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The Partition Plan: Background & Overview

(September 1947)

The Peel Commission in 1937 concluded the only logical solution to resolving the contradictory aspirations of the Jews and Arabs was partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. The Arabs rejected the plan because it would have forced them to accept the creation of a Jewish state and required some Palestinians to live under “Jewish domination.” The Zionists opposed the Peel Plan’s boundaries because they would have been confined to little more than a ghetto of 5,000 out of the 26,700 square kilometers remaining in Palestine. Nevertheless, the Zionists decided to negotiate with the British, while the Arabs refused to consider any compromises.

Again, in 1939, the British White Paper called for the establishment of an Arab state in Palestine within 10 years, and for limiting Jewish immigration to no more than 75,000 over the following five years. Afterward, no one would be allowed in without the consent of the Arab population. Though the Arabs had been granted a concession on Jewish immigration, and been offered independence — the goal of Arab nationalists — they repudiated the White Paper.

As World War II ended, the magnitude of the Holocaust became known. This accelerated demands for a resolution to the question of Palestine so the survivors of Hitler’s “Final Solution” might find sanctuary in a homeland of their own.

The UN Steps In

The British tried to work out an agreement acceptable to both Arabs and Jews, but their insistence on the former’s approval guaranteed failure. They subsequently turned the issue over to the UN on February 18, 1947.

The UN established a Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) to devise a solution. Delegates from 11 nations* went there and found what had long been apparent: The conflicting national aspirations of Jews and Arabs could not be reconciled.

Although most of the Commission’s members acknowledged the need to find a compromise solution, it was difficult for them to envision one given the parties’ intractability. At a meeting with a group of Arabs in Beirut, the Czechoslovakian member of the Commission told his audience: “I have listened to your demands and it seems to me that in your view the compromise is: We want our demands met completely, the rest can be divided among those left.”

When they returned, the delegates of seven nations — Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, The Netherlands, Peru, Sweden and Uruguay — recommended the establishment of two separate states, Jewish and Arab, to be joined by economic union, with Jerusalem an internationalized enclave. Three nations — India, Iran and Yugoslavia — recommended a unitary state with Arab and Jewish provinces. Australia abstained.

The Jews of Palestine were not satisfied with the small territory allotted to them by the Commission, nor were they happy that Jerusalem was severed from the Jewish State; nevertheless, they welcomed the compromise. The Arabs rejected the UNSCOP’s recommendations.

As the partition vote approached, it became clear little hope existed for a political solution to a problem that transcended politics: the Arabs’ unwillingness to accept a Jewish state in Palestine and the refusal of the Zionists to settle for anything less. The implacability of the Arabs was evident when Jewish Agency representatives David Horowitz and Abba Eban made a last-ditch effort to reach a compromise in a meeting with Arab League Secretary Azzam Pasha on September 16, 1947. Pasha told them bluntly:

The Arab world is not in a compromising mood. It’s likely, Mr. Horowitz, that your plan is rational and logical, but the fate of nations is not decided by rational logic. Nations never concede; they fight. You won’t get anything by peaceful means or compromise. You can, perhaps, get something, but only by the force of your arms. We shall try to defeat you. I am not sure we’ll succeed, but we’ll try. We were able to drive out the Crusaders, but on the other hand we lost Spain and Persia. It may be that we shall lose Palestine. But it’s too late to talk of peaceful solutions.

The ad hoc committee of the UN General Assembly rejected the Arab demand for a unitary Arab state. The majority recommendation for partition was subsequently adopted 33-13 with 10 abstentions on November 29, 1947 (click here for breakdown of vote).

The Map is Drawn

The partition plan took on a checkerboard appearance. This was largely because Jewish towns and villages were spread throughout Palestine. This did not complicate the plan as much as the fact that the high living standards in Jewish cities and towns had attracted large Arab populations. This demographic factor insured that any partition would result in a Jewish state that included a substantial Arab population. Recognizing the need to allow for additional Jewish settlement, the majority proposal allotted the Jews land in the northern part of the country, Galilee, and the large, arid Negev desert in the south. The remainder was to form the Arab state.

These boundaries were based solely on demographics. The borders of the Jewish State were arranged with no consideration of security; hence, the new state’s frontiers were virtually indefensible. Overall, the Jewish State was to be comprised of roughly 5,500 square miles and the population was to be 538,000 Jews and 397,000 Arabs. The Arab State was to be 4,500 square miles with a population of 804,000 Arabs and 10,000 Jews. Though the Jews were allotted more total land, the majority of that land was in the desert.

Further complicating the situation was the UN majority’s insistence that Jerusalem remain apart from both states and be administered as an international zone. This arrangement left more than 100,000 Jews in Jerusalem isolated from their country and circumscribed by the Arab state.

Critics claim the UN gave the Jews fertile land while the Arabs were allotted hilly, arid land. This is untrue. Approximately 60 percent of the Jewish state was to be the arid desert in the Negev.

The Arabs constituted a majority of the population in Palestine as a whole-1.2 million Arabs versus 600,000 Jews. The Jews never had a chance of reaching a majority in the country given the restrictive immigration policy of the British. By contrast, the Arabs were free to come-and thousands did-to take advantage of the rapid development stimulated by Zionist settlement. Still, the Jews were a majority in the area allotted to them by the resolution and in Jerusalem.

In addition to roughly 600,000 Jews, 350,000 Arabs resided in the Jewish state created by partition. Approximately 92,000 Arabs lived in Tiberias, Safed, Haifa and Bet Shean, and another 40,000 were Bedouins, most of whom were living in the desert. The remainder of the Arab population was spread throughout the Jewish state and occupied most of the agricultural land.

According to British statistics in their 1948 Survey of Palestine, 8.6 percent of the land that comprised the Jewish State in 1948 was owned by Jews and 3.3 percent by Israeli Arabs. Another 16.9 percent was abandoned by Arabs who left the country. The rest-more than 70 percent-was in the hands of the Mandatory power, and reverted to Israeli control after the departure of the British.

These figures are misleading, since nearly 80 percent of what was the historic land of Palestine and the Jewish National Home, as defined by the League of Nations, was severed by the British in 1922 and allocated to what became Transjordan. Jewish settlement there was barred. The UN partitioned the remaining 20 percent of Palestine into two states. With Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank in 1950, Arabs controlled approximately 80 percent of the territory of the Mandate, while the Palestinian Jewish State held a bare 17.5 percent (Gaza, occupied by Egypt, was the remainder).

*Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, the Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay and Yugoslavia.