Understanding the Partition plan

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A previous article in this series discussed the evolution of the idea of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. As expressed in the Zionists’ Carlsbad Resolution and implemented in the British-administered Mandate for Palestine, Palestine was to become the national home of the Jews while remaining the national home of the existing, mostly Arab, population:

“a common home the upbuilding of which will assure to each of these peoples an undisturbed national development” with “perfect equality in all matters between Jew and Arab”.

To cut a long story short: this plan did not work, and the British Government decided in 1947 that it wanted to end the Mandate, asking the United Nations to make recommendations concerning the future government of Palestine. The UN produced a plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab State.

This article discusses the origins of the idea of partition, and the details of the UN partition plan. It concludes that such a two-state solution is ultimately unworkable, and that a final solution will involve some form of federal structure.

British Statement on the end of the Mandate

In a little-known document [PDF, see also my HTML version], the British Government gave a summary of events during the Mandate, explaining why they had been unable to achieve all of its goals, and why they decided to hand over responsibility to the UN. It also explains how the idea of partition arose, and why the British Government rejected it. The following extracts cover the main points of the document. For greater clarity I have added sub-headings and additional paragraph breaks, and also emphasized some key phrases.

Three tasks. In accepting the obligations of the Mandate, His Majesty’s Government undertook three major tasks.
(i) The first of these was to promote the well-being and development of the people of Palestine.
(ii) The second was to facilitate the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and Jewish immigration into that country, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population were not prejudiced.
(iii) The third was to prepare the people of Palestine for self-government.

The document goes on to claim a great deal of success in the first two objectives, but failure in developing self-governing institutions, “owing to the mutual hostility of Arabs and Jews.”

Legislative Council. In 1922 an Order-in-Council was issued providing for the creation of a Legislative Council, to consist of the High Commissioner, 10 official members and 12 elected members, of whom 8 were to be Moslems, 2 Christians, and 2 Jews.

The Arabs refused to take part in any form of government involving acceptance of the Jewish national home and boycotted the elections held in 1923, thus making it impossible to set up the Legislative Council. The Government of Palestine has ever since been carried on by the High Commissioner with the aid of a nominated Advisory Council of officials.

Increase in Jewish immigration. The next seven years saw a sharp increase in the number of Jews entering Palestine. In 1928 there had been a net Jewish immigration of only 10 persons, but between 1930 and 1936 over 182,000 entered the country.

Although the impetus given to the economic development of Palestine by these immigrants and the capital they brought, conferred certain benefits on the Arab community also, the growth in the Jewish population was bitterly resented by the Arabs. In 1933 this resentment found expression in riots directed not against the Jews but against the Government of Palestine, who were accused of tilting the balance against the Arabs in their administration of the Mandate.

Arab rebellion. By far the most serious outbreak of Arab violence, however, was the rebellion of 1936-39. This took various forms, rioting, sabotage, destruction of property, terrorism and guerrilla warfare, and was directed both against Jews and against the Government of Palestine. In all some 4,000 people were killed and two divisions of British troops, together with several squadrons of the R.A.F., had to be employed to suppress the rising, a task not completed until the end of 1939.

Peel Commission. The violence and extent of the rebellion were such that His Majesty’s Government appointed a Royal Commission headed by Lord Peel, to enquire into the underlying causes of the disturbances and into the operation of the Mandate, and to make recommendations for the removal of any legitimate grievances felt by Jews or Arabs.

The Commission reported in 1937 that the underlying causes were the same as those which had brought about earlier disturbances of 1920, 1921, 1929, and 1933, namely, the desire of the Arabs for national independence and their hatred and fear of the establishment of the Jewish national home.

They pointed out that, although both Arabs and Jews were fit to govern themselves, yet, associated as they were under the Mandate, self-government was impracticable for both since neither would accept a Government in which the other had a majority.

They concluded that the obligations imposed upon His Majesty’s Government by the terms of the Mandate were mutually irreconcilable and that it was impossible both to concede the Arab claim to self-government and to secure the establishment of the Jewish national home. They accordingly recommended that the Mandate should be terminated and Palestine divided between the Jews and Arabs.

