The Palestine-Israel Journal is a quarterly of MIDDLE EAST PUBLICATIONS, a registered non-profit organization (No. 58-023862-4).
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Editorial Board

Hisham Awartani

Danny Rubinstein

Sam'an Khoury

Boaz Evron

Walid Salem

Ari Rath

Zahra Khalidi

Daniel Bar-Tal

Ammar AbuZayyad

Galit Hasan-Rokem

Khaled Abu Aker

Galia Golan

Nazmi Ju'beh

Gershon Baskin

Edy Kaufman

Ata Qaymari

Benjamin Pogrund

Nafez Nazzal

Simcha Bahiri

Nadia Naser-Najjab

Dan Jacobson

Jumana Jaouni

Dan Leon

Anat Cygielman

Khuloud Khayyat Dajani

Izhak Schnell

Vol.9 No.4 2002 / Narratives of 1948


Why the UN Partition Plan Wasn't Implemented

An examination of whether or not the Palestinians and Arabs actually rejected the partition plan.

     by Moshe Ma’oz

The UN plan to divide Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states and a Special International Regime for Jerusalem (November, 1947) had been preceded by a somewhat similar design in July 1937. At that time, the British Peel Commission recommended that Mandate Palestine be partitioned into a small Jewish state, comprising the Galilee, the Jezreal Valley and the coastal plain, and a large Arab state - the rest of Palestine united with Transjordan. Jerusalem, Bethlehem and a few other areas would remain a British Mandate zone.1
The major cause for the 1937 partition proposal, namely that Arab and Jewish interests could not be reconciled, was aggravated in 1947, after both parties rejected the 1946 recommendation by an Anglo-American committee to establish a bi-national state in Palestine under UN trusteeship. While the Jewish community accepted the 1937 and 1947 partition plans, the Palestinian Arab leadership, dominated by the Husseini family, rejected both plans categorically. Indeed, most Palestinians turned down the 1937 design, even though it designated only 20 percent of Palestine to the proposed Jewish state. Furthermore, the Palestinian leadership even rejected the 1939 British White Paper, which had promised them an independent state within ten years while limiting Jewish immigration and turning the Jews into a minority in an Arab Palestinian state.2
Why, then, did the Palestinian Arabs reject these schemes, in particular the 1947 UN partition plan? Undoubtedly, some moderate or pragmatic Palestinians were prepared to accept a small Jewish state in part of Palestine.3 But the Husseinis’ leadership - not democratically elected but backed by the Arab League - continued to intimidate its moderate brethren and to maintain its uncompromising position against the Jews. Even according to moderate Palestinian intellectuals, this leadership adopted an extreme policy vis-ŕ-vis the idea of two states, thus grossly ignoring the will of the UN and the Great Powers, and leading the Palestinians into war and tragedy.4
Indeed, this militant syndrome of the Palestinian leadership significantly contributed to preventing a political solution to the Arab-Jewish dispute over Palestine in 1947, as in 1937. This syndrome was inspired by an intense Islamic and nationalist ideology, dominated by the Husseini family and in particular, Hajj Amin al Husseini, the charismatic Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Head of the Supreme Muslim Council. Denying the right of the Jewish-Zionist community to national self-determination even in part of Palestine, the Husseinis periodically used violence and terror against Jews, as well as against the moderate Palestinian Nashashibi faction that for many years cooperated with the Jewish community and acknowledged its national aspirations. But this moderate faction, although supported by many families and notables throughout the country, was not as organized, armed, motivated or influential among the younger generation as the Husseinis. Consequently, the moderate/pragmatic Palestinians were unable to neutralize the powerful militant Palestinian nationalist leadership or induce it to accept a political settlement.

Abdallah’s Annexation Plan

The Nashashibis were politically supported by King Abdallah of Transjordan and also, for a period, by his patron - the British government in Palestine. But neither the British government nor King Abdallah helped the Palestinian moderates; in 1947, both objected to the UN partition resolution, while Abdallah also sought to annex Arab Palestine to his kingdom. As for the leaders of the other neighboring Arab nations, they shared, indeed molded and reinforced, the militant-negative Palestinian attitude to the 1947 resolution, as well as to the Jewish-Zionist national movement and political aspirations.
The uncompromising Palestinian-Arab and all-Arab positions toward Zionist aspirations and the partition of Palestine predominantly derived from fundamental Arab nationalist and Islamic religious concepts, namely, rejection of a Jewish national/political presence in Islamic and Arab Palestine. Muslim Arabs were ready to acknowledge a small apolitical Jewish religious community in Palestine, “a small community gently serving the Arabs and getting along with them beautifully,”5 but not a motivated, vigorous, fast-growing, European-oriented nationalist-Zionist community. Indeed, by purchasing large tracts of land, building villages and towns, and establishing autonomous and effective institutions, this community posed an increasing threat to Arab control over the character of Palestine. Numbering, in November, 1917 (the time of the Balfour Declaration) only about 10 percent of the total population (60,000 out of 650,000), the Jewish community in Palestine increased to almost one-third by November, 1947 (i.e., 600,000 out of about two million). Nevertheless, it was granted more than 50 percent of Palestine (a large part of that included the Negev desert).

