In 1947, Great Britain, unable to reconcile its conflicting obligations to both Jews and Arabs, requested that the United Nations take up the question of Palestine. In May, the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was created by a General Assembly resolution. UNSCOP’s purpose was to investigate the situation in Palestine and “submit such proposals as it may consider appropriate for the solution of the problem of Palestine”.
At the time, the U.N. consisted of 55 members, including Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Palestine by then remained the only one of the formerly Mandated Territories not to become an independent state. No representatives from any Arab nations, however, were included in UNSCOP.1 Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia requested that “The termination of the Mandate over Palestine and the declaration of its independence” be placed on the agenda, but this motion was rejected. The Arab Higher Committee thus announced it would not collaborate, although individual Arab states did agree to meet with representatives from UNSCOP.2
UNSCOP’s investigation included a 15-day tour of Palestine, splitting time between visits to Arab and Jewish communities. Seven days — nearly half that same amount of time spent touring Palestine itself — were spent touring Displaced Persons (D.P.) camps in Germany and Austria and witnessing the plight of the Jews there.3 The proposal to visit the D.P. camps passed by a vote of six to four with one abstention, despite the objection from two members that it would be “improper to connect the displaced persons, and the Jewish problem as a whole, with the problem of Palestine”.2 More time was spent visiting D.P. camps than the total number of days spent visiting the Arab nations neighboring Palestine and meeting with representatives there.
Public hearings were held in which 37 representatives were heard, 31 of whom were Jews representing 17 Jewish organizations, but with only one representative from each of the six Arab states.4 Two proposals emerged: a federal State plan and a partition plan. The latter passed by a vote of seven to three with one abstention, the dissenting votes being cast by India, Iran, and Yugoslavia, who all favored the federal state plan.
On September 3, UNSCOP submitted its report to the U.N. General Assembly. The report noted that the population of Palestine at the end of 1946 was estimated to be almost 1,846,000, with 1,203,000 Arabs (65 percent) and 608,000 Jews (33 percent). Again, the growth of the Jewish population was mainly the result of immigration, whereas the Arab growth was “almost entirely” natural increase.
Complicating any notion of partition, UNSCOP observed that there was “no clear territorial separation of Jews and Arabs by large contiguous areas.” In the Jaffa district, for example, which included Tel Aviv, “Jews are more than 40 per cent of the total population”, with an Arab majority.2
Land ownership statistics from 1945 showed that Arabs owned more land than Jews in every single district in Palestine. In Jaffa, with the highest percentage of Jewish ownership of any district, 47 percent of the land was owned by Arabs versus 39 percent owned by Jews. At the opposite end of the spectrum, in Ramallah district, Arabs owned 99 percent of the land and Jews less than 1 percent.5 In the whole of Palestine, Arabs were in possession of 85 percent of the land, while Jews owned less than 7 percent.2
UNSCOP mentioned in its report that Jewish groups such as the Irgun and the Stern Gang had engaged in terrorism, including the bombing of the King David Hotel. While Jewish leaders had “from time to time condemned terrorist activities, and there have been some signs of active opposition to such methods on the part of the Haganah”, terrorism was a widely enough accepted tactic among the Zionists that the British had “found it necessary to arrest and detain on grounds of public security some 2,600 Jews, including four members of the Jewish Agency Executive.”
UNSCOP also related the characterization from the British Administration in Palestine that “Since the beginning of 1945 the Jews have … supported by an organized campaign of lawlessness, murder and sabotage their contention that … nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of a Jewish State and free Jewish immigration into Palestine.”
During one of its hearings, the Arab representatives expressed their view with regard to the Zionist “recourse to terrorism”, which was that “This aggressive attitude … will not fail to give rise in turn to the creation of similar [terrorist] organizations by the Arabs.” The Arab delegates also declared that “against a [Jewish] State established by violence, the Arab States will be obliged to use violence; that is a legitimate right of self-defence.”
The case of the Zionist Jews, UNSCOP reported, was based on biblical arguments as well as on the Balfour Declaration, which, they contended, recognized their “right” to colonize Palestine. Their case also rested on the false claim that “immigrant Jews displace no Arabs” and upon the assertion that the establishment of a Jewish State would “do no political injustice to the Arabs, since the Arabs have never established a government in Palestine.”
In other words, the Arab right to self-determination could be denied now because that right had never been recognized or exercised in the past (logic which would prove problematic for democracies everywhere, but the delight of kings and tyrants, if the standard were actually applied to other cases).