Neither the scheme suggested by the Peel Commission, nor the more detailed proposals for partition of the Woodhead Commission which followed them, proved acceptable to either Arabs or Jews. His Majesty’s Government, who had originally accepted the principle of partition and had been authorized by the League of Nations to investigate its practicability, could therefore only conclude that:- “The political, administrative and financial difficulties involved in the proposal to create independent Arab and Jewish States inside Palestine are so great that this solution of the problem is impracticable.”

MacDonald White Paper. In 1939 His Majesty’s Government issued a White Paper defining their policy and explaining that it was not their intention to convert Palestine into a Jewish State or into an Arab State, but that their purpose was:- “The establishment within 10 years of an independent Palestine State….in which Arabs and Jews share in government in such a way as to ensure that the essential interests of each community are safeguarded.”

The White Paper said that “The alternatives before His Majesty’s Government are either:- (i) To seek to expand the Jewish national home indefinitely by immigration, against the strongly expressed will of the Arab people of the country; or (ii) To permit further expansion of the Jewish national home by immigration only if the Arabs are prepared to acquiesce in it.”

It pointed out that adoption of the first policy would mean rule by force, contravene the obligations imposed on them by the League of Nations and make impossible the creation of that mutual tolerance and goodwill between Arabs and Jews essential to the security and progress of the Jewish National Home itself. They accordingly decided that, after the admission of not more than 75,000 additional immigrants during the five years beginning in April 1939, no further Jewish immigration would be permitted, unless the Arabs of Palestine were prepared to acquiesce in it.

The Arabs were critical of many of the provisions in the White Paper but it seemed probable that they would eventually acquiesce in their application. The Jews, on the other hand, were bitterly opposed to it and its publication was immediately followed by an outburst of Jewish violence which continued until the beginning of the war.

Illegal Jewish immigration. 1939 also saw the beginning of organized attempts by large numbers of Jews to enter Palestine in excess of the permitted quota. These attempts have continued ever since, and, by exacerbating Arab resentment, have greatly increased the difficulty of maintaining law and order in Palestine. In the summer of 1946 the influx of Jewish illegal immigrants exceeded the capacity of the camps in Palestine where, since the war, they had been detained pending their release under the legal quota, and the majority of those reaching Palestine waters subsequently have been sent to Cyprus for the same purpose.

Jewish terrorism. The control of illegal immigration not only burdened still further the British forces in Palestine and the Royal Navy, but was also the principal cause of the steady increase in Jewish terrorist activities. These had ceased at the beginning of the war, in whose prosecution both Jews and Arabs had loyally cooperated, but broke out again in 1942. From that year until the end of the war Jewish extremists carried out a number of political murders, robberies and acts of sabotage, while Haganah (an illegal military force controlled by the Jewish Agency) organized the theft of arms and ammunition from the British forces in the Middle East.

Once Germany had been defeated, these activities, previously sporadic and supported by only a minority of the Jewish community, increased in scale and intensity as the efforts of terrorist gangs were supplemented by those of Haganah and assisted by members of the Jewish Agency. Communications were attacked throughout the country; Government buildings, military trains and places of entertainment frequented by Britons were blown up; and numbers of Britons, Arabs and moderate Jews were kidnapped or murdered. This wholesale terrorism had continued ever since.

Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry. In August 1945 His Majesty’s Government enlisted the cooperation of the United States Government in the appointment of an Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry to investigate the problem of Palestine and of Jewish refugees in Europe and to make recommendation accordingly. This Committee, in a report presented in April 1946, explicitly rejected partition as a solution and proposed instead that the Mandate should be continued pending the execution of a UN Trusteeship agreement.

This was rejected by both Arabs and Jews, who had each put forward proposals of their own; the Arabs, for an independent Palestine with a permanent Arab majority; the Jews, for a Jewish Palestine or, if Palestine could not yet be granted independence, for unrestricted Jewish immigration and settlement throughout Palestine, or, as a last resort, for a viable Jewish State in an adequate area of Palestine. Neither Arabs nor Jews would consider the others’ proposals.

