241 The Partitioning of Palestine

34.3.2: The Partitioning of Palestine

The UN Partition Plan for Palestine was a proposal by the United Nations that recommended a partition of Mandatory Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish States. It was rejected by the Palestinians, leading to a civil war and the end of the British Mandate.

Learning Objective

Analyze the partitioning of Palestine

Key Points

  • In 1923, the land of Palestine, previously under the control of the Ottoman Empire, was made a British Mandate by the League of Nations.
  • During WWI, the British made conflicting promises to the Arab and Jewish populations of Palestine.
  • In 1937, following a six-month-long Arab General Strike, the British established the Peel Commission, which concluded that the Mandate was not working and proposed a partition of Palestine into independent Jewish and Arab States. The proposal was rejected by the Palestinians.
  • At the beginning of WWII, in 1939, the British put a limit on the immigration of Jews into Palestine.
  • After World War II, in August 1945 President Truman asked for the admission of 100,000 Holocaust survivors into Palestine, but the British maintained limits on Jewish immigration, which led to a new inquiry into partitioning Palestine.
  • By 1947, the British announced their desire to terminate the Palestine Mandate and placed the Question of Palestine before the United Nations, which developed a non-binding recommendation for independent Arab and Jewish states.
  • The proposal was rejected by the Palestinians and civil war broke out.

Key Terms

Arab League
A regional organization of Arab countries in and around North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and Arabia. It was formed in Cairo on March 22, 1945 with six members: Kingdom of Egypt, Kingdom of Iraq, Transjordan (renamed Jordan in 1949), Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.
Peel Commission
A British Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by Lord Peel, appointed in 1936 to investigate the causes of unrest in Mandatory Palestine. It was administered by Britain following the six-month-long Arab general strike in Mandatory Palestine.
United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine
A 1947 proposal by the United Nations that recommended a partition of Mandatory Palestine at the end of the British Mandate.
An Islamic term referring to the religious duty of Muslims to maintain and spread the religion.

Background and Early Proposals for Partition

The British administration was formalized by the League of Nations under the Palestine Mandate in 1923 as part of the Partitioning of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. The Mandate reaffirmed the 1917 British commitment to the Balfour Declaration for the establishment in Palestine of a “National Home” for the Jewish people, with the prerogative to carry it out. A British census of 1918 estimated 700,000 Arabs and 56,000 Jews.

In 1937, following a six-month Arab General Strike and armed insurrection that aimed to pursue national independence and secure the country from foreign control, the British established the Peel Commission. The Jewish population had been attacked during the Arab revolt, leading to the idea that the two populations could not be reconciled. The Commission concluded that the Mandate had become unworkable, and recommended Partition into an Arab state linked to Transjordan, a small Jewish state, and a mandatory zone.

To address problems arising from the presence of national minorities in each area, the Commission suggested a land and population transfer involving the transfer of some 225,000 Arabs living in the envisaged Jewish state and 1,250 Jews living in a future Arab state, a measure deemed compulsory “in the last resort.” The Palestinian Arab leadership rejected partition as unacceptable, given the inequality in the proposed population exchange and the transfer of one-third of Palestine, including most of its best agricultural land, to recent immigrants. The Jewish leaders, Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, persuaded the Zionist Congress to lend provisional approval to the Peel recommendations as a basis for further negotiations. In a letter to his son in October 1937, Ben-Gurion explained that partition would be a first step to “possession of the land as a whole.”

The British Woodhead Commission was set up to examine the practicality of partition. The Peel plan was rejected and two possible alternatives were considered. In 1938 the British government issued a policy statement declaring 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.” Representatives of Arabs and Jews were invited to London for the St. James Conference, which proved unsuccessful.

MacDonald White Paper of May 1939 declared that it was “not part of [the British government’s] policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State,” and sought to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine and restricted Arab land sales to Jews. However, the League of Nations commission held that the White Paper was in conflict with the terms of the Mandate as put forth in the past. The outbreak of the Second World War suspended any further deliberations. The Jewish Agency hoped to persuade the British to restore Jewish immigration rights and cooperated with the British in the war against Fascism. Aliyah Bet was organized to spirit Jews out of Nazi-controlled Europe despite British prohibitions. The White Paper also led to the formation of Lehi, a small Jewish organization that opposed the British.

