On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 recommending the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states (along with an international zone encompassing Jerusalem and Bethlehem). Specifically, the plan proposed a Jewish state on more than half of Mandate Palestine at a time when Jews comprised less than a third of the population and owned less than 7 percent of the land. Passage of the UN Partition Plan, in the face of strong Arab opposition, is among the most significant dates of modern Palestinian history, for in essence it gave international legitimacy to the Zionist conquest of Palestine by force of arms.
The notion of eventually dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab states was first floated in official British discourse by the 1937 Peel Commission. Compared to the UN Partition Plan, the Peel Commission proposed a much smaller Jewish state. The plan was accepted by the Jewish Agency, the international body representing the World Zionist Organization, and the leadership of the Mapai (Labor) Party, the dominant Jewish force on the ground. However, large numbers of Zionists—including the Revisionists and the Union of Po’alei Tzion—objected to a plan falling so far short of their goals. The Peel Commission suggestion that the feasibility of partition required the transfer of Palestinian Arabs outside the Jewish state softened the opposition, and after fierce debate the Zionist Congress accepted the plan as a first step, providing a secure base where Jewish immigration could continue uninhibited and which could subsequently be expanded. For the Palestinian Arabs, who then constituted over 70 percent of the population, partition never ceased to be anathema: the depth of their popular opposition can be gauged by the immediate escalation of the Palestinian revolt launched in 1936. The British Woodhead Commission, formed to study the feasibility the Peel plan, concluded in November 1938 that partition was “impracticable.”
The Palestine situation became increasingly unmanageable after World War II, and in February 1947 Britain announced its intention to terminate the Mandate. In May 1947, a month after Britain formally turned the Palestine case over to the United Nations, the UN created the Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) comprising representatives of Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, the Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia. UNSCOP’s September 1947 report listed eleven unanimous recommendations on general principles, including the transition of Palestine from Mandated territory to independence, preservation of the pre-existing “status quo” on the holy places and rights of the religious communities as well as of the foreign privileges conceded by the Ottomans, and—crucially—linking the Palestine question to a solution to the postwar Jewish refugee problem. In addition to its unanimous recommendations, UNSCOP presented two plans devised by two different working groups: a Plan of Partition with Economic Union (supported by Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, the Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, and Uruguay) and a Federal State Solution (supported by India, Iran, and Yugoslavia).
On 23 September 1947, the UN General Assembly formed an ad hoc committee to consider UNSCOP’s report. Representatives of the Arab Higher Committee (AHC) and the Jewish Agency attended. The AHC rejected the proposals of both UNSCOP working groups, arguing that any solution that privileged the claims of Jews to Palestine was inconsistent with the UN Charter. The Jewish Agency—which in August 1946 had submitted its own partition proposal, with a Palestinian rump state whose boundaries bear some resemblance to those of the post-1948 West Bank—accepted the partition proposal but lobbied for the inclusion of Jerusalem and the western Galilee (e.g., Acre, Nazareth) in the Jewish state. The ad hoc committee made some revisions to the UNSCOP report’s boundaries, and the proposal for partition proceeded to the General Assembly for a vote.
The proposed Jewish state covered some 56 percent of Mandate Palestine divided into three barely contiguous parts/areas: the eastern Galilee (including Safad, Tiberias, Baysan, and the Sea of Galilee), a coastal area (about two-thirds of Palestine’s coast, including Haifa, Tel Aviv, and the fertile lowland plains), and most of the Negev (excluding Bir al-Sabi’ and a strip/area running about half-way down the border with Egypt, but giving access to the Red Sea). Of Mandate Palestine’s sixteen districts, nine were allotted to the Jewish state, only one of which had a Jewish majority; the UN-proposed Jewish state as a whole had an Arab “minority” approaching 47 percent.
The Arab state—which was to be linked to Transjordan—comprised some 43 percent of Mandate Palestine for an Arab population exceeding two-thirds. It, too, constituted three parts/areas in addition to the tiny Jaffa enclave (surrounded by the Jewish state). Its main areas were Western Galilee down to Acre and including Nazareth; the central Palestinian highland areas around Jenin, Nablus, and Hebron, extending west to include Tulkarm, Qalqiliya, Lydda, and Ramla, and south to include the central southern desert hub of Bir al-Sabi’; and a coastline strip (including Gaza) running from Isdud to the Egyptian border and following that border southwards. The international enclave around Jerusalem and Bethlehem (the corpus separatum) had a slight Arab majority.
The UN vote was originally scheduled for 26 November, but proponents of partition feared that the proposal would not receive the required two-thirds majority and succeeded in delaying the vote for three days, giving more time for the intense lobbying and pressures brought to bear on member states, primarily by Washington and Zionist organizations. The partition resolution was finally adopted on 29 November with 33 votes in favor, 13 votes against, and 10 abstentions. The announcement of the UN acceptance of partition was met in Arab Palestine by a general strike and demonstrations; some—in Jerusalem and elsewhere—turned to destructive riots. Meanwhile, emboldened by the international imprimatur given by the UN decision, the Zionist military organizations attacked Arab villages and residential quarters before launching the highly organized campaigns of Plan Dalet starting in early April 1948. Villagers together with the more organized Arab volunteer and irregular forces defended their territory and attacked Zionist areas. This “civil war” phase of the 1947–49 Palestine war ended with Israel’s declaration of statehood on 15 May 1948.
By emphasizing their acceptance of the idea of partition and Arab rejection of it, while ignoring the deep injustice written into the details of the proposal in terms of both land and population, Zionists were able to cloak the ensuing conquest and displacement of Palestinians as both legitimate and defensive. The UN Partition Plan thus represents both the fruits of Zionist efforts to secure international recognition of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine and the immediate precursor to the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, predicated as it was on the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their lands.
Gilbert, Martin. “The Jewish Agency’s Partition Plan, August 1946” (map). In The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (7th ed., p. 35). New York: Routledge.
Khalidi, Walid. "Revisiting the UNGA Partition Resolution." Journal of Palestine Studies 27, no.1 (Autumn 1997): 5–21.
McCarthy, Justin. The Population of Palestine: Population, History, and Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the Mandate. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies; New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Rogan, Eugene L., and Avi Shlaim. The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.