Mandated Palestine - The Partition Plans

Excerpted from the report “The Origins and Evolution of the Palestine Problem: 1917-1988,” by UNISPAL - Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR), June 30, 1978

VII. Mandated Palestine - The Partition Plans

The Peel Commission Report

The Royal Commission to inquire into the "disturbances" was headed by a former Secretary of State for India, Lord Robert Peel, and presented a 400-page report, a document of major importance in any examination of the Palestine problem. While defending the British Government's record in Palestine and standing by the Balfour Declaration, it recognized the force and justice of the demands by the Palestinian people for independence. It acknowledged that, contrary to the previous official position, Palestinian resistance to the Mandate had shown that the "dual obligations" were not reconcilable. Faced with this dilemma it recommended, in Solomonian fashion, the partition of Palestine.

Because of its importance as a major turning point, after the Balfour Declaration, in British policy in Palestine, the Royal Commission's report is quoted below at some length.

Commenting on the assumption that the "dual obligations" were reconcilable:
"It must have been obvious from the outset that a very awkward situation would arise if that basic assumption should prove false. It would evidently make the operation of the Mandate at every point more difficult, and it would greatly complicate the question of its termination. To foster Jewish immigration in the hope that it might ultimately lead to the creation of a Jewish majority and the establishment of a Jewish State with the consent or at least the acquiescence of the Arabs was one thing. It was quite another thing to contemplate, however remotely, the forcible conversion of Palestine into a Jewish State against the will of the Arabs. For that would clearly violate the spirit and intention of the Mandates System. It would mean that national self-determination had been withheld when the Arabs were a majority in Palestine and only conceded when the Jews were a majority. It would mean that the Arabs had been denied the opportunity of standing by themselves; that they had, in fact, after an interval of conflict, been bartered about from Turkish sovereignty to Jewish sovereignty. 96/

"... the crux was plain enough to Arab eyes. It was the Balfour Declaration and its embodiment in the draft Mandate and nothing else which seemingly prevented their attaining a similar measure of independence to that which other Arab communities already enjoyed. And their reaction to this crux was logical. They repudiated the Balfour Declaration. They protested against its implementation in the draft Mandate. 'The people of Palestine,' they said, 'cannot accept the creation of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.' And they refused to co-operate in any form of government other than a national government responsible to the Palestinian people. 97/

"... Nowhere, as it happened, was the spirit of nationalism more acute after the War than in this area of the Near and Middle East. In all of its constituent territories, except Transjordan, there were serious disturbances, and in all of them, except Palestine, there was a marked advance towards self-government." 98/
On the rebellion:
"... One other feature of the 'disturbances' of last year had likewise appeared before. It has been pointed out that the outbreak of 1933 was not only, or even mainly, an attack on the Jews, but an attack on the Palestine Government. In 1936 this was still clearer. Jewish lives were taken and Jewish property destroyed; but the outbreak was chiefly and directly aimed at the Government. The word 'disturbances' gives a misleading impression of what happened. It was an open rebellion of the Palestinian Arabs, assisted by fellow-Arabs from other countries, against British Mandatory rule." 99/
On its causes:
"... After examining this and other evidence and studying the course of events in Palestine since the War, we have no doubt as to what were 'the underlying causes of the disturbances' of last year. They were:
"(i) The desire of the Arabs for national independence.

"(ii) Their hatred and fear of the establishment of the Jewish National Home.
'We make the following comments on these two causes:
"(i) They were the same underlying causes as those which brought about the 'disturbances' of 1920, 1921, 1929 and 1933.

"(ii) They were, and always have been, inextricably linked together. The Balfour Declaration and the Mandate under which it was to be implemented involved the denial of national independence at the outset. The subsequent growth of the national home created a practical obstacle, and the only serious one, to the concession later of national independence. It was believed that its further growth might mean the political as well as economic subjection of the Arabs to the Jews, so that if, ultimately, the Mandate should terminate and Palestine become independent, it would not be a national independence in the Arab sense but self-government by a Jewish majority.