Referral to the United Nations. After the failure of these discussions, His Majesty’s Government decided that the only course now open to them was to submit the problem to the judgment of the United Nations, asking that body to recommend a solution.

The reasons for this decision were explained by His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in a speech to the House of Commons on 18th February, 1947, in which he said:-
“His Majesty’s Government have been faced with an irreconcilable conflict of principles. There are in Palestine about 1,200,000 Arabs and 600,000 Jews. For the Jews the essential point of principle is the creation of a sovereign Jewish State. For the Arabs, the essential point of principle is to resist to the last establishment of Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine.

“The discussions of the last month have quite clearly shown that there is no prospect of resolving this conflict by any settlement negotiated between the parties. But if the conflict has to be resolved by an arbitrary decision, that is not a decision which His Majesty’s Government are empowered, as Mandatory, to take. His Majesty’s Government have of themselves no power, under the terms of the Mandate, to award the country either to the Arabs or to the Jews, or even to partition it between them.”

UN Special Committee on Palestine

In response to the British Government’s letter of 2 April 1947 asking the UN to consider the “future government of Palestine”, the General Assembly set up the Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), with members from Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. The Committee reported on 3 September 1947.

They rejected what they called the two “extreme” solutions proposed by the two parties: that Palestine should achieve independence as a Jewish State or as an Arab state. They also rejected as “unworkable” a cantonal or a bi-national structure.

The cantonal structure involved dividing the country into local areas of administration each with a substantial majority of either Jews or Arabs, and giving them a great deal of local autonomy. The country as a whole would remain under British trusteeship for five years, with the intention that a constitutional assembly be elected towards the end of the period, and the country brought to independence.

It is not entirely clear what they meant by a bi-national structure, but is probably what they describe elsewhere as a plan for provincial autonomy. Two provinces would be set up, the Jewish one to include all the areas of Jewish settlement. Jerusalem, including Bethlehem, and the Negev would remain under British control. This could develop over time either towards an independent federal State or towards partition with the Arab and Jewish provinces becoming independent States whose boundaries could not be modified except by mutual consent.

They set up working parties to consider two possible solutions, one based on partition, the other on federation.

The Plan of Partition with Economic Union was supported by a majority of the Committee, (Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, the Netherlands, Peru, Sweden and Uruguay.) It divided Palestine into three entities: a Jewish State, an Arab State, and the City of Jerusalem which was to be under international trusteeship and not part of either State. The economic unity of Palestine would be preserved by a treaty between the three entities. As this plan was eventually the basis of the solution recommended by the General Assembly, it will be discussed in detail below.

The Federal State Plan was supported by a minority of members of the Committee (India, Iran, and Yugoslavia). The federal State would comprise an Arab state and a Jewish state. Each state consisted of two non-contiguous portions (see map). There would be a federal government, and individual state governments covering local affairs. The legislature of the federal State would have two chambers: one elected by proportional representation of all residents, and the other based on equal representation of Arabs and Jews. If the two chambers disagreed on any matter, an arbitration mechanism would be invoked. The states could institute such representative forms of government as they deemed desirable, subject to the provisions of the federal constitution.

Resolution 181.

Having referred UNSCOP’s report to an Ad hoc Committee of all Member states, the General Assembly eventually passed Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947, recommending a modified version of the Plan of Partition with Economic Union:

The General Assembly,

Having received and examined the report of the Special Committee, including a number of unanimous recommendations and a plan of partition with economic union approved by the majority of the Special Committee,

Considers that the present situation in Palestine is one which is likely to impair the general welfare and friendly relations among nations;

Takes note of the declaration by the mandatory Power that it plans to complete its evacuation of Palestine by l August 1948;

Recommends to the United Kingdom, as the mandatory Power for Palestine, and to all other Members of the United Nations the adoption and implementation, with regard to the future Government of Palestine, of the Plan of Partition with Economic Union set out below.

