An Impossible Partition
UK foreign secretary Jack Straw stood at the dispatch box in a packed House of Commons. After parrying members' questions on the intricacies of European Union (EU) budgetary reform and sugar subsidies, he became more ebullient when debate turned to the Middle East peace process. He commended Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his "courage" in pulling Israeli settlers out of Gaza and declared, "I am more hopeful about the prospects for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians than I have been at any time in the past four and a half years." Straw boomed, "I believe that gradually both sides have recognized that the only future for Palestinians and Israelis lies in peace and in two states."1 Straw could have learned something from those who had stood at the dispatch box before him. It was the British government after all, one still flush with colonial territories, that had in the 1930s first given its official imprimatur to partition as the solution to the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Partition failed then, as it is failing again today, as it has failed every time it has been seriously proposed, always forthe same reason: There is no workable partition that is acceptable to a majority of Israelis and Palestinians.
Partition of Palestine into one homeland for Jews and another for Arabs was first endorsed as a government plan in 1937. That year, the Palestine Royal Commission, headed by Lord Peel, formed after disturbances in Palestine and the outbreak of the Arab revolt, proposed to divide the country into two states, with the British retaining control of Jerusalem and a corridor leading to the port of Jaffa. The proposed Jewish state would include all of the Galilee in the north and the coastal plain down to the south of Tel Aviv. The Arab state would comprise all the rest of the country. Even with this plan, expectations of settling on a fair border between the two entities were low. "No frontier can be drawn," the report warned, "which separates all Arabs and Arab-owned land from all Jews and Jewish-owned land." The problem was the Arabs, or more specifically, the quantity of them: There were simply too many. While the area allocated for the Arab state would have contained only 1,250 Jews, the Jewish state would have contained more than a quarter of a million Arabs. "It is the far greater number of Arabs who constitute the major problem," the report concluded. Because it was impossible to construct a viable Jewish state given these facts, the Peel Commission recommended solving the demographic "problem" through the removal, "voluntary or otherwise," of all Arabs from the proposed Jewish state not just to other parts of Palestine, but even across the frontier to Transjordan (modern-day Jordan), a solution that today would properly be called ethnic cleansing.2
A year after its release, the Woodhead Commission scuttled the Peel plan because it found that, at a minimum, the proposedJewish state would have an Arab population of 49 percent. The commissioners could not agree on any other partition scheme, and one member concluded that no form of partition was practicable. 3 In 1939, the British government issued a new White Paper on Palestine that also reversed the Peel Commission's key findings. Instead of partition, it endorsed a unitary state in which Arabs and Jews would have equal rights.
The next serious proposal for partition, and the most detailed, came almost a decade later. Toward the end of British rule in Palestine, granted by a League of Nations mandate, the British were losing control of the population and so handed the problem to the newly formed United Nations. In 1947, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), composed of representatives of eleven states, recommended the partition of the country into independent Jewish and Arab states. A majority of the countries in UNSCOP (Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, and Uruguay) voted for partition, while the minority (India, Iran, and Yugoslavia) proposed a single, federal binational state. Australia abstained. On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly accepted the UNSCOP majority recommendation, Resolution 181, by a vote of 33-13 with 10 abstentions. Mainstream Zionist leaders endorsed the plan, but most did so "with a heavy heart" out of opposition to the idea of a Palestinian state and a desire for control over a greater area of territory.4 David Ben-Gurion, in his testimony to UNSCOP, had argued against partition because he believed that the entire country should be given to the Jews. He urged postponement of any decision until the Jews, by encouraging immigration, could become the majorityand thus take control of all the country.5 Nevertheless once the plan was passed by the General Assembly, Zionist leaders hailed it as a major diplomatic achievement, and there was widespread celebration in the Jewish community in Palestine and among Zionist supporters around the world.
While international opinion was coalescing around UN plans for partition, the voices of those who would be most affected--Palestinians--had little bearing on the deliberations. Arab leaders in Palestine and Arab states rejected the UN plan. They had proposed to UNSCOP that Palestine be given its independence as a unitary state, that there be a constituent assembly made of Arabs and Jews, that Jews participate fully in its government under proportional representation, and that Jewish immigration be curbed to prevent a Jewish takeover and the loss of the "Arab character" of Palestine.6 Even today, Palestinian speakers, including myself, are often challenged with the claim that had the Palestinians only accepted the UN plan they would by now have enjoyed their freedom and independence for nearly sixty years. But such twenty-twenty hindsight does little to illuminate the reality Palestinians faced. My father, who was twelve years old at the time, remembers that even in his small, rural village there was lively concern over the UNSCOP partition plan. Palestinians were universally against partition for two reasons. He explains: "First, they thought, you don't partition what's yours. They didn't see their rights to Palestine as disputable, so they did not see partition as a reasonable compromise. And also we knew--even as little children--and I remember talking about it, that if the Jews accepted partition it would only be as a foothold for taking the rest of Palestinelater." Palestinians simply didn't see why towns and villages a short distance away and to which they had deep ties should suddenly, by the decree of a distant body, be placed out of their reach behind international borders. It was simply inconceivable. Palestinians were being given hardly anything in the partition; they were losing more than half their country.
Even if people could have been brought to see partition as reasonable in theory, the terms proposed by UNSCOP added insult to injury. In 1947, there were 1,293,000 Arab Palestinians--Muslims and Christians--and 608,000 Jews in the country. Although Jews were one-third of the population, most had arrived only recently after fleeing the horrors of World War II, and Zionist efforts to buy up the country had met with some resistance. The result was Jews owned about 6 percent of the land.7 Nevertheless, the partition resolution proposed to give Jews 55 percent of the country. The Palestinians, who were two-thirds of the population and owned the vast majority of the land, which they had been working for generations, were to make do with less than half of the country. Jerusalem would be declared an international zone. An example of the inequity in this is UNSCOP's decision that "the Jews will have the more economically developed part of the country embracing practically the whole of the...