"(iii) They were the only 'underlying' causes. All the other factors were complementary or subsidiary, aggravating the two causes or helping to determine the time at which the disturbances broke out." 100/
On the new Arab hostility towards the Jews:
"... It is indeed, one of the most unhappy aspects of the present situation - this opening of a breach between Jewry and the Arab world. We believe that not in Palestine only but in all the Middle East the Arabs might profit from the capital and enterprise which the Jews are ready enough to provide; and we believe that in ordinary circumstances the various Arab Governments would be ready enough on their side to permit a measure of Jewish immigration under their own conditions and control. But the creation of the national home has been neither conditioned nor controlled by the Arabs of Palestine. It has been established directly against their will. And that hard fact has had its natural reaction on Arab minds elsewhere. The Jews were fully entitled to enter the door forced open for them into Palestine. They did it with the sanction and encouragement of the League of Nations and the United States of America. But by doing it they have closed the other doors of the Arab World against them. And in certain circumstances this antagonism might become dangerously aggressive." 101/

On the Arab-Jewish relationship:
"An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country. About 1,000,000 Arabs are in strife, open or latent, with some 400,000 Jews. There is no common ground between them. The Arab community is predominantly Asian in character, the Jewish community predominantly European. They differ in religion and in language. Their cultural and social life, their ways of thought and conduct, are as incompatible as their national aspirations. These last are the greatest bar to peace." 102/
On Palestinian demands for independence:
"... When at last they came before us, headed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, the first words of the prepared statement he made to us, were these: 'The Arab cause in Palestine is one which aims at national independence. In its essence it does not differ from similar movements amongst the Arabs in all other Arab territories.' And at the close of his statement he stated that the first cause of the 'disturbances' was 'the fact that the Arabs in Palestine were deprived of their natural and political rights'; and he summed up the Arab demands as (1) 'the abandonment of the experiment of the Jewish national home', (2) 'the immediate and complete stoppage of Jewish immigration', (3) 'the immediate and complete prohibition of the sale of Arab land to Jews', and (4) 'the solution of the Palestine problem on the same basis as that on which were solved the problems in Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon, namely by the termination of the Mandate and by the conclusion of a treaty between Great Britain and Palestine by virtue of which a national and independent government in constitutional form will be established'.

"Thus it is clear that the standpoint of the Arab leaders has not shifted by an inch from that which they adopted when first they understood the implications of the Balfour Declaration. The events of 17 years have only served to stiffen and embitter their resistance and, as they argue, to strengthen their case. And the core of their case, it must be stressed again, is political.

"... Nor is the conflict in its essence an interracial conflict, arising from any old instinctive antipathy of Arabs towards Jews. There was little or no friction, as we have seen, between Arab and Jews in the rest of the Arab world until the strife in Palestine engendered it. And there has been precisely the same political trouble in Iraq, Syria and Egypt - agitation, rebellion and bloodshed - where there are no 'national homes'. Quite obviously, then, the problem of Palestine is political. It is, as elsewhere, the problem of insurgent nationalism. The only difference is that in Palestine Arab nationalism is inextricably interwoven with antagonism to the Jews. And the reasons for that, it is worth repeating, are equally obvious. In the first place, the establishment of the national home involved at the outset a blank negation of the rights implied in the principle of national self-government. Secondly, it soon proved to be not merely an obstacle to the development of national self-government, but apparently the only serious obstacle. Thirdly, as the home has grown, the fear has grown with it that, if and when self-government is conceded, it may not be national in the Arab sense, but government by a Jewish majority. That is why it is difficult to be an Arab patriot and not to hate the Jews.

"... The story of the last 17 years is proof that this Arab nationalism with its anti-Jewish spearhead is not a new or transient phenomenon. It was there at the beginning; its strength and range have steadily increased; and it seems evident to us from what we saw and heard that it has not yet reached its climax." 103/
Before making its recommendations, the Royal Commission recapitulated the political situation in Palestine in a chapter entitled "The Force of Circumstance", recognizing that the terms of the Mandate, with its inclusion of the Balfour Declaration, could only be implemented by force; and with no assurance of success:
"... The moral objections to maintaining a system of government by constant repression are self-evident. Nor is there any need to emphasize the undesirable reactions of such a course of policy on opinion outside Palestine.

"And the worst of it is that such a policy leads nowhere. However vigorously and consistently maintained, it will not solve the problem. It will not allay, it will exacerbate the quarrel between the Arabs and the Jews. The establishment of a single self-governing Palestine will remain just as impracticable as it is now. It is not easy to pursue the dark path of repression without seeing daylight at the end of it." 104/
The Royal Commission then made its recommendations:
"... Manifestly the problem cannot be solved by giving either the Arabs or the Jews all they want. The answer to the question, 'Which of them in the end will govern Palestine?' must surely be 'neither' ...