The Zionists also argued that once a Jewish State is established and the Jews become a majority, the Arab minority “will be fully protected in all its rights on an equal basis with the Jewish citizenry.” This was not accompanied with any explanation as to why this should be acceptable to the then Arab majority, or why the Arabs should accept what the Zionists themselves had rejected.
The entire Zionist case was outrageous. Its arguments were spurious, prejudiced and hypocritical to the extreme. And yet UNSCOP took them quite seriously. It accepted without question the assumption that the British had the right to open Palestine for colonization while it was under occupation, an action that would be expressly forbidden under the Geneva Conventions just two years later.6
It accepted the argument that to allow democracy in Palestine “would in fact destroy the Jewish National Home” and on that basis explicitly rejected the right to self-determination of the Arab majority.
It mentioned in passing that the Balfour Declaration had a clause stating that nothing should be done to prejudice the rights and positions of the Arab majority, commenting only that the guarantee of “civil and religious” rights excluded “political” rights and thus did not translate into a promise of “political freedom to the Arab population of Palestine”.
UNSCOP also observed that the use of the term “National Home” instead of “State” “had the advantage of not shocking public opinion outside the Jewish world”, which is precisely why it was chosen.
Furthermore, echoing the McDonald White Paper, it also asserted that the use of this term did not preclude the possibility of establishing a Jewish State; a statement that could only be maintained by prejudicing the position and rights of the Arabs.
UNSCOP also effectively accepted the biblical argument, reiterating that the 1922 White Paper had recognized the “ancient historic connection” of the Jews to Palestine and accepting this as giving Jews from Europe and elsewhere the “right” to colonize the occupied territory. (Compare this with the conclusion of the King-Crane Commission that the claim that Jews “have a ‘right’ to Palestine, based on an occupation of 2,000 years ago, can hardly be seriously considered.”)
It recognized the corollary “that all Jews in the world who wish to go to Palestine would have the right to do so.” But its only reservation about this conclusion was that it “would seem to be unrealistic in the sense that a country as small and poor as Palestine could never accommodate all the Jews in the world.” Again, the rights and position of the Arab majority simply did not factor into the equation.
Astonishingly, while UNSCOP observed that “all concerned were aware of the existence of an overwhelming Arab majority”, that “the Zionist program could not be carried out except by force of arms”, and that “the basic assumption” was that the Arabs would acquiesce quietly, the committee’s only comment about any of this was that the assumption of Arab acquiescence “proved to be a false one”.
Other assumptions adopted by UNSCOP were equally astonishing. As yet a further example, it partially accepted the argument that “no political injustice would be done to the Arabs by the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine” because “not since 63 B.C., when Pompey stormed Jerusalem, has Palestine been an independent State.” This logic reflected the committee’s acceptance of the Zionists’ ludicrous argument that since the Arab Palestinians had not exercised self-determination in the past, therefore this right could continue to be denied them into the future.
Or take UNSCOP’s assertion that the solution required “the postponement of independence” until “the Jewish people become a majority” in the part of the country dedicated against the will of the Arab majority to the “Jewish National Home”.
In sum, the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine operated under assumptions that explicitly rejected the rights of the Arabs.
Having already accepted a rejectionist framework, the UNSCOP report then proceeded to examine the Arab position. Its examination is further instructive as to the absolutely pre-judicial nature of the committee. It asserted that the Arabs, for instance, only “postulate” that they have majority rights since “they are and have been for many centuries in possession of the land”, uninterrupted since “early historical times”. But, as already noted, the committee denied that Arabs had majority rights with the adoption of the Zionist argument that “they have not been in possession of it as a sovereign nation”.
The Arabs merely “claim” that “general promises and pledges officially made to the Arab people in the course of the First World War” recognized their rights and supported an independent Palestine. But this is just their “view”, not a fact; the committee held that “apparently there is no unequivocal agreement as to whether Palestine was included within the territory pledged” and “Great Britain has consistently denied that Palestine was among the territories to which independence was pledged.” In other words, since the British had rejected the rights of the Arab Palestinians, UNSCOP would also do so.
