the issue of partition


When speaking of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, it’s hard to know where to begin (and in my opinion, those that cite X event as the indisputable source of the problem are being disingenuous). The conflict did not begin with the First Zionist Congress in 1897; a Palestinian national identity did not even exist at the time (Khalil Beidas was the first Arab to identify as “Palestinian” a year later). It did not begin in 1916, when the French and British secretly conspired to carve up the Ottoman Empire — Palestine included — amongst themselves. It did not begin with the empty Balfour Declaration in 1917, when the British vaguely expressed support for a “Jewish national home” in Palestine, a Palestine that was not theirs to give away to begin with, as it was then a part of the Ottoman Empire. It did not start when the British begun funding and instigating Arab nationalism to weaken the Ottoman Empire. And it did not begin in 1948, when Israel declared its independence and seven foreign Arab armies invaded the new state.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is a conflict between opposing nationalist movements, both of which claim an ancestral right to the land.

In the beginnings of Arab nationalism, there was no distinction between Arab and Palestinian nationalism. Palestinian Arabs saw themselves as Arab subjects of the Ottoman Empire. It was only after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, when the Middle East was carved up between the British and the French, that Palestinian Arab intellectuals were cut off from their brethren in Aleppo (under the French) and Beirut (also under the French) and a separate Palestinian national identity emerged. 

Meanwhile, while Jewish national identity is 3000 years old and the concept of Zionism (the Jewish movement for self-determination in the Land of Israel) had existed in theory for thousands of years (Zionism itself is named after an event that occurred in 539 BCE), it was not until the late 19th century, in the wake of millennia of antisemitic violence and during a period of nascent nationalist movements in Europe and the Middle East, that it was actively and politically put into practice.

Unsurprisingly, the two movements clashed.



In 1936, the Arab Higher Committee, the Palestinian Arab leadership in British Palestine, called for the boycott of Jewish products to protest Jewish (refugee) immigration to Palestine. With the aid of the Nazis and the Italian fascists, who supplied the Arabs with arms, this boycott quickly escalated into violence and terrorism. In total, some 415 Jews and hundreds of British were murdered. In retaliation, the British murdered thousands of Arabs.

The Jews accused the British of behaving like the czars of Russia; that is, they accused the British of standing idly by while mobs massacred innocent Jews in cold blood. Due to their inadequacy in protecting the Jewish population, the British very reluctantly agreed to arm the Haganah, the main Jewish paramilitary organization in Palestine.

In response to the Arab Revolt, the British government issued the Peel Commission to investigate the cause of unrest between Arabs and Jews. The Commission agreed that partitioning the territory — that is, splitting the British Mandate for Palestine into one Jewish and one Arab state — was the best course of action. Until then, Jews would be banned from purchasing property.

The Jews reluctantly agreed to the plan, but the Arabs rejected it outright. They made it abundantly clear that anything less than 100 percent of the Mandate territory would be considered unacceptable. As such, the plan was nixed; however, it did lay the groundwork for the partition vote of 1947.



After World War II and the Holocaust, the unrest in Palestine reached a boiling point. Ever since the passing of the 1939 White Paper, which severely limited Jewish immigration on the eve of the Holocaust, Jewish paramilitary organizations engaged in a number of illicit Jewish refugee rescue missions.

Following the end of World War II, some 250,000 Jews were held in refugee camps known as Displaced Persons camps, or DP camps for short. In a poll of 19,000 Jewish DPs, 97 percent of them stated they wanted to go to Palestine. When asked for a second choice, many said “crematorium.” But the British — and the Arabs — weren’t having it.

Because the British had severely limited Jewish immigration quotas, many tried to reach Palestine via illegal means. The British detained most and held them in prisons and interment camps. The largest of the camps were located in Cyprus, which was a British colony at the time. The problem for the British was that, for a brief blip of time, after the Holocaust, worldwide public opinion had turned in favor of the Jews (well…sort of, as no one was willing to do their part to help Jewish refugees). As such, the world looked at the British as cruel; this was only exacerbated by the Exodus Affair (see my post THE (OTHER) STORY OF EXODUS).

Meanwhile, in Palestine, a full blown Jewish insurgency against the British was taking place. The two extremist Jewish militias, the Irgun and the Lehi, regularly bombed British targets, most infamously, the King David Hotel (which held the central offices of the British Mandate) in 1946, killing 91 people. In 1947, after the British sentenced 3 Irgun militants to death, the Irgun kidnapped two British officers and threatened to hang them if the British went through with executing their Jews. When the 3 men were hung, the Irgun followed through with their promise, by hanging the officers and booby-trapping their bodies. When the British attempted to recover the bodies, a British officer was injured.

That was the final straw. British public opinion decided that they’d had enough of Palestine. After attempting to find yet another solution to the conflicting Arab and Jewish aspirations for statehood (the Arabs demanded that 100% of Palestine be “Arab Palestine,” even rejecting offers for a binational state, whereas the Jews demanded a sovereign Jewish state in at least part of Palestine), in January of 1947, the British officially decided to wash their hands off the problem that they had helped create and stated their intent to leave in August of 1948, leaving Palestine’s fate up to the United Nations.



With the British having washed their hands off the problem, in May 1947, the United Nations created the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, or UNSCOP, to investigate the best course of action. The committee was comprised of representatives from “neutral” countries: Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, the Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia.

