UN partition plan for Palestine issued by the General Assembly in Resolution 181
29 November 1947
The British, who had been awarded the mandate over Palestine in 1922, had all but admitted defeat by 1947. The contradictory goals of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, promising the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” and for the overwhelming majority of indigenous population ensuring that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” had become unsustainable.
A combination of communal violence and horrific acts of terrorism carried out by Zionist settlers from Europe against the British made their presence in Palestine untenable. Several Zionist terror groups declared war on Britain. They launched a number of attacks against the British – the most notable of which was the King David Hotel bombing in 1946 where the British administrative headquarters were housed; 91 people were killed in the attack.
A year later in early 1947, the British government announced its decision to hand over the disaster it had created in Palestine to the UN and end its mandate. On 29 November 1947, against the will of the Palestinian people, the UN General Assembly in New York voted for the partition of Palestine, adopting Resolution 181. It recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.
Despite strong protestations, the General Assembly refused a resolution to submit the Palestine question to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to determine whether the UN had any jurisdiction to recommend the partition of Palestine or any other country for that matter. Palestinians, and the Arabs in general, took the view that the UN had no business splitting countries into two especially when the overwhelming majority of the population were opposed to such a colonial style carve up. The spirt of self-determination of the indigenous people outlined by US President Woodrow Wilson had by then become a normative ideal. The plan was also rejected because the UN Charter only bestows the right on the General Assembly to merely recommend resolutions, making their proposal non-binding.
Nevertheless, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181 thus dividing Palestine into three sections: a Jewish part, an Arab part and an internationally administered zone to include the city of Jerusalem as a Corpus Separatum to be under the responsibility of the UN. The British authorities had announced that they would be ending their mandate in Palestine on the eve of 15 May 1948, after which the UN partition plan would come into effect.
Though Jews constituted only one-third (32 per cent) of the total population, up from nine per cent in 1914, the plan had offered to allocate 55.5 per cent of the territory to the newly arrived Jewish community from Europe. This encompassed many of the main cities with Palestinian Arab majorities and the important coastline from Haifa to Jaffa, to a section of the population who only owned 5.4 per cent of the land. The Palestinian state would also be deprived of key agricultural lands and seaports, which led them to reject the proposal. Despite the UN proposal to carve Palestine into two, the newly established Jewish state would comprise of a significantly large Palestinian minority -one million – which was seen as a major stumbling block by early Zionists in their efforts to create an ethno-religious Jewish country.
What happened next?
Needless to say, the proposal planted the seeds of further conflict. For the early Zionists it conferred the much-coveted international legitimacy to what by that time looked very much like a secessionist project by European Jews who had fled to Palestine seeking shelter from European anti-Semitism. The indigenous Arab Palestinians, however, saw it as another colonial proposal to divide up their country and thus rejected the plan. As far as the Palestinian Arabs were concerned, the proposal stripped them of their historical rights in favour of a settler colonial project, which by 1947, had left no doubts in their mind that the Zionist paramilitary groups, built in large part by the British, were intent on forceful and violent displacement of the indigenous community.
Shortly after UN Resolution 181, war broke out between the Palestinian Arabs and Zionist armed groups, who, unlike the Palestinians, had gained extensive training and arms from fighting alongside Britain in World War II. Zionist paramilitary groups launched a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed at the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their towns and villages to build the Jewish state, which culminated in the Nakba (Catastrophe).
Historians have documented how in less than six months, from December 1947 to mid-May 1948, Zionist armed groups expelled about 440,000 Palestinians from 220 villages before the outbreak of war with Arab states. A similar number were expelled after fighting broke out with its neighbours. Contrary to the Zionist narrative, Arab armies did not cross into Israeli territory and were not as claimed intent on wiping the fledgling state off the map. They were sent to stop the ethnic cleansing and massacres that were driving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into neighbouring Arab countries.
Prior to the May 1948 war with Arab states, some of the most infamous massacres had already been committed by Israel; the Baldat Al-Sheikh massacre on 31 December 1947, killing up to 70 Palestinians; the Sa’sa’ massacre on 14 February 1948, when 16 houses were blown up and 60 people lost their lives; and the Deir Yassin massacre on 9 April 1948, when about 110 Palestinian men, women and children were slaughtered.
By 1949 two years after UN Resolution 181, at least 750,000 Palestinians either fled or were forcibly expelled from their homeland. Zionist forces are said to have committed about 223 atrocities by that time, including massacres, attacks such as bombings of homes, looting and the destruction of property and entire villages.
This policy remains unchanged with Israel continuing to demolish Palestinian property and evict and displace Palestinians from the homes they have occupied for decades and which are within the boundaries of the Palestinian state as set out by the partition plan.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.