The Arabs only “allege” that the Mandate violated the Covenant of the League of Nations which prescribed that Mandate territories become independent. Here, UNSCOP actually made a reasonably strong case. The relevant article of the Covenant, they pointed out, merely discussed independence as being “permissible”, not obligatory. Moreover, the Allied Powers had accepted the policy of the Balfour Declaration, making it “clear from the beginning that Palestine would have been treated differently from Syria and Iraq” in that, in Palestine, the right to self-determination of the Arabs would be denied. There would therefore “seem to be no grounds for questioning the validity of the Mandate for the reason advanced by the Arab States.” And UNSCOP came up with none of its own reasons for doing so.
In a particularly remarkable illustration of UNSCOP’s prejudice, it implored people to remember that, as Lord Balfour had explained at the creation of the Mandate, “a mandate is a self-imposed limitation by the conquerors on the sovereignty which they obtained over conquered territories” according not to the will of the inhabitants, but to what the occupiers “conceived to be the general welfare of mankind”.2 In other words, self-determination was not an inherent right, but a privilege granted to a territory’s inhabitants by their conquerors should the occupying power at its own discretion choose to bestow the gift upon them. An occupied people were not to decide for themselves what is in their best interests; this was to be dictated to them by the foreign power occupying their land.
This framework was accepted matter-of-factly by UNSCOP, despite being in direct contradiction to the principles of the U.N. Charter under which it was commissioned. In fact, just three years later, the International Court of Justice would rule that the creation of a Mandate under the Covenant of the League of Nations “did not involve any cession of territory or transfer of sovereignty”.7
UNSCOP offered only the slightest pretense that its findings were anything but rejectionist, finding some occasion to pay lip-service to the principles of equal rights and self-determination. It asserted, for instance, that Britain was “not free to dispose of Palestine without regard for the wishes and interests of the inhabitants of Palestine” while itself proposing to do just that (presumably, in their view, it took the higher authority of first the League of Nations and then the U.N. to dispose of Palestine against the will of its inhabitants).
In their report, the committee acknowledged candidly that under the Mandate “the principle of self-determination . . . was not applied to Palestine, obviously because of the intention to make possible the creation of the Jewish National Home there”, which, along with the Mandate itself, was recognized to be “counter to that principle” of democracy (presumably also “obviously” so).
UNSCOP acknowledged that if the right to self-determination of the Arabs was respected, they “would recognize the right of Jews to continue in possession of land legally acquired by them during the Mandate”, as they had offered at the London conference and again proposed to UNSCOP. But the point was moot since their rights “obviously” were not recognized.
Having established this rejectionist framework, UNSCOP proceeded to weigh the proposed solutions, which included partition, a unitary state, or a single state “with a federal, cantonal or binational structure”. Most Jewish organizations consulted wanted a Jewish State, with different views as to whether this state should constitute the whole of Palestine or only a part. But some among those consulted were opposed to the Zionist program, including in the U.S. the American Council for Judaism, which viewed any partition plan as a threat to peace, harmful to Jews, and undemocratic.
As noted, the Arab representatives reiterated something similar to what had been proposed at the conference in London a year earlier: a unitary Palestine with a democratic constitution guaranteeing full civil and religious rights for all citizens and an elected legislative assembly that would include Jewish representatives. UNSCOP dismissed this as “an extreme position”. In accordance with their adopted framework, the Arab proposal for a single democratic state was rejected as “extreme” because it didn’t take into account the desires of the Zionists, who rejected the idea. And yet the partition recommendation was not similarly “extreme” despite being “strongly opposed by Arabs”. The federal state solution, moreover, was simply “unworkable”, UNSCOP asserted in its majority recommendation, without discussion.
India, Iran, and Yugoslavia dissented, arguing that the federal state solution was “in every respect the most democratic solution” and “most in harmony with the basic principles of the Charter of the United Nations”. It was supported by “a substantial number of Jews”, whereas the partition plan was supported by no Arabs, and was the solution that would therefore “best serve the interests of both Arabs and Jews.”
The dissenting view aside, UNSCOP’s final recommendation was that the Mandate be terminated and independence “granted” to Palestine, with the caveat that there was “vigorous disagreement as to the form that independence should take.” Partition was recommended since the “claims to Palestine of the Arabs and Jews, both possessing equal validity, are irreconcilable”, the assumption being that because Jews had “historic roots” there, a Jew from Europe who had never set foot in Palestine had an equal right to the land as an Arab whose family had lived and worked there for generations.