To investigate the issue, UNSCOP planned to interview both the Jewish and Arab leadership. The Jewish Agency saw this as an opportunity for the Zionists to plead their case, but the Arab Higher Committee boycotted the committee, incensed that Jewish aspirations were being considered at all. They also believed that a partition vote would never pass in the United Nations, given the large amount of Arab and Muslim countries and the world’s general hostility toward Jews, so they did not even bother to plead their case.

When UNSCOP visited Jewish towns, they were met with cheers and flowers. Tel Aviv even declared a public holiday on the day of the committee’s visit. When they visited the city hall, the crowd began singing Hatikvah (“the hope”), which later became the Israeli national anthem. The Jewish Agency also made sure that the committee members met with people who spoke their native languages.

By contrast, the Arab Higher Committee threatened Arabs with death if they were found meeting with the UNSCOP. They evacuated Arab towns and villages prior to the UNSCOP’s arrival, leaving only children behind to boo and jeer at the committee members. Arab villagers outright ignored the committee’s questions and school pupils were instructed not to look them in the eye.

UNSCOP was impressed by what they’d seen in Jewish areas, including commerce, agriculture, and more. By contrast, they were disturbed by what they saw in the Arab areas, particularly the predominance of child labor.

In the end, UNSCOP voted in favor of partitioning the territory, with only India (which was afraid of angering its large Muslim population), Iran, and Yugoslavia voting against. A number of different iterations of partition were put forth, with various editions along the way, establishing the groundwork for Resolution 181.



The proposed partition was drafted keeping the populations in mind: areas with more Arabs would be assigned to the Arab state, and vice versa. As most of Palestine was Arab, the Jews were assigned most empty lands.

In the end, the Jewish state was to receive 56% of the territory, the majority of it empty land to accommodate for the inevitable influx of hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees. The bulk of the Jewish state would be made up of the Negev Desert, which was then unsuitable for agriculture or urban development. However, the Jews would have sole access to the Galilee and the Red Sea, as well as three fertile lowland plains.

The Arab state would constitute of 43% of the Mandate territory, including a third of the coastline and all of the highlands save for Jerusalem, which was to be an international territory. The highlands supplied the water to all of the coastal cities of Palestine.



Palestinian Arab leadership vehemently opposed any sort of partitioning of the Mandate territory. They also vehemently opposed any form of binational state in which the Jews had an equal amount of political autonomy. Palestine — all of it — had to be ruled by Arabs, they contended. The only satisfactory solution for the Arab Higher Committee was an “Arab Palestine,” in which they’d plan to expel all Jews who’d arrived to Palestine during the period of the British Mandate (Arabs who’d arrived during the Mandate period were, of course, welcome to stay). “Palestine must be Arab” became their rallying cry.

The Arab Higher Committee issued an “ultimatum” to the British, threatening “jihad” if their demands for a fully Arab Palestine were not met. At one point, the British Foreign Office commented that the Arab hatred of Jews was now “worse than the Nazis.”

For the Jews, the demands for an “Arab Palestine” were nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to once again turn Jews into dhimmis, or second-class citizens, as they’d been in the Arab world for over a thousand years. In 1947, a number of Jews appealed to the United Nations, among them a Sephardic “Palestinian” Jew named Eliahu Eliachar, who stated: “To impose upon Palestine a permanent Jewish minority is to add insult to injury. Knowing what we have to expect under Arab rule, we cannot declare to you that, one and all, we shall be faced with Samson’s desperation.”

Arab aspirations, however, weren’t a monolith. Secretly (and not do secretly), Syria, Iraq, and Jordan all wanted a piece (or the whole) of Palestine for themselves. In fact, King Abdullah I of Jordan stated that he wasn’t opposed to partition so long as the entirety of the Arab part of Palestine was annexed to Jordan, so much so that he even met with the Jewish Agency at one point (in the end, he was pressured to join the Arab attack against Israel in 1948).



For the Zionists, the lead up to the November 29, 1947 partition vote was a mad dash to convince the United Nations member states to support their cause for Jewish statehood. The Jews knew, of course, that the Arab and Muslim countries would never vote in favor of partition. As such, they focused their energies elsewhere, in Europe, Latin America, and the United States. For months, the Zionists hoped that the United States would come around to the cause. They believed that if they did so, all of the countries under the American sphere of influence would fall in line. The United States, however, dawdled, not committing to vote in favor of partition until two days prior to the vote.

The Arabs didn’t do nearly as much lobbying. They believed the large number of Arab and Muslim nations would automatically work in their favor.

On November 29, the UN obtained the necessary two-thirds majority to pass Resolution 181, or the Partition Plan for Palestine. The votes were as follows:

In favor: Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Byelorussia, Canada, Costa Rica, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, Liberia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Sweden, Ukraine, South Africa, Soviet Union, United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Against: Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen.

Abstentions: Argentina, Chile, China, Colombia, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Honduras, Mexico, Siam, United Kingdom, and Yugoslavia.

The Jews celebrated the vote, with singing and dancing and champagne flowing in the streets.  The Arabs responded with a boycott of Jews in Palestine that escalated into violence, with Jews attacked by angry mobs and Jewish buildings and businesses looted and even set on fire. The day after the vote, the Arabs ambushed two Jewish buses and massacred 7 Jews, marking the start of the Palestine Civil War.

Due to the war, Resolution 181 was never actually implemented.

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