Emerging Nationalist Aspirations

From the Jewish-Zionist viewpoint, it was vital to create a “national homeland” (initially with British help) and subsequently a state in part of Palestine, letting the Palestinian Arabs possess its other part. Driven by newly emerging nationalist aspirations to return to biblical Zion, on the one hand, and by European anti-Semitism on the other, Zionist Jews had emigrated from Europe to Palestine since the early 1880s, either ignoring the Arab presence or trusting that there was room for both of them in Eretz Israel. As Nazism ascended in Europe and the terrible Holocaust occurred, hundreds of thousands more Jews found refuge in Palestine, integrating into the Zionist yishuv, and determined to be masters of their own destiny. Already in May, 1942 the Zionist movement issued the Biltmore Program, which, inter alia, mentioned the Balfour Declaration’s (1917) reference to the, “historical connection of the Jewish people to Palestine,” and demanded, “that Palestine be established as a Jewish commonwealth,” which would absorb Jewish survivors of, “the ghettos and concentration camps of Hitler-dominated Europe.” The program also expressed, “the readiness and the desire of the Jewish people for full cooperation with their Arab neighbors.”6
Yet, unlike the Biltmore suggestion and contrary to the uncompromising Palestinian Arab position (and that of Jewish revisionists), the Jewish yishuv, led by David Ben Gurion, agreed in 1947 to create a Jewish state in part of Palestine. This pragmatic position, coupled with international sympathy for the Jewish plight and the backing of the two new superpowers - the US and the USSR - procured the historic UN resolution to establish a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine.
Even though the Jewish community in Palestine, not just its right-wing faction, aspired to obtain a larger share of the country, if not the whole of it, it realistically considered partition as a minimal or tolerable solution. Because of the demographic advantage of the Arabs vis-ŕ-vis Jewish national aspirations, the yishuv mainstream rejected the bi-national solution. Given these factors, Palestinian and inter-Arab hostility on the one hand, and the plight of Jewish refugees on the other, partition was the only option, particularly since the international community, through the UN, approved it. The Jewish yishuv had been fairly prepared to establish a state in part of Palestine, having created a solid infrastructure of political, social, economic and educational institutions, as well as a well-trained paramilitary organization - the Haganah. Although the Palestinian Arab community was not as well organized as the Jewish-Zionist yishuv, it would have been capable of creating its own state in part of Palestine, in coexistence with a Jewish state.

British Self-Interest

But, as already indicated, not only did the Palestinian leadership reject the partition plan, the Arab states and Great Britain also objected to it, although they were certainly capable of inducing the Palestinian Arabs to accept the scheme. Britain not only objected to the UN partition resolution, it also refused to help implement it or even to permit UN observers to prepare the ground for the partition - rejecting official UN requests.7 This British refusal was largely motivated by self-interest - to avoid damaging its relations with the Arab states that had overwhelmingly rejected the 1947 partition. Furthermore, the Arab states - and the Arab League - had, in early 1947, already started military preparations to prevent the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In late 1947, a pan-Arab “Liberation Army,” comprising volunteers from several Arab nations and commanded by regular Arab military officers, invaded Palestine in order “to nullify the UN partition resolution, to eliminate any remains of Zionism.... and to secure the Arabness of Palestine.”8 Simultaneously, irregular Palestinian Arab militiamen waged armed attacks on Jewish towns, villages and inter-city traffic. The Jewish Haganah and the “Irgun” retaliated. A civil war broke out in Palestine, which turned into an Arab-Israeli war on May 14, 1948, when the creation of the State of Israel was proclaimed and several Arab armies invaded Palestine. Initially, the survival of the newly born Jewish state was in jeopardy but eventually Israel defeated the Arab armies and the Palestinian militias and occupied more land than had been allocated to it by the 1947 UN resolution. For the Palestinian Arab community, this constituted a grave disaster (Nakba). About half of this community fled or was driven out by Israeli troops and became refugees in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere.


