By mid-1947, Britain was frustrated by what appeared to be the
intractability of solving the question of Palestine as it related to the
conflicting nationalist demands of Jews and Arabs. At the time,
continued illegal Jewish immigration, mounting international pressure
and over a decade of deadly civil strife led London to seek what might
be considered the first Disengagement Plan.
Ten years earlier, the British Peel Commission had presented what
amounted to the first attempt at partition, but it was shelved after
being rejected by both sides. The Jewish Agency, then the representative
of Jews in Palestine, dismissed the plan due to the small size of the
proposed Jewish state. Arab leaders too rejected the plan that entailed
population transfers to ensure respective Jewish and Arab majorities in
the proposed states.
Already exhausted by the task at hand, the British Woodhead Commission
declared in 1938 that the obstacles standing in the way of “the proposal
to create independent Arab and Jewish States inside Palestine are so
great that this solution of the problem is impracticable.” With the
onset of World War II the next year, the idea was dropped, save for a
number of conflicting promises made to both sides in order to win favor
as the war reached the Middle East.
After the war, a fresh attempt was made to find a solution to the
question of Palestine. This time partnering with the United States, the
Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry took the issue on, for the second
time concluding that two states were not conducive.
Finally, in early 1947, the British made the decision to abdicate
themselves once and for all of the problem of Palestine along with its
Jewish and Arab inhabitants. On April 2, the British government formally
asked the United Nations to make its own recommendations regarding the
future of Palestine.
Acceding to the British request, the UN formed yet another committee to
tackle the problem, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine
(UNSCOP). Intentionally excluding the major powers to ensure its
neutrality, the committee's members hailed from Australia, Canada,
Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, the Netherlands, Peru, Sweden,
Uruguay and Yugoslavia. Although boycotted by local Arab leaders, the 11
representatives made a number of trips to Palestine where they met with
leaders of Zionist organizations.
On one of those trips, in July of that year, the representatives
witnessed a dramatic and moving scene that historians later pointed to
as influencing UNSCOP in favor of partition and the establishment of a
Jewish state – they watched as Jewish WWII refugees aboard the SS Exodus
were forcibly deported and sent back to Germany.
One month later, on August 31, 1947, UNSCOP made its recommendations.
The only unanimous decision was that the "Mandate for Palestine shall be
terminated at the earliest practicable date.” Alluding to problems and
conflicts that continue to afflict the land and its two peoples decades
later, the committee wrote: “It is manifestly impossible, in the
circumstances, to satisfy fully the claims of both groups, while it is
indefensible to accept the full claims of one at the expense of the
Nevertheless, a majority of the committee members reached a further
conclusion: Palestine should be partitioned into two states, which it
described as “the most realistic and practicable settlement.” The
proposal laid out a detailed plan envisioning two independent states,
Jewish and Arab, joined in an economic union, with Jerusalem falling
under the sovereignty of neither.
plan envisages the division of Palestine into three parts: an Arab
State, a Jewish State and the City of Jerusalem. The proposed Arab State
will include Western Galilee, the hill country of Samaria and Judea
with the exclusion of the City of Jerusalem, and the coastal plain from
Isdud (Ashdod) to the Egyptian frontier. The proposed Jewish State will
include Eastern Galilee, the Esdraelon plain (the Jezreel Valley), most
of the coastal plain, and the whole of the Beersheba subdistrict, which
includes the Negeb (Negev).”
Albeit with slight modifications, it was that design – put forth by
seven of UNSCOP’s 11 members – that formed the basis of United Nations
General Assembly Resolution 181, known today as the Partition Plan. The
resolution’s passage, however, was far from certain.
The Jewish Agency, while expressing major reservations regarding the
status of Jerusalem, accepted the plan. The Arab leadership on the other
hand rejected it, citing what they saw as an unfair distribution of
land considering the two-thirds Arab majority that existed in Palestine
and a more outright dismissal of the idea of a Jewish state.
Ahead of the vote in the General Assembly, both sides and their
supporters launched intense lobbying campaigns reminiscent of those
which took place earlier this year as the Palestinians made a bid for
membership in the UN. Economic, moral and guilt-ridden pressure was
applied in capitals around the world in favor of and against Resolution
US president Harry Truman later wrote of the period, "I do not think I
ever had as much pressure and propaganda aimed at the White House as I
had in this instance." In the Philippines and Thailand, the pressure led
to a reversal of positions and the recall of both countries' UN envoys,
resulting in the east Pacific states' eventual support of the historic
decision. British MP Richard Stokes later described the dramatic
back-and-forth leading up to the vote, quoting an Arab "informant" as
saying if it had taken place a mere three days earlier, the measure
would have been overwhelmingly defeated.
In the end, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted 33 to 13,
with 10 countries abstaining, to approve the partition of Palestine into
one Jewish and one Arab state. The British, given until the coming
August to depart from the Holy Land, eagerly left three months early on
the day that would become Israeli Independence Day, May 14, 1948.