The “demerit of the scheme” was that while there would be “an insignificant minority of Jews” in the proposed Arab State, “in the Jewish State there will be a considerable minority of Arabs.” But this was “inevitable” since the democratic solution was to be rejected.2
On October 11, 1947, a U.S. representative to the United Nations expressed the U.S. policy position of supporting the partition of Palestine to facilitate the creation of a Jewish state.8
The U.N. General Assembly on November 29 passed Resolution 181, recommending that UNSCOP’s partition plan be implemented. The resolution called upon “the inhabitants of Palestine to take such steps as may be necessary on their part to put this plan into effect”.9
One enduring myth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that “Israel was created by the U.N.” under General Assembly Resolution 181.10 This claim is absolutely false.
While the General Assembly is the more democratic of the two U.N. bodies, only Security Council resolutions are considered legally binding. Resolution 181 was nothing more than a recommendation. Naturally, any such plan would have to be acceptable to both parties, and it was not.
The plan would have awarded a majority of the territory to its minority Jewish population, who were in possession of a mere fraction of the land, and so was naturally rejected by the Arab majority who legally owned most of Palestine.11
Regardless, the U.N. was no more “free to dispose of Palestine without regard for the wishes and interests of the inhabitants of Palestine” than Great Britain, and any U.N. resolution from either body that would have sought to do so would have been a violation of the U.N.’s own Charter and therefore null and void.
- U.N. General Assembly Resolution 106, May 15, 1947, available online at the U.N. website: http://www.un.org. The Special Committee on Palestine consisted of representatives from Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay and Yugoslavia. Also see the U.N. website for membership information. Two states were admitted membership in 1947, Pakistan, and Yemen, both admitted in September, bringing the total to 57 members. [↩]
- UNSCOP Report. [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩]
- “Background Story on Palestine Report”, U.N. Department of Public Information Press Release, August 31, 1947, available online at the UNISPAL website. [↩]
- “Background Story on Palestine Report”. [↩]
- From a map entitled “Palestine Land Ownership by Sub-Districts” showing 1945 statistics, United Nations, August 1950, available online at: http://domino.un.org/maps/m0094.jpg. Statistics were as follows (Arab versus Jewish land ownership in percentages): Safad: 68/18; Acre: 87/3; Tiberias: 51/38; Haifa: 42/35; Nazareth: 52/28; Beisan: 44/34; Jenin: 84/1, Tulkarm: 78/17; Nablus: 87/1; Jaffa: 47/39; Ramle: 77/14; Ramallah: 99/less than 1; Jerusalem: 84/2; Gaza: 75/4; Hebron: 96/less than 1; Beersheeba: 15/less than 1. [↩]
- Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” One could argue that the letter of the law does not prohibit the transfer of parts of a civilian population that was not “its own”, but such a legalistic interpretation in clear violation of the spirit of the law would be difficult to take seriously. The obvious intent is that the geo-political status of the territory not be reconstituted in a manner prejudicial to the rights of its inhabitants and that no attempts to colonize the occupied territory should occur. [↩]
- International Court of Justice, “Advisory Opinion regarding the Status of South-West Africa”, ICJ Reports. (1950), p. 132, cited in “The Origins and Evolution of the Palestine Problem: 1917-1988”. [↩]
- United States Position on Palestine Question, Statement by Herschel V. Johnson, United States Deputy Representative to the United Nations, October 11, 1947, available online at the Yale Avalon Project. [↩]
- U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181, November 29, 1947, available at the U.N. website. [↩]
- “Israel at the UN: Progress Amid a History of Bias”, Anti-Defamation League, September 2008; Nicholas Hirshon, “Rare footage of UN vote creating Israel to screen at Flushing synagogue”, New York Daily News, November 20, 2007. These are random examples. For another, take the BBC website, which shows a map of the UN partition plan above a heading that reads “Israel founded: UN partition plan”. The text notes that the plan “was never implemented”, which can hardly be reconciled with the assertion that the plan “founded” Israel, and yet there it is (accessed March 23, 2009). For a final example, take Michael B. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2007), p. xxii. In his chronology, for the year 1947, Oren writes, “The United States, along with thirty-two other nations, votes in favor of UN Resolution 181, partitioning Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states” (emphasis added). Oren certainly must know better, but makes the false statement anyway. [↩]
- Richard H. Curtis, “Truman Adviser Recalls May 14, 1948 US Decision to Recognize Israel”, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 1991, Page 17.. [↩]