“If only the Palestinians had accepted the UN partition plan in 1947, we would have 60 years of peace by now.”

In an Opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald late last month, Colin Rubinstein, the executive director of AIJAC (Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council), commented that:

“While it is understandable that Palestinians remember the suffering of 700,000 Palestinians who fled or otherwise lost their homes in 1948, it is worth remembering that this tragedy was completely avoidable had Palestinians and the Arab states heeded the UN’s resolution calling for two states for two peoples. Instead, a war to ethnically cleanse the area of Jewish inhabitants was launched.”

On 29 November 1947 the General Assembly of the UN passed resolution 181 in favour of the partition of Palestine. By a vote of 33-13 with 10 abstentions (the United Kingdom abstained) the resolution called for the creation of separate “Independent Arab and Jewish States and [a] Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem”. It was to be a “plan of partition with economic union”, which was to come into effect as soon as the British Mandate for Palestine ended. The plan was not perfect by any standards. As a number of scholars have noted, the long and winding borders separating the Arab from the Jewish state would have been a strategic nightmare; and the Jewish state was to house approximately 500,000 Jews as well as 400,000 Arabs (the Arab state would have housed approximately 725,000 Arabs but only 10,000 Jews), not an ideal situation for either side.

Before considering the reasons for the Arab rejection of the partition plan, let us take a look at the Jewish response, which was not entirely upbeat and was not subject to universal joy and dancing in the streets, though the majority were happy with the result. Menachem Begin, then commander of the Zionist group the Irgun and later the first Likud Prime Minister of Israel, was incensed. “The partition of Palestine is illegal,” he said a day after the UN vote. “It will never be recognised… Jerusalem was and will for ever be our capital. All of it. And for ever.” (see Begin’s 1951 book The Revolt: Story of the Irgun). David Ben-Gurion, who would become the first Prime Minister of Israel, when asked at the time by the UN Special Committee on Palestine whether he would accept partition said: “”To partition,” according to the Oxford dictionary, means to divide a thing into two parts. Palestine is divided into three parts, and only in a small part are the Jews allowed to live. We are against that. … [T]his is our country, including the Arabs who are in it. This country is the country of the Jewish people and of all the other inhabitants.”

A representative from Guatemala asked Ben-Gurion at the same sitting: “Several times I have heard about the possibility of violence if a decision of the United Nations were not accepted by a certain party. Suppose that decision would give absolute freedom to a Jewish State, would the Jewish people be able to resist violence and defend themselves?” Ben-Gurion’s answer is very revealing in light of the discussion of the reasons the Arabs rejected the UN partition plan.

“You mean violence on the part of the Arabs?” Ben-Gurion answered. “The first thing we will do if such decision is given will be to make the greatest effort to come to an agreement with the Arabs. First, we will go to them and tell them, here is a decision in our favour. We are right. We want to sit down with you and settle the question amicably. If your answer is no, then we will use force against you. Then we will take care of ourselves.”

This is an interesting remark. On the surface it appears benign. Ben-Gurion wanted to talk to the Arabs and attempt to come to an agreement. But “talk” is too strong a word. Ben-Gurion’s stance is that “We are right”: if the Arab population agrees with that stance, then there will be no violence. If the Arab population does not agree with the decision, then there will be violence.

The Jewish Agency of course officially accepted the partition plan, but even then they had their misgivings. A representative of the Jewish Agency said at the time that

According to David Lloyd George, then British Prime Minister, the Balfour Declaration implied that the whole of Palestine, including Transjordan, should ultimately become a Jewish state. Transjordan had, nevertheless, been severed from Palestine in 1922 and had subsequently been set up as an Arab kingdom. Now a second Arab state was to be carved out of the remainder of Palestine, with the result that the Jewish National Home would represent less than one eighth of the territory originally set aside for it. Such a sacrifice should not be asked of the Jewish people.

In other words, all of the land of Palestine and what is now Jordan was promised to the Jewish people by the British. Then in 1922, when Transjordan was created, the Jewish state became much smaller. So this further 1947 partition was not wholly embraced by the Jewish Agency either, even though they supported it publicly and (this cannot be underestimated nor ignored) it was indeed a major breakthrough for the Zionist movement, who arguably for the first time had international support for a Jewish state in Palestine.

Now what about the other side, the Arab population? Is it plausible that, as Rubinstein claims, “this tragedy was completely avoidable had Palestinians and the Arab states heeded the UN’s resolution calling for two states for two peoples”? What were the reasoning of the Palestinians for rejecting the partition plan? The International Court of Justice has noted that “The Arab population of Palestine and the Arab States rejected this plan, contending that it was unbalanced…” The Arab League complained at the the time that the “Palestine Arabs[‘] natural rights are self evident and cannot continue to be subject to investigation but deserve to be recognized on the basis of principles of [the] United Nations Charter”. The Arab League asserted that “the destiny of Palestine cannot be decided by outsiders… The people of Palestine shall decide the destiny of Palestine …” And, in contradistinction to the Zionist claims, the Arab League stated that “Zionism has no rightful claim on Palestine. In the implementation of their programme, they have exclusively relied on the support of a foreign power régime conducting itself arbitrarily and unjustly. Their forces have been forces of repression.”

The Palestinian population at the time did not feel it was just to partition what they felt was theirs, especially if the partition was imposed by an outside force. They worried about the consequence of the fact that, as a UN document stated at the time, “The Jews will have the more economically developed part of the country embracing practically the whole of the citrus-producing area which includes a large number of Arab producers” and that “the Arab State will not be in a position to undertake considerable development expenditure”.

Thus, as the brief sketch above shows, the Palestinians at the time were not mad for refusing to accept the partition plan. They had legitimate and understandable grievances that were practically ignored. Both sides were ready to resort to violence to settle the matter, and thus their contradictory claims to the land resulted in two wars following the UN partition resolution (as Benny Morris’ book 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War explains): first, “was the immediate Palestinian uprising against the Yishuv [the pre-State Jewish community], and then, after the Palestinian defeat, the coordinated invasion by the armies of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan.” It is thus misleading to suggest, as Rubinstein does, that “this tragedy was completely avoidable had Palestinians and the Arab states heeded the UN’s resolution calling for two states for two peoples.”

I will leave Rubinstein’s other claim, that “Instead, a war to ethnically cleanse the area of Jewish inhabitants was launched”, to another discussion. Suffice it to say for the moment that each side has explained its own atrocities by claiming that they were indirect consequences of the war, and that exceptions to this explanation are held by each side to be due to rogue soldiers acting without or in defiance of orders.

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