The Partition Resolution of 1947 (UN General Assembly Resolution
181) was a major juncture in the history of the Arab-Jewish
Conflict. This attempt to draw up an historic settlement led to a
catastrophe that continues to affect the Palestinians through a
horrible occupation, depriving them of the state endorsed by the
international community more than five decades ago. This article
deals with the developments that led to the partition resolution
and its political and geographic ramifications, in an attempt to
benefit from the lessons learned and avoid repeating past
Diplomacy of Partition
On February 14, 1947, the British Cabinet declared Britain's
inability to deal with the conflict in Palestine and stated its
refusal to be part of a solution imposed on the parties concerned.
This laid the ground for UN involvement. In April and May, 1947 the
UN General Assembly convened a special session to discuss this
issue. It decided to set up a special committee for Palestine
(UNSCOP) chaired by Swedish judge Emil Sandstram. This committee
spent five weeks in Palestine, laying the foundations for
Palestine's partition into two states. The Jewish Agency focused on
portraying a civilized European image of the Jewish presence in
Palestine (as opposed to the Arab image) and set up meetings
between members of the committee and Jewish immigrants who spoke
the same languages (Swedish, Spanish and Slav). At the same time,
it highlighted the progress made by the Jews in building their
state (Zionist institutions established during the yishuv period).
On the other side, the Arabs dealt with the committee suspiciously,
and the few personalities who met the committee rejected the
principle of partition and defended the unity of Palestine.
The committee submitted its report to the General Assembly at the
beginning of September. It recommended ending the British Mandate,
partitioning Palestine into two states: an Arab state and a Jewish
state, and placing Jerusalem and Bethlehem under international
trusteeship. The committee's report recommended economic unity
between the two states while keeping both under British
administration for a two-year interim period, during which 150,000
Jews would be allowed to immigrate to Palestine.
On September 20, the British Cabinet took the unilateral decision
to withdraw immediately from Palestine, renouncing its
responsibilities and charging the UN with the duty of finding a
mechanism for transferring authorities. At the Versailles Summit,
the Zionist Histadrut called for expanding the borders of the
Jewish state eastwards to include the Higazi Railroad, parts of
south Lebanon and the Syrian Heights (a total area of 46,000 km2 or
double the area of historic Palestine between the Mediterranean and
the Jordan River). This demand could be considered part of the
negotiations between the Jews and the international
Talks were carried out when the partition resolution was drafted
and pressure exerted on small countries to guarantee the two-thirds
majority required to pass the resolution. On the eve of voting on
the resolution, the State Department sought to transfer the Negev
Desert from the Jewish State to the Arab State, but Zionist leader
Chaim Weizmann called on US President Truman to prevent this. In
return, the Jewish Agency accepted Beer Sheva and a strip of land
along the Egyptian Border, which was to have been part of the Arab
state. It also accepted turning Jaffa into an Arab enclave inside
the Jewish state, in return for more territory in the
The partition resolution, coming immediately after the end of World
War II, was considered a huge diplomatic victory for the Jews and
international recognition of the Jews' right to establish a state
(the US led this effort with strong Soviet support). Resolution 181
was, in some way, Western civilization's gesture of repentance for
the Holocaust, the repayment of a debt owed by those nations that
realized they might have done more to prevent or at least limit the
scale of the Jewish tragedy during World War II.
Facts on the Ground
According to 1922 statistics, there were 910 Arab communities in
Palestine (890 villages and 20 cities - 488 in the mountain area
and 402 in the coastal area) with a total population of 750,000. In
that year, the number of Jewish immigrants to Palestine was 84,000
(in 1882, when Jewish immigration to Palestine began, the Jewish
population in Palestine was 24,000). Jewish immigration continued
and more communities were built, especially in the coastal area, so
that by the end of 1947, the Jewish population had reached 608,000,
distributed throughout 312 communities. The Palestinian population
meanwhile had grown to well over a million by that time. Between
1922 and 1947, population growth for the Jews in Palestine reached
600 percent, due to increasing immigration, while Arab Palestinian
population growth was 84 percent, mostly due to natural population
The partition resolution gave the Jews more than half of historic
Palestine. Ninety percent of the Jews were included in this state,
which also included 50 percent of the Arabs. On the other hand, the
Jewish population would only have been around 10 percent of the
total in the Arab state. Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which were
declared Corpus Separatum, represented 0.5 percent of the area of
Palestine and included 100,000 Jews and 105,000 Arabs.
Most areas included in the Jewish state were not owned by Jews.
Jews owned less than six and a half percent of the total area of
Palestine (14 percent of the total arable land).
The Partition Resolution of Palestine - Geographic
Distribution of land Percentage
in Palestine of population
(km2) by group
Arabs Jews Arabs Jews
Peel Plan of 1939 21,000 5,000 80.8 19.2
The Partition Plan
of 1947 12,000 14,000 46.2 53.8
The War of 1948 6,000 20,000 23 77
The Zionist strategy during the yishuv period worked on linking the
Jewish areas and creating geographic continuity between them.
