May 22, 2008
Palestine: The Crime of Partition
Bertrand Russell wrote: The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was ‘given’ by a foreign power to another people.
By Ron Forthofer
After WWII, political pressure increased for a Jewish state instead of a homeland in Palestine. This pressure was due in part to the terrible guilt felt by people in the U.S. and other nations over the horrific suffering of several groups during the Nazi era, especially that of the Jews during the Holocaust. The pictures detailing the wretched conditions of Jews barely surviving the concentration and extermination camps and of the piles of bones from some of the millions killed were incredibly powerful.
In addition, a weakened Britain was ready to end its control of the Palestine Mandate partly due to the burden of maintaining 100,000 troops there and partly due to the guerilla campaign waged by Jewish terrorists. One additional factor in the British decision to end the mandate by May 1948 was the intense pressure put on Britain after it prevented Holocaust survivors from entering Palestine.
This decision by the British prompted the United Nations to form the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) on May 15, 1947. The committee issued a majority report on August 31, 1947 recommending the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states and an U.N. administered area around and including Jerusalem. Three members (India, Iran and Yugoslavia) of the eleven nations on the committee voted instead in favor of a single federal state with separate Arab and Jewish constituent states. Australia abstained. The U.N. General Assembly discussed the partition resolution in November.
Before that session, on September 22nd, Loy Henderson, director of the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs, warned Secretary of State George C. Marshall of the dangers of partition. Here is an excerpt of his comments:
“The UNSCOP [U.N. Special Committee on Palestine] Majority Plan is not only unworkable; if adopted, it would guarantee that the Palestine problem would be permanent and still more complicated in the future.
“The proposals contained in the UNSCOP plan are not only not based on any principles of an international character, the maintenance of which would be in the interests of the United States, but they are in definite contravention to various principles laid down in the [U.N.] Charter as well as to principles on which American concepts of Government are based.
“These proposals, for instance, ignore such principles as self-determination and majority rule. They recognize the principle of a theocratic racial state and even go so far in several instances as to discriminate on grounds of religion and race against persons outside of Palestine.”
The U.S. State Department was firmly against the partition. However President Truman overrode the Department. In 1945, Truman spoke to four U.S. ambassadors to Arab countries and bluntly said: “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”
On November 29th, U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 calling for the partition passed. Following the adoption of the resolution, Arab countries proposed to query the International Court of Justice on the competence of the General Assembly to partition a country against the wishes of the majority of its inhabitants. This attempt was narrowly defeated.
Jews generally welcomed the partition plan while Palestinians and Arabs strongly opposed it. Palestinians supported a one democratic state solution. They also were outraged that the U.N. General Assembly was taking their land against their will and giving it to another people. For perspective, in 1947 Jews owned about 6% of the land in Palestine and accounted for about 1/3 of the population. The partition gave Jews control of about 55% of Palestine, including most of the coastal area.
Some of the numerous people who have commented on the injustice of this situation are quoted next. In 1956 David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli prime minister, told Nahum Goldman, the president of the World Jewish Congress: “If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country . . . There has been anti-semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?”
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s prime minister-designate in 1947, made a similar point saying the Zionist plan neglected “one not unimportant fact…Palestine was not a wilderness or an empty, uninhabited place. It was already somebody else’s home.”
In 1956, Moshe Dayan, a military hero to Israelis, said: “What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred to us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.”
Shortly before his death in 1970, Bertrand Russell, one of the leading philosophers of Western thought during the 20th century, summarized the issue very well, saying:
“The tragedy of the people of Palestine is that their country was ‘given’ by a foreign power to another people for the creation of a new state. The result was that many hundreds of thousands of innocent people were made permanently homeless. With every new conflict their numbers increased. How much longer is the world willing to endure this spectacle of wanton cruelty? It is abundantly clear that the refugees have every right to the homeland from which they were driven, and the denial of this right is at the heart of the continuing conflict. No people anywhere in the world would accept being expelled en masse from their country; how can anyone require the people of Palestine to accept a punishment which nobody else would tolerate? A permanent just settlement of the refugees in their homeland is an essential ingredient of any genuine settlement in the Middle East.”
After the partition passed, fighting began almost immediately and quickly escalated. On March 19th, 1948 the situation had become so critical that the U.S. renounced partition as unworkable and called for a U.N. trusteeship. It was too late.
Commenting on the fighting, Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote: “In truth, however, the Jews committed far more atrocities than the Arabs and killed far more civilians and POWs in deliberate acts of brutality in the course of 1948.” As a result of these atrocities and other military actions, about 250,000 Palestinians had already fled their homes before Israel declared its independence on May 14th. Fighting intensified when, on May 15th, neighboring Arab countries sent troops to aid the beleaguered Palestinians. Contrary to Israeli propaganda, Israeli forces substantially outnumbered Arab forces in battles and were also better armed. By the end of the fighting in 1949, Israel controlled 78% of Palestine and had driven approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. These Palestinians lost their lands, homes and most of their possessions. Israel also destroyed well over 400 Palestinian villages. There is debate about whether or not the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians was planned or simply happened as a result of the fighting. It is clear that the removal of large numbers of Palestinians was necessary if Israel were to be a majority Jewish state.
On December 11, 1948 the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 that, among other items, called for the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes or for compensation to those choosing not to return. Unfortunately, the world has not yet dealt with the terrible effects of the Nakba.
The past and current Israeli dispossessions of Palestinians represent grave violations of human rights. However, it is arguable that the U.N. partition resolution was an even greater crime. In a misguided effort to atone for the horrific human tragedy of the Holocaust, the U.S. led the effort that forced Palestinians to pay the price for atonement. The partition plan stole Palestinian land and gave it to another people without much if any consideration for Palestinian rights. Truman’s support for this partition trumped U.S. interests, morality and international law, not to mention the rights of Palestinians. Shamefully, the U.S. continues to support the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians.
-Ron Forthofer is a retired professor and former Green Party candidate for Congress in 2000 and for Governor of Colorado in 2002. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.