Requests that

(a) The Security Council take the necessary measures as provided for in the plan for its implementation;

(b) The Security Council consider, if circumstances during the transitional period require such consideration, whether the situation in Palestine constitutes a threat to the peace. If it decides that such a threat exists, and in order to maintain international peace and security, the Security Council should supplement the authorization of the General Assembly by taking measures, under Articles 39 and 41 of the Charter, to empower the United Nations Commission, as provided in this resolution, to exercise in Palestine the functions which are assigned to it by this resolution;

(c) The Security Council determine as a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression, in accordance with Article 39 of the Charter, any attempt to alter by force the settlement envisaged by this resolution.

Calls upon the inhabitants of Palestine to take such steps as may be necessary on their part to put this plan into effect;

Appeals to all Governments and all peoples to refrain from taking any action which might hamper or delay the carrying out of these recommendations.

The Assembly can only make a recommendation to Member States, but it is clearly expecting its recommendation to be carried out, asking the Security Council and the inhabitants of Palestine to implement the Plan, and asking everyone in the world not to hinder it.

The Commission mentioned in request (b) is the Palestine Commission, set up by the Assembly to go to Palestine and implement the Plan. Its members were Bolivia, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Panama and the Philippines. The Commission was to be guided by recommendations of the general Assembly and instruction of the Security Council. If necessary, the Resolution asks the Security Council to take action under Articles 39 (determining there was a threat to the peace) and 41 (actions not using armed force, such as sanctions) to support the Commission in implementing the Plan. In request (c) it asks the Security Council to determine as a threat to the peace any attempt by force to resist or alter the implementation of the Plan. That would open the way for the UN to use force to implement the Plan.

The Plan

The complete text of the Plan is incorporated in the Resolution. It is a long document and not easy to follow since early paragraphs often refer to later paragraphs. The following is my summary of the main points applying to the Arab and Jewish States. Separate arrangements apply in the City of Jerusalem.

Boundaries and demographics. The areas of the two States are shown in the above map.

Each State is divided into three pieces, an attempt to include the major population centers of the respective communities. Territorial contiguity of each State is maintained by the use of two neutral crossing points: see them on the map to the south-west of Nazareth and to the south-west of Ramle. The City of Jerusalem is enlarged to include Bethlehem, and surrounded by the Arab State. The port of Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, center of the citrus trade developed by Arab farmers in the nineteenth century, is an exclave of the Arab State, with the Jewish State on its landward side.

The Jewish State is given almost all of the Negev, the southern semi-desert and desert part of Palestine. The Jewish State includes 55% of the area of Palestine, leaving 45% for the Arab state.

At the time of the Plan, the Jewish population within the area of the Jewish State was 498k (k=1000), the Arab population (including Bedouin) 497k, giving a total of 995k. In the Arab State there were 10k Jews and 725k Arabs, giving a total of 735k. In the City of Jerusalem there were 100k Jews and 105k Arabs, a total of 205k. Overall then, there were in Palestine 608k Jews and 1327k Arabs, a grand total of 1935k persons.

Jews were approximately one-third of the total population, but given 55% of the land, much of this being desert, to allow for the expected large scale Jewish immigration. The almost equal numbers of Jews and Arabs in the area of the Jewish state was acknowledged by UNSCOP to be a problem, but it was expected that the proportion of Arabs would decline because of Jewish immigration and also population movements resulting from citizenship changes as discussed in the next paragraph.

Citizenship, immigration, residence, transit. All residents of the States become citizens of the State in which they reside when it achieves its independence. Those who are part of the minority population of a State may opt within one year after independence to change their citizenship to that of the other State. The individual States control immigration and residence within their State. There is free transit and visitation between the States (and Jerusalem).

The Economic Union goes far beyond a common currency and customs union. It also includes major infrastructure: railways; inter-State highways; postal, telephone and telegraphic services; ports and airports; water and power. It also involves economic development, especially irrigation, land reclamation and soil conservation.

The Economic Union is controlled by a Joint Economic Board. Its decisions are binding on the States, and it can sanction a State that does not accept a decision, by withholding customs revenue. The Board has nine members. Three are appointed by each State, and three foreign members by the United Nations. For the first 10 years the Economic Union cannot be modified without the agreement of the General Assembly.

