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 mistakes.

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 community.
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 Galilee.
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 growth.
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 Areas

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.

The Confrontation

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 communities.
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 Bedouins).
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 efforts.
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 solution.
* 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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