led the committee to ultimately side against the Arabs (Ben-Dorr 2007). Perhaps, it was possible for the Arabs to have received a more favorable deal from the committee if some of those factors changed, but they ended up with the worst possible outcome for their political goals. In the final partition deal that would be approved by the General Assembly, the Jewish state would get 55 percent of the land and some of the most arable parts of it too, leaving the majority Arab population with a smaller share of the land. The Arabs viewed this predicament as deeply unfair (Morris 2008).
For their part, Zionists did everything they could to present their objective as the most pragmatic and reasonable solution to the UNSCOP delegates. Even the Zionists who still wished to claim all of Palestine as part of Israel were willing to work with UNSCOP on whichever solution they implemented (Morris 2008, 43). Britain had chosen to not involve itself in the UNSCOP inquiry and chose to make no recommendations regarding the future of Palestine. With the Palestinian Arabs boycotting the UNSCOP inquiry, the Zionist lobby was left as the most vocal party during the UNSCOP inquiry (Ben-Dorr 2014). UNSCOP sought to find a compromise between the Arab and Zionist territorial desire over Palestine, and unlike the Arabs who viewed partition as a violation of their right to self-determination, the Zionists were willing to accept it. Pragmatically speaking, this left partition as the only viable compromise for the committee (Ben-Dorr 2014). Although the Zionists were willing to accept partition rather than all of Palestine, that did not mean they had no territorial requirements beyond recognition of their state. The Zionists insisted that they needed a territory with enough absorptive capacity to sustain both the local Jewish community and take in displaced persons (DPs) from Europe. This demand allowed them to acquire a much larger territory for the Jewish state than the Jewish population of Palestine (Ben-Dorr 2014).
The committee was also moved by the plight of the DPs. A ship called the Exodus carrying over 4500 refugees from DP camps from Europe was intercepted by the British. A fight ensued between Royal Marines boarding the ship, and passengers on the ship, ultimately resulting in the death of three passengers. The refugees were then deported to France (Morris 2008, 44). The UNSCOP committee witnessed this as well as the hanging of Irgun fighters by the British and hangings of British officers by the Irgun. These events led them to believe that the Mandate was unworkable and the DPs of Europe had to be assisted, both of which would help the Zionist cause. Many UNSCOP delegates also found the Jewish communities in Palestine to be modernized and European-like compared to the Arabs, and this Eurocentric worldview also biased their support for Jewish autonomy in Palestine (Morris 2008).
On the 29th of November 1947, the United Nations general assembly adopted, by majority vote, Resolution 181 recommending the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state, and a special international zone for Jerusalem. Of the 56 United Nations member states, 33 voted for the partition and 13 opposed it and 10 abstained (UNDPR 1979). The proposal was thus passed by an overwhelming majority. The Jewish Agency, a key proponent of the resolution, had lobbied governments around the world for its passage and in a rare moment of unity, they had acquired the support of both the United States and the Soviet Union — who would be on opposite sides in future Arab-Israeli conflicts during the Cold War (Morris 2008). The Arab states were unanimous in their vocal opposition to partition or ceding any ground to a future Israeli state. They were ready to go to war to stop the implementation of the partition plan.
Following the successful diplomatic efforts of the Zionists in presenting their case to UNSCOP, and lobbying world governments for the partition of Palestine as recommended by UNSCOP, the final decision was a decisive victory for the Zionist side and an unmitigated loss for the Arab side. A civil war ensued in the British Mandate between Zionist militias and Palestinian Arabs. With the departure of the British, as outlined by the terms of the UN Resolution, neighboring Arab states joined a war against the newly established state of Israel. Israel emerged victorious out of this Arab-Israeli conflict, and millions of Palestinians were forcefully expelled from their homes and became refugees through a process known as the Nakba (Masalah 2012, 3–5).
Zionists and Arabs had fundamentally different and incompatible visions of the future of Palestine. This incongruence affected every stage of the development of the modern state of affairs between Israel and Palestine. Ever since partition was first considered under the Peel Commission of 1937 to the UNSCOP Partition Plan of 1947, Arabs and Zionists were fundamentally divided on this issue. Thus, when the UN passed Resolution 181 partitioning Palestine it was almost inevitable that war would follow because the people whose lives would fundamentally be altered by partition did not agree if it was the right course of action. For Zionists, partition represented the beginning of a Jewish homeland and the international legitimacy of their state. A Jewish homeland in Israel was a necessary and just prerequisite for Jewish emancipation in the eyes of Zionists. For the Palestinian Arabs, Zionism was a colonial project largely propped up by imperial powers like Britain and the United States, imposing its desire for a separate state on Palestinian land against the objections of the vast majority of the native inhabitants of Palestine, and violating their right to self-determination through a UN-imposed partition that was deeply one-sided. It is due to this divide, and the ensuing Arab-Israeli war of 1948 that followed, that many of the Arab world’s fears about the creation of an Israeli state were realized: Israel did expand its borders beyond what was allotted under the partition resolution through the 1948 war, and it would expand its borders again in future Arab-Israeli conflicts; the Palestinian fear of dispossession also came true because even though the UNSCOP partition plan did not allow for population transfers or expulsion, Israel achieved its goal of expelling the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs from their homes through the Nakba. In contemporary discourse about Israel/Palestine a two-state solution is often brought up, and many lament the failures to enact the 1947 Partition Plan. However, given the deep divides over partition at the time it appears to be a more agreeable solution in hindsight than it was during its initial development.
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