Geography was given priority over demography, meaning that the
Zionist strategy sought to establish a Jewish majority in control
of a continuous geographic area instead of a distributed
de-concentrated demographic spread.
Preparations for Confrontation
The geographic-demographic distribution determined by the Partition
Plan was not considered "final" by the Zionist Movement, neither in
terms of the ruling regime, borders, nor international agreements.
According to yishuv leader David Ben Gurion, the partition
resolution, in addition to being a diplomatic victory and an
international legitimization of the Jews' right to establish their
homeland, laid the ground for war and the declaration of the Jewish
State. Ben Gurion was totally aware of the inevitability of war and
confrontation. From spring 1947, he devoted most of his time and
energy to preparing the yishuv for war, leaving the
political-diplomatic battle to Moshe Sharett, Abba Hillel Silver
and others in the US. He spent long hours with Haganah and Palmah
officers and veterans of the Jewish Brigade, studying the yishuv
strategic problems and defense needs.
By the end of 1947, the Haganah had developed weapons manufacturing
capabilities, and established an air force. Its efforts diverted
from protecting the yishuv from Palestinian attacks to preparing
for confrontation with the neighboring Arab countries, which were
considered the major enemy of the yishuv. The Haganah was rebuilt
on this basis to function as an organized army.
While the yishuv developed its capabilities and preparations for
transforming the partition resolution into the frame of a
comprehensive confrontation, the Palestinian side found itself weak
after the collapse of the 1936-39 Palestinian Revolt, which had
been triggered by the harsh British military campaign against the
resistance fighters. There were also divisions within the internal
camp; the coalition between farmers and workers on one side, and
the middle class on the other, endangered the elite's leadership of
the national movement and resulted in a number of internal
assassinations. In addition, the 1936 strike caused the collapse of
the Palestinian economy (the Jewish economy developed independently
of the Arab one during the mandate). Moreover, the exodus of many
wealthy Palestinian families (as many as 40,000 people left at this
time) to neighboring Arab countries reflected negatively on the
economic situation. On the back of this, the Palestinian leaders
rejected the partition plan on principle and declared their
unwillingness to cede sovereignty of any part of Palestine.
Confrontations began at the beginning of December, 1947, when
Zionist and Palestinian forces clashed over control of the
country's main transport arteries. The Palestinians achieved a
morale-boosting victory when they succeeded in isolating Jerusalem
from the coast and attacking the settlements in Gush Etzion.
In the first months of 1948, the Haganah formed an organized army
of 15,000 soldiers. In April, the Jews' fighting strategy switched
from defensive to offensive attacks, exploiting divisions among the
Palestinians, that stemmed primarily from the continuous personal
conflicts affecting Palestinian military and political figures. The
British Mandate forces, which withdrew from several areas in
preparation for the end of the mandate, did not interfere in the
armed conflict, and their presence formed in certain instances a
kind of protection for the settlements and settlers' convoys.
As the conflict escalated, new strategic thinking by the Haganah
developed what was known as "Plan Dalet" (Tochnit Dalet). Devised
on March 10, 1948. The plan was to:
1) Expel the "hostile forces" by force from the lands allotted for
the Jewish state in accordance with the partition plan.
2) Achieve geographic continuity between the central Jewish
3) Fortify the borders of the future Jewish state.
4) Secure roads and transport to the Jewish areas outside the
borders of the Jewish state.
Under this plan, most Arab villages within the borders of the
Jewish state were considered "hostile," their inhabitants forcibly
expelled, and homes and buildings destroyed to ensure they could
not return. The plan was to advance towards the borders of the
Jewish state while guaranteeing that the invasion lines were devoid
of Arab population.
This plan also included the Jewish areas outside the borders of the
Hebrew state, whereby the strategic-military plan sought to ensure
that they fell under Jewish control and that roads and transport to
them remained open.
The Zionists' superiority in the fields of armament, organization
and coordination proved effective against the shortage of arms, and
the disorganization and factional feuds on the Palestinian side.
This drove the Palestinian forces to the brink of collapse in
April, 1948. Several villages and towns fell into Zionist hands,
and 200,000 to 300,000 Palestinians were expelled.
When the Jewish state was declared on May 14, 1948, the armies of
the newly formed Arab regimes (Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq)
entered Palestine, widening the struggle into an Arab-Israeli
conflict. By the end of May, 1948, the combined Arab forces totaled
28,000. This increased to 40,000 in July and to 55,000 in October.
In comparison, Israeli forces totaled 65,000 in mid July and
115,000 at the beginning of spring 1949 (Although each side
exaggerated the number of its troops and military capabilities,
these figures are closest to the reality).
