On this day in 1947, November 29, the United Nations approved a plan for the partition of British-governed Palestine into three areas: an Arab state, a Jewish state, and a UN-governed enclave encompassing Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The entire area would be joined in an economic union.
The Jewish Agency, which was the official Jewish leadership of the territory, immediately accepted the proposal. The Arab Higher Committee in Palestine as well as the Arab League of other nations all rejected the proposal, because of the Jewish state.
The Arab State of Palestine would have come into existence in 1948, had the Arabs decided to accept the UN plan and proclaimed the state.
Partition was no one’s ideal – not the Jews, not the Arabs within Palestine, not the surrounding Arab countries, not the British. It was the least bad solution the UN could come up with.
No Jew or Muslim believed they should give up Jerusalem, as all would have been required to do. No one by 1947 was interested in a completely joint, binational governing mechanism, which had been discussed at various times within the British administration but not implemented, and among Jewish-Arab groups like Brit Shalom that had dissipated years earlier. The Arab leaderships in and around Palestine rejected the Jewish return to the land entirely. The Jews did not love the partition in principle. They were concerned about whether the small amount of land dedicated to the Jewish state would be defensible and could sustain the population. There were Jewish groups opposed to partition who had militias. The main difference the Jewish Agency Executive fought back against those militias for the most part in their attempts to sabotage the UN plan.
So partition was the UN’s proposal. The Jews’ representatives accepted the UN partition plan, and the Arabs rejected it. The Jews would have abided by the terms and map of the plan and were prepared to up until the moment of the British withdrawal, even after months of fighting, had the Arab armies not invaded.
When the new phase of fighting broke out beginning November 30, 1947, while the British were still present and then beginning their withdrawal, the Jews’ objective was to secure the areas assigned to the Jewish state, plus an open road linking Jewish areas assigned to the prospective state with Jewish areas in Jerusalem. Jewish Jerusalem was very quickly under a complete siege, with little food and water as well as bombardment and terror attacks. The road from Jewish areas on the coast went through a narrow pass in the hills that was controlled by the Arabs and frequently blocked.
The Arabs’ objective was to take over all of the territory, including that assigned by the UN to the Jewish state.
Today could have been a national celebration for Israelis and Palestinians, the 76th anniversary of a world-changing event. So many lives and communities could have been saved. If only. Instead there was a war, and the map changed because of who won or lost which battles in which areas.
There is much more to say also about what drove the parties’ considerations in 1947-1948, who prevented a Palestinian-governed state even in 1948, and the displacement of both Palestinians and Jews in the territory and throughout the Middle East in the immediate aftermath. But today 76 years ago, it all could have been prevented.
A few connected and somewhat-connected links:
Here’s a glance at partition proposals from 1937 to 2008. The video is from 2019, so the “proposal” at the end is not something I’m endorsing here; it seems like a very bare minimum. I really recommend the Unpacked series of educational videos and podcasts. They are from a Jewish-Israeli point of view, self-critical about and within that point of view, embrace complexity and value coexistence. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kYWII25cxM
This is an account of the Abbas-Olmert negotiations of 2008, and an indication of how serious and close to agreement they were and where the major problems ended up remaining: https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/13/magazine/13Israel-t.html
Here is the very long August 1947 report of the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). It’s illuminating for its detail about the nature of the land and the conflict to that date:
O Jerusalem! is a classic book about 1947-1948, from the partition vote through the war. The focus is on Jerusalem and the voices are local Jewish and Arab, with also some detours to the "halls of power". I imagine there is better history and historiography since its publishing, but it's solid and fair and descriptive. https://bookshop.org/p/books/o-jerusalem-larry-collins/7488416?ean=9780671662417