Could the Nakba and Palestinian dispersion have been prevented in 1948? As we may gather from the above account, the acceptance of the 1947 partition resolution by the Palestinian Arab leadership could possibly have prevented the armed conflict and its tragic consequences. But this would only have been possible if the leadership had been more pragmatic than ideological, as well as democratically elected, attuned to the political and economic interests of the Palestinian community, and not subject to the militant dictates of the Arab League.
The British government could have induced the Arab League and the Palestinian leadership to accept the UN partition resolution and helped both Palestinians and Israelis to implement it, as requested by the UN. Instead, they backed the alternative drawn up by King Abdallah and the Jewish-Zionist leadership in early 1947, namely that Abdallah would annex the populated Arab areas of Palestine, designated by the UN to become an independent Arab state, in return for his tacit recognition of the Jewish state.9 If implemented, such a strategy could possibly have prevented the 1948 War, but King Abdallah, concerned about alienating his government and people, as well as other Arab nations, withdrew from this tacit understanding to play a major role in the 1948 War. Ironically, only after the war, once the Palestinians had been vanquished, did Abdallah implement his previous plan by annexing the West Bank to his kingdom.
Finally, another plan that, if implemented, could have prevented the 1948 War was the UN proposal to create a federal state in Palestine, which was presented to the UN General Assembly as a “minority proposal” (versus the majority proposal, i.e., partition). This put forward the idea that an “independent federal state would comprise an Arab state and a Jewish state. Jerusalem would be its capital... Full authority would be vested in the federal government with regard to national defense, foreign relations, immigration... The Arab and Jewish states would enjoy full powers of local self-government and would have authority over education, taxation..., police..., social institutions.... The organs of government would include a head of state, an executive body, a representative federal legislative body composed of two chambers ... Election to one chamber of the federal legislative body would be on the basis of proportional representation of the population as a whole, and to the other, on the basis of equal representation of the Arab and Jewish citizens of Palestine...”10. However, as we know, this proposal was not even accepted by the UN, let alone by the Israelis or the Palestinians.
The two sides have been engaged since then (and even before) in a bitter and bloody conflict (except for several years of relative calm, following the 1993 Oslo Accords). This bloody conflict intensified significantly after September, 2000, following the collapse of the Camp David negotiations (July, 2000).
Mutual acts of violence involving great loss of life are likely to continue unless a political settlement is achieved between these parties. If the two sides wish to reach a political settlement, they should draw lessons from the pre- and post-1947 period, namely:
1) Militant positions, derived from extreme religious and/or nationalist ideologies, undermine mutual coexistence and peace settlements between Arabs and Jews.
2) It is essential to enlist the support of Arab nations, particularly Egypt, for an Arab-Jewish settlement in Palestine.
3) The international community, the UN and the Great Powers should intervene at crucial junctures, to suggest peace plans and give legitimacy to political settlements.
4) The principles of the UN partition resolution, or the UN “Federal State” solution (both passed in 1947) should be the basis of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that takes into account the new realities, namely: either a two-state solution, as suggested by US President Bill Clinton on December 23, 2000, or a confederation between Israel and Palestine, with Jerusalem as capital of the confederation, as well as of the two states.

1 For the Peel Commission and the UN partition plans see Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin. The Israel-Arab Reader (New York, Penguin Books, 1995), pp.48, 97ff (respectively).
2 Ibid. pp.54-64.
3 Cf. M.E. Yapp. The Near East Since the First World War (Hebrew edition, Jerusalem, The Bialik Institute, 1996), p.109; Eliahu Elyashar. To Live with Palestinians (in Hebrew, Jerusalem, 1975), p.1210.
4 Muhammad Abu-Shilbaya. No Peace Without an Independent Palestinian State (in Arabic, Jerusalem, 1971), pp.12-15.
5 Shukri al-Quwwatli, a Syrian leader, to Elias Sasson, a Jewish official, quoted to Moshe
Ma’oz, Syria and Israel: From War to Peacemaking (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995), p.35.
6 See Laqueur and Rubin, op. cit., pp.66-67.
7 Yapp, op. cit., pp. 114-115; cf. Laqueur, op. cit., pp. 97-98.
8 Quoted in Ma’oz, op. cit., p.18.
9 Cf. Ilan Pappe. The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (London, Tauris, 1992),
10 Laqueur and Rubin, op. cit., pp.94-95.

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