This Week in History: The original disengagement plan

Ten years after first attempting to resolve clashing nationalist claims to Palestine, British find a way out.

Ben-Gurion meets with UNSCOP members at J'lem YMCA 311 (photo credit: Israel National Archives)
Ben-Gurion meets with UNSCOP members at J'lem YMCA 311
(photo credit: Israel National Archives)
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 other.”
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.
“The 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 181.
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.