After World War II, in August 1945 President Truman asked for the admission of 100,000 Holocaust survivors into Palestine, but the British maintained limits on Jewish immigration in line with the 1939 White Paper. The Jewish community rejected the restriction on immigration and organized an armed resistance. These actions and United States pressure to end the anti-immigration policy led to the establishment of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. In April 1946, the Committee reached a unanimous decision for the immediate admission of 100,000 Jewish refugees from Europe into Palestine, a repeal of the White Paper restrictions of land sale to Jews, that the country be neither Arab nor Jewish, and the extension of U.N. Trusteeship. U.S. endorsed the Commission findings concerning Jewish immigration and land purchase restrictions, while the U.K. conditioned its implementation on U.S. assistance in case of another Arab revolt. In effect, the British continued to carry out White Paper policy. The recommendations triggered violent demonstrations in the Arab states and calls for a Jihad and an annihilation of all European Jews in Palestine.

United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine

By 1947, the British announced their desire to terminate the Palestine Mandate and placed the Question of Palestine before the United Nations, the successor to the League of Nations. The UN created UNSCOP (the UN Special Committee on Palestine) on May 15, 1947, with representatives from 11 countries. UNSCOP conducted hearings and surveyed the situation in Palestine, then issued a report on August 31 recommending the creation of independent Arab and Jewish states, with Jerusalem placed under international administration.

On November 29, the UN General Assembly voted 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions, to adopt a resolution recommending the adoption and implementation of the Plan of Partition. The division was to take effect on the date of British withdrawal. The partition plan required that the proposed states grant full civil rights to all people within their borders regardless of race, religion, or gender. Both the United States and Soviet Union supported the resolution. The five members of the Arab League, who were voting members at the time, voted against the Plan.

The Jewish Agency, the Jewish state-in-formation, accepted the plan, and nearly all Jews in Palestine rejoiced at the news.

The partition plan was rejected out of hand by Palestinian Arab leadership and by most of the Arab population. Meeting in Cairo on November and December 1947, the Arab League adopted a series of resolutions endorsing a military solution to the conflict.

Britain announced that it would accept the partition plan, but refused to enforce it, arguing it was not accepted by the Arabs. Britain also refused to share the administration of Palestine with the UN Palestine Commission during the transitional period. In September 1947, the British government announced that the Mandate for Palestine would end at midnight on May 14, 1948.

Some Jewish organizations also opposed the proposal. Irgun leader Menachem Begin announced, “The partition of the Homeland is illegal. It will never be recognized. The signature by institutions and individuals of the partition agreement is invalid. It will not bind the Jewish people. Jerusalem was and will forever be our capital. Eretz Israel will be restored to the people of Israel. All of it. And for ever.” These views were publicly rejected by the majority of the nascent Jewish state.

Immediately after adoption of the Resolution by the General Assembly, a civil war broke out and the UN plan was not implemented.

United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine 1947
United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine 1947: A map of the UN plan for partitioning Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish States and a Special International Regime for the city of Jerusalem.
The proposed plan divided Palestine into three parts: an Arab State, a Jewish State and the City of Jerusalem, linked by extraterritorial crossroads. The proposed Arab State would include the central and part of western Galilee, with the town of Acre, the hill country of Samaria and Judea, an enclave at Jaffa, and the southern coast stretching from north of Isdud (now Ashdod) and encompassing what is now the Gaza Strip, with a section of desert along the Egyptian border. The proposed Jewish State would include the fertile Eastern Galilee, the Coastal Plain, stretching from Haifa to Rehovot and most of the Negev desert, including the southern outpost of Umm Rashrash (now Eilat). The Jerusalem Corpus Separatum included Bethlehem and the surrounding areas.



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