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Britain and Palestine

A Criminal History of Intervention - The Partition of Palestine 1947-48

Workers' Daily Internet Edition, June 1, 2009

The British government made a promise to support the Palestinian people's right to self-determination during World War 1. However, at the same time it committed itself, in the infamous Balfour Declaration, to "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people". In 1917, Britain occupied Palestine, which had formerly been part of the Ottoman empire. In 1922, Palestine was handed to Britain as a mandated territory by the League of Nations. Mandated territories were supposed to be guided to independence by a supervisory power that had as its primary consideration the wishes of the population of such territories. During the next 25 years however, successive British governments fully supported the aims of the Zionist movement, and encouraged thousands of Jewish settlers to migrate to Palestine. The continual denial of the rights of the Palestinians led to a major rebellion in 1936, which was ruthlessly suppressed by the British government.

The government-appointed Peel Commission in 1937 recommended that Palestine should be partitioned. However, this solution was rejected both by the Palestinians, whose uprising continued until 1939 and who demanded independence for all of Palestine, and also by the Zionists who calculated that with the arrival of even more Jewish settlers they would be in a stronger position to demand even more territory for a future Jewish state. As a consequence of these rejections, the British government then published its 1939 White Paper that stated: "HMG therefore now declare unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State." Rather it declared its intention was "the establishment within ten years of an independent Palestinian state", and one in which "Arabs and Jews share in government".

However, the British government's attempt to repudiate its previous support for Zionism did not alter the nature of the problem in Palestine even during World War Two. Zionist terrorism against both the British administration and the Palestinian people increased and culminated in the attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946. The Palestine problem was further exacerbated by the intervention of the US government, which encouraged a massive increase in Jewish migration and the establishing of a "Jewish national home" and opposed the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Having created a major problem in the region, increasingly exacerbated by continued but clandestine Jewish migration and Zionist terrorist organisations, and unable to meet neither the demands of the Palestinians nor those of the Jewish settlers, who by 1947 comprised 30% of the population, Attlee's Labour government then sought to relinquish its mandate and presented the problem to the newly formed UN.

At the UN, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq immediately proposed that Palestine should be declared independent, since it was the only mandated territory in the Middle East not to have this status, but this proposal was defeated. The UN General Assembly appointed a Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to investigate and suggest solutions to the problem of Palestine. A proposal from the Soviet Union and Poland that the Committee should also submit proposals on the question of establishing "the independent democratic state of Palestine" was rejected but UNSCOP was authorised to consider the issue of Jewish refuges from Europe. From the outset, the UN refused to consider the possibility of an independent Palestinian state. As a consequence, when UNSCOP subsequently conducted its investigations in Palestine and Europe, Palestinian representatives refused to co-operate with it. Nevertheless, it concluded that Britain's mandate should be terminated and independence declared. However, it suggested two proposals regarding independence. The proposal of the majority of UNSCOP members, despite Palestinian objections, was for partition, and the creation of two independent states but with a unified economy. The minority proposal was for a federated state. It was also recognised by UNSCOP that further Jewish immigration into Palestine should be restricted. However, the policy of the British administration in Palestine, which was to restrict Jewish migration, only exacerbated the situation in the wake of the atrocities carried out against Europe's Jewish population by the Nazis and their allies. A climate existed in which the UN was forced to take action in relation to the demands and needs of Jewish refugees from Europe, as well as in relation to the rights of the Palestinians.

In September 1947, the UN General Assembly constituted itself as an Ad Hoc Committee and began deliberating on the future of Palestine. The United States favoured partition. The Arab states and the representatives of the Palestinians rejected the partition proposal out of hand, and reiterated their position that the majority population must be granted the right to independence. The British government stated that it would implement any plan as long as there was agreement by "both Arabs and Jews". If there was no such agreement, the government announced that some other authority would have to implement it. However, at the same time it announced its intention to withdraw its forces as soon as possible. Since there was no likelihood of any such agreement, the government's declared intention could only exacerbate the existing problem, which it and previous British governments had created.

In November 1947, the UN General Assembly discussed and voted on the two proposals. Although some states still argued that the UN had no authority to make any decision about a mandated territory it was agreed despite strong opposition and many abstentions that the proposal to partition Palestine should be put to a full vote of the General Assembly. The representative of the British government lamented the fact that no consensus had been reached. It refused to allow British troops to implement a decision that had not been agreed by both the Arab and Jewish populations in Palestine.

In the vote on partition on November 29, there were 33 votes in favour and 13 against with 10 abstentions. All the Arab states and those states with predominantly Muslim population voted against partition, as did Cuba, Greece and India. Britain, which abstained in the voting, was to withdraw by August 1948 and a Jewish and Arab state would become independent by October 1948. Palestine was to be divided into eight parts - three to be allocated to the new Jewish state, and three to the Palestinians. Jerusalem was to be administered by the UN initially for 10 years. There was to be an economic union between the two states but about half of the population of the Jewish state were Palestinian Arabs. Violence in Palestine, from the Jewish settlers increased and Britain announced it would evacuate its troops and administration in May 1948, i.e. before any UN forces could be introduced.

This created a situation in which both the Zionists and the Arab states threatened to intervene. It was during this period of instability and uncertainty that the massacre at Deir Yassin occurred in April 1948 and Palestinian refugees estimated at over 700,000 began to flee from those areas allocated to the new Jewish state and other areas of Palestine. In this climate, there were calls from the US and others to stop the process of partition and declare a UN trusteeship over Palestine but Israel declared its independence on May 14 the day before British withdrawal. Even before this date, forces from Arab states had entered Palestine and Zionist forces had entered not only the designated territory of the Jewish state but also other areas of Palestine too including Jerusalem. Effectively a state of war existed in Palestine and the UN was forced to send in a mediator, who was subsequently assassinated by the Zionists, and to conduct peace negotiations. Such was the birth of the Zionist state of Israel.


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