The process. The Mandate was to end, and all British forces withdrawn, by 1 August 1948, and independent Arab and Jewish states were to come into existence by 1 October 1948. The two states are established in a series of stages:

  • The Palestine Commission progressively takes over the administration of Palestine as Britain withdraws its armed forces. By 1 February 1948 a seaport suitable for substantial Jewish immigration should be evacuated.
  • The Commission delineates the frontiers of the two States in general accordance with the recommendation in the Plan.
  • The Commission selects a Provincial Council of Government for each state, with full authority in the areas under their control, but under the general direction of the Commission.
  • Before 1 April 1948 the Provisional Councils enter into an Undertaking to participate in the Economic Union. If they do not, the Commission enforces it.
  • The Commission progressively transfers full responsibility for the administration of the States to the Provisional Councils in the period between the termination of the Mandate and the establishment of the State’s independence.
  • The Councils set up administrative organs of government, central and local.
  • The Councils set up armed militias from residents of their State, under the operational control of their officers, with the Commission having general political and military control and choosing the High Command of the militias.
  • The Councils, by 1 October 1948, hold elections for a Constituent Assembly for their State. This draws up a democratic Constitution and chooses a Provisional Government to succeed the Provisional Council.

The Plan specifies a number of clauses which must be included in the Constitution of each State, the first being the establishment of a parliament elected by universal suffrage on the basis of proportional representation. Others cover such matters as human rights and accepting the principles of the United Nations.

At some point before independence each State must make a Declaration to the U.N accepting a number of stipulations. Two of these, concerning religious sites and religious and minority rights go into the constitution. These cannot be changed without the agreement of the General Assembly. Others cover such matters as citizenship, and acceptance of international agreements and financial obligations previously accepted by Palestine. These are regarded as fundamental laws of the state.

Achieving independence. The Plan does not make clear exactly how and when the states achieve independence. My interpretation is the following.

After the end of the Mandate, effective sovereignty over Palestine was vested in the Palestine Commission. This progressively transferred administrative authority to the Provisional Councils, which operated under its supervision. After the Provisional Council and the Constituent Assembly had produced a Constitution, the Provisional Council was replaced by the Provisional Government. It was at this point that the State became independent.

The Plan does not say anything about the States declaring their independence. That is unnecessary. The United States had to declare independence from Britain, because Britain did not want to let them go. The two States in the Plan do not need to declare independence from the Commission, because they have already been given it. In the same way, Israel did not need to declare independence from Britain on 14 May 1948, because the Mandate had already ended. Instead it simply declared the establishment of the State.

How independent? The two States described in the Plan are not really independent. The Plan has written a major part of their constitutions. The Palestine Commission has chosen the High Command of their militias. An Economic Union has been forced upon them, which cannot be modified for 10 years unless the General Assembly agrees. Decisions of the Joint Economic Board are binding on the States; in taking those decisions foreigners appointed by the UN have the casting vote.

To me, this is more like a federation of two statelets, under UN Trusteeship, than it is two independent States, since so much effective sovereignty has been vested in the Economic Board and its UN members.

Nevertheless, the Plan says that, with independence achieved, the States can apply to become Members of the United Nations, implying that they are sovereign States:

ADMISSION TO MEMBERSHIP IN THE UNITED NATIONS. When the independence of either the Arab or the Jewish State as envisaged in this plan has become effective and the declaration and undertaking, as envisaged in this plan, have been signed by either of them, sympathetic consideration should be given to its application for admission to membership in the United Nations in accordance with article 4 of the Charter of the United Nations.

There are two possible points of confusion in the wording of this paragraph. When it talks of the “independence of either the Arab or the Jewish State” it may suggest the possibility that only one State might become independent. But this is not “as envisaged in this Plan”. The word ‘either’ implies only that the achievements of independence by the two States are independent events, and not coordinated in time.