The entry of the Arab forces into the war entailed logistic and
field problems pertaining to the armament and organization of their
forces, and coordination of their participation in the war. As the
fighting went on, they suffered a serious shortage of munitions and
supplies. Although the motives behind the Arab countries' decision
to intervene was suspected by the Palestinian leadership at the
time, the situation on the ground left them no choice but to wait
for their brethren to rescue them. These Arab countries had gained
their independence only recently, and had economic and social
problems, as well as difficulties linked to the legitimacy of the
establishment of their states. Undoubtedly, the Arab countries
intervention in the conflict in Palestine was based on internal
considerations pertaining to the regimes' legitimization in the
eyes of their peoples and building their independence through
fulfilling their national obligations toward the Arab world.
The Arab countries were defeated. By October, 1948, Israel had
occupied about 77 percent of Mandate Palestine and expelled another
500,000 Palestinians bringing the total number of Palestinian
refugees since the beginning of the war to about 750,000 (31.3
percent from cities, 55.5 percent from villages and 13.2 percent
Israeli ethnic cleansing of border villages continued until May,
1949. Only 150,000 Palestinians out of 900-950,000 remained in
Israel and most of those were within the borders of the Arab state
as outlined in the partition plan. (Roughly another 6,500 dunams of
land were annexed to the Jewish state in addition to the area
allocated to it in accordance with the partition plan).
Learning the Lesson
Undoubtedly, the drafting of the Partition Resolution was
influenced greatly by the Zionist Movement, which set the goal of
establishing a Jewish state on a specific geographic territory (the
largest possible area approved by the international parties). From
the moment the idea of partition was raised, the Jewish
representatives played an influential role, to the point of knowing
everything said and done by UNSCOP. On the other hand, the Arabs
and the Palestinians remained outside this framework, because of
their absolute rejection of the plan. They refused to countenance
giving up part of their land, especially when the terms of the plan
gave the Jews eight times more land than they owned, (55 percent of
Palestine), even though Jewish inhabitants made up less than half
the population. This feeling of injustice caused by an
international formula that prioritized and privileged the Jews,
forced the Palestinians outside the framework of international
But in light of the international events that had preceded the
partition resolution, Arab rejection of the partition plan seemed
unreasonable. The situation on the ground in Mandate Palestine
meant that devising a mechanism for implementing the partition
resolution was close to impossible, so the resolution remained a
mere declaration in many respects. However, the Jews managed to
transform parts of it into a territorial reality due to the
military, institutional, economic and political preparations that
had been made for implementing it.
A review of the past enables us to draw the following conclusions.
Principles must be laid down so that the implementation of
international resolutions is not affected by the stronger side in a
conflict (as in the case of the partition resolution which
exacerbated the conflict instead of resolving it). Effective
international intervention that supervises the implementation of
plans (including intervention and deployment of armed international
separation forces) has become an eminent necessity in this region,
in view of the failure of international diplomacy.
The partition resolution and the subsequent confrontation created
problems that still form an obstacle to Israeli understanding of
the means of resolving the conflict. These problems are:
1) Dealing with the Palestinian issue as a "demographic danger" and
the need to confront this danger constantly.
2) Continuing to impose facts on the ground on the pretext of
"protecting the borders of the Jewish state", through expanding the
hinterland and annexing lands that rightfully belong to another
state (the State of Palestine). This strategy began with the
expulsion of people and continues with settlement building.
3) Strengthening the Jewish state without recognizing the
Palestinians right to a state is the basis of the Arab-Israeli
Conflict. If peace is made with the Palestinians, any threat from
the rest of the Arab world will diminish.
These remain the main obstacles to the establishment of a
Palestinian Arab state on the remaining part of the territories
allocated for it, in accordance with the partition resolution.
Ideas and motivations need to come from both sides to open new
horizons towards a just peaceful solution.
* Accepting partition and sharing the land means the acceptance and
recognition of the rights of others. Partition does not mean
excluding or removing others. Currently, both sides are far from
accepting partition as a state of mind, based on accommodating the
other and building a peace that realizes the interests of both
sides. Partition does not mean building ghettoes or cantons. It is
based on ideas of participation, and increasing common denominators
and interests. The entire Israeli debate today revolves around
imposing unilateral separation through the construction of a
separation wall. This will fragment the Palestinians geographically
and practically, making it almost impossible to reach a
* The development of institutional, structural and organizational
aspects of a democratic, civil society and an open economy are the
basis for a successful political separation (two independent states
each with sovereignty over agreed-upon, open borders, each charged
with maintaining security on their side).
Today, the issue of the Palestinians right to establish an
independent state has become a basic condition for achieving peace
between the two peoples. Given that the partition resolution paved
the way for Israel to establish its state, the international
community must shoulder its historic responsibilities to overcome
the obstacles to establishing an independent Palestinian state and
achieving a just and lasting peace in the region.
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