"... Partition seems to offer at least a chance of ultimate peace. We can see none in any other plan." 105/
This public recognition that the irreconcilable terms of the Mandate had made it unworkable signalled its imminent end. The radical recommendation of partition was accepted by the British Government in a White Paper in July 1937:
"In spite of many discouraging experiences during the past seventeen years, His Majesty's Government have based their policy on this expectation, and have taken every opportunity of encouraging co-operation between Arabs and Jews. In the light of experience and of the arguments adduced by the Commission, they are driven to the conclusion that there is an irreconcilable conflict between the aspirations of Arabs and Jews in Palestine, that these aspirations cannot be satisfied under the terms of the present Mandate, and that a scheme of partition on the general lines recommended by the Commission represents the best and most hopeful solution of the deadlock ...

"In supporting a solution of the Palestine problem by means of partition, His Majesty's Government are much impressed by the advantages which it offers both to the Arabs and the Jews. The Arabs would obtain their national independence, and thus be enabled to co-operate on an equal footing with the Arabs of neighbouring countries in the cause of Arab unity and progress. They would be finally delivered from all fear of Jewish domination ... On the other hand, partition would secure the establishment of the Jewish national home and relieve it from any possibility of its being subject in the future to Arab rule. It would convert the Jewish national home into a Jewish State;..." 106/
Partition was unacceptable to the Palestinians, whose struggle for self-determination had brought the British Government to admit the unworkability of the Mandate. The rebellion flared up again, lasting until 1939. The Arab Higher Committee formally reasserted the right of Palestinians to full independence in the whole of Palestine, and the replacement of the Mandate by a treaty between Great Britain and an independent Palestine.

The Royal Commission's report was the subject of intense debate at the twentieth Zionist Congress in Zurich in August 1937. Dr. Weizmann urged acceptance of the partition plan (with fundamental modifications) since the world was now viewing the problem in terms of a Jewish State. However, the Congress apparently did not consider that the time had come to accept a Jewish State in only part of Palestine. It was too early - the ultimate aim was to establish the Jewish State in all of Palestine, and at this point the numbers of immigrants were too small and, in Zionist eyes, the mission of the Mandate was unfulfilled. The Congress declared that it:
"... rejects the assertion of the Palestine Royal Commission that the Mandate has proved unworkable, and demands its fulfillment. The Congress directs the Executive to resist any infringement of the rights of the Jewish people internationally guaranteed by the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate.

"The Congress declares that the scheme of partition put forward by the Royal Commission is unacceptable.

"The Congress empowers the Executive to enter into negotiations with a view to ascertaining the precise terms of His Majesty's Government for the proposed establishment of a Jewish State." 107/
The Royal Commission's partition plan (which, the Commission emphasized, was not a final or definitive proposal) allotted roughly the northern quarter of Palestine and the major part of the western coastal plain to the Jewish state, about a third of the country's area. Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, with a corridor to the sea at Jaffa, would continue under a British Mandate (map at annex VII).

The British Government then dispatched another "technical" commission, known as the "Woodhead Commission" to examine the practicability of partition. This Commission, which held its inquiries in Palestine from April to August 1938, concluded that the Royal Commission's plan was unworkable since almost half of the population of the proposed Jewish State would be Palestinian Arab, and raise the danger of mass population transfers. The Commission proposed two other plans. One amended the Royal Commission's plan by placing Galilee under mandate instead of allotting it to the Jewish State (annex VIII). The other proposed that virtually the southern half of Palestine, the Jerusalem enclave, and a large area in the north remain under mandate, the Jewish State occupying the coastal plain north of Jaffa, with the Arab state being allotted the remainder of the territory (annex IX).

The Commission itself expressed reservations over the viability of any partition scheme, and with the resurgence of the Palestinian rebellion, the British Government abandoned the idea of partitioning Palestine, announcing in a new statement of policy that:
"... further examination has shown that the political, administrative and financial difficulties involved in the proposal to create independent Arab and Jewish States inside Palestine are so great that this solution of the problem is impracticable." 108/

The London Conference, 1939

To discuss alternatives, a round-table conference in London was held to which the British Government invited representatives of Palestinians (excluding those held responsible for violence), Jews (who could select whichever representatives they wished) and Arab States. If the Conference could not produce an agreement, the British Government announced, it would decide and implement its own policy.

The London Conference turned out to be parallel but separate Anglo-Arab and Anglo-Jewish conferences in February-March 1939, since the Arabs refused to formally recognize the Jewish Agency. All the independent Arab States participated: Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Transjordan and the Yemen. It was for this conference, which reached to the roots of the Palestine issue, that the British Government made public the Husain-McMahon correspondence, which was examined by the Anglo-Arab Committee.