The paragraph refers first to the achievement of independence, and then to the signing of the Declaration (concerning religious sites) and Undertaking (concerning the Economic Union). This might suggest that a State could become independent without joining the Economic Union, but the United Nations would then be unsympathetic to its admission. This is not “as envisaged in this Plan”. The Declaration and Undertaking are compulsory, and signed before independence.

Is Israel the Jewish State of the Plan?

The answer is no. Israel’s Declaration of Establishment claims that UNGA Resolution 181 called for the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine; that it bases itself “on the strength of the Resolution”; and offers to co-operate with the UN in implementing the Resolution and forming an economic union. (It does all this without using the words Palestine, Partition or Arab.)

However, the Arabs did not accept the Plan, and as the UN had no authority to divide Palestine against the wishes of the majority of its inhabitants, Britain refused to cooperate with the Palestine Commission. It brought forward the end of the Mandate to 14 May 1948, and did not allow the Commission into the country until two weeks before that date. On 14 May the State of Israel was declared, and the next day the General Assembly stood down the Commission. It was impossible to implement The Plan of Partition with Economic Union.

Israel’s Declaration was outside the process described in the Plan, and preempted its implementation. The only connection between the State of Israel and the Plan is that Israel, when asking for recognition by the US, declared its borders according to the Plan at the insistence of President Truman’s administration.

Could the Plan have worked?

The minority report of UNSCOP, recommending the Federal State Plan, argues the following:

The proposal of other members of the Committee for a union under artificial arrangements designed to achieve essential economic and social unity after first creating political and geographical disunity by partition, is impracticable, unworkable, and could not possibly provide for two reasonably viable States.

I tend to agree. In the Plan of Partition with Economic Union the two States are effectively glued together by the Joint Economic Board, not to mention that they are also glued together by infrastructure, resources and geography (see the map above). It seems to me bizarre that they should at the same time be independent sovereign states with two citizenships, hence two loyalties, two immigration policies, two armies, and two foreign policies. There is no mechanism for resolving differences between the States, apart from the casting vote of foreigners in the Joint Economic Board, diplomacy, or war.

I believe that such a two-state solution would indeed have been unworkable, whereas a federal solution with a democratic federal parliament and government would have had a much better chance of success, because the representatives of the two peoples would have had to work together on a day-to-day basis in the federal parliament to solve their common problems.

The same remains true today. However, the starting point is one where the two states already exist, but one of them is occupied by the other. Palestine needs to gain its independence before there can be any discussions about federation, merger or union.

Uri Avnery, the veteran Israeli peace activist, discussed the idea of an Israel-Palestine federation with Yasser Arafat, many years ago. In a recent article he discusses the impossibility of moving directly to a one-state solution. But he says that “the two-state solution is not a recipe for separation and divorce, but on the contrary, a kind of wedding… some kind of federation is inevitable… it is the only solution.” I agree.

But what do readers think? I will reply to all comments.



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“But he says that “the two-state solution is not a recipe for separation and divorce, but on the contrary, a kind of wedding… some kind of federation is inevitable… it is the only solution.” I agree.”

What a wedding that will be! A khasuren die kalleh is tsu shayn!

Discussions here (and elsewhere) about Israel/Palestine often involve history or assertions about history. Sometimes they are relevant to the concerns of today and the future; often they are not. Your contribution seems to be among the relevant sort. Thanks for that.

The history is interesting in that it serves to highlight the unfairness of the original partition. Most likely based on racism of the British in their superiority. However the conclusion of a federation (involuntary) or confederation (voluntary) sounds nice an would have been logical is now impossible. In order to… Read more »

I cannot see a possible way for Palestine to move from occupation to anything resembling true independence. As the dominant power and a democracy (i.e. swayed by the economic interests of its elite), Israel could not resist the demand to massively interfere in the emergence of a Palestinian state, thus… Read more »

“Palestine needs to gain its independence before there can be any discussions about federation, merger or union.” Absolutely. And then it has to be 1S1P1V. Unfortunately, in the meantime and in order for the independent Palestine to endure, I believe that due to the violent, criminal and thieving nature of… Read more »