The Arabs were determined to secure the inherent right of the Palestinians to their independence, which had been pledged 20 years earlier and for which the Palestinians had risen up in arms. The Jews, backed by the Balfour Declaration and its incorporation in the Mandate, were determined to achieve a Jewish State, particularly at a time when Nazi persecution of Jewry in Europe was inflicting its notorious excesses and his people were facing what Dr. Weizmann described as "this, the blackest hour of Jewish history". Although meetings between all three sides took place towards the end of the London Conference, British proposals for an agreement were first rejected by the Jewish side and, after revision to partially meet the Jewish objections, by both sides.

The "MacDonald White Paper"

The end of this attempt to reach an agreement left the British Government facing the situation which its policies of two decades had created in Palestine, and now it presented its unilateral policy. A new White Paper was issued in May 1939, disclaiming any intention to create a Jewish State, rejecting Arab demands that Palestine become independent as an Arab State, and envisaging the termination of the mandate by 1949 with independence for Palestine in which both Palestinians and Jews would share in government. Immigration would end, after the admission of 75,000 new immigrants over the first five years. The Government would strictly regulate transfer of land.

Important excerpts from this last major British policy statement on Palestine before the Second World War deserve note:
"... His Majesty's Government do not read either the Statement of Policy of 1922 or the letter of 1931 as implying that the Mandate requires them, for all time and in all circumstances, to facilitate the immigration of Jews into Palestine subject only to consideration of the country's economic absorptive capacity. Nor do they find anything in the Mandate or in subsequent Statements of Policy to support the view that the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine cannot be effected unless immigration is allowed to continue indefinitely. If immigration has an adverse effect on the economic position in the country, it should clearly be restricted; and, equally, if it has a seriously damaging effect on the political position in the country, that is a factor that should not be ignored ... it cannot be denied that fear of indefinite Jewish immigration is widespread amongst the Arab population and that this fear has made possible disturbances which have given a serious setback to economic progress, depleted the Palestine exchequer, rendered life and property insecure, and produced a bitterness between the Arab and Jewish populations which is deplorable between citizens of the same country. If in these circumstances immigration is continued up to the economic absorptive capacity of the country, regardless of all other considerations, a fatal enmity between the two peoples will be perpetuated, and the situation in Palestine may become a permanent source of friction amongst all peoples in the Near and Middle East ...

"... His Majesty's Government are convinced that in the interests of the peace and well-being of the whole people of Palestine, a clear definition of policy and objectives is essential. The proposal of participation recommended by the Royal Commission would have afforded such clarity, but the establishment of self-supporting independent Arab and Jewish States within Palestine has been found to be impracticable. It has therefore been necessary for His Majesty's Government to devise an alternative policy which will, consistently with their obligations to Arabs and Jews, meet the needs of the situation in Palestine ...

"... It has been urged that the expression 'a national home for the Jewish people' offered a prospect that Palestine might in due course become a Jewish State or Commonwealth. His Majesty's Government do not wish to contest the view, which has been expressed by the Royal Commission, that the Zionist leaders at the time of the issue of the Balfour Declaration recognized that an ultimate Jewish State was not precluded by the terms of the Declaration. But, with the Royal Commission, His Majesty's Government believe that the framers of the Mandate in which the Balfour Declaration was embodied could not have intended that Palestine should be converted into a Jewish State against the will of the Arab population of the country ...

"... and His Majesty's Government therefore now declare unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State. They would indeed regard it as contrary to their obligations to the Arabs under the Mandate, as well as to the assurances which have been given to the Arab people in the past, that the Arab population of Palestine should be made the subjects of a Jewish State against their will ..." 109/

"... The objective of His Majesty's Government is the establishment within 10 years of an independent Palestine State in ... treaty relations with the United Kingdom.

"... the independent State should be one in which Arabs and Jews share in government in such a way as to ensure that the essential interests of each community are safeguarded ..." 109/

After two decades of Mandatory rule and colonization from abroad, the inherent rights of the Palestinians finally had been acknowledged. But the independence now being pledged was to a country where population and land patterns had been so transformed while it had been a territory under a League of Nations mandate, that the road to independence was full of pits and obstructions. For the Zionist movement the White Paper was a severe setback to their plans, and a new strategy was to be devised outside the framework of the Mandate of the League of Nations which, in any event, was nearing its end.