The first milestone
by Ghassan Khatib
UN General Assembly Resolution 181 is one of the most significant milestones in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle and one of three baselines used by different Israeli or Palestinian politicians in evaluating what are the rights of this side or that in the conflict.
One baseline used by some on both sides is historical reality and rights arising from this. Some use the relatively recent Jewish immigration to Palestine to conclude that Palestinians have the right to historical Palestine. Others, both Jews and Palestinians, will dig deeper into history and go back thousands of years to find justification for their rights to the land.
These conflicting claims ultimately led to the involvement of the United Nations. The first UN resolution that dealt with disputed rights in Palestine was the 1947 partition plan, UNGAR 181, which was posited as a compromise between two peoples disputing the whole land of Palestine. That compromise was based on dividing Palestine and legitimizing the establishment of two states, Israel and Palestine in historical Palestine.
The reality of the day, the prevailing balance of power and subsequent wars, eventually led to a situation whereby another landmark was established with UNSCR 242, which calls for an end to the Israeli occupation in the areas of historical Palestine occupied by Israel in 1967, i.e. the West Bank including east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
That resolution drew another baseline for what is legitimate and what is not legitimate and created a new basis for compromise, the borders of 1967.
It is difficult to think of other bases for compromise. Some Israelis, including the current government, downplay the significance of the borders of 1967, and try instead to move the borders further east. But when Israelis try to move the basis for compromise east, Palestinians will do the opposite, and try to move the basis for compromise west, by, for example, invoking UNGAR 181.
An important conclusion here is that the less legal and political weight we give to the 1967 borders as a basis for compromise, the more weight is given to 181, at least among Palestinians and Arabs. That's why the international community, represented by the Quartet countries and vocalized in the roadmap, stipulated that the final resolution would require Israel to "end the occupation that began in 1967".
Borders and points of compromise are not the only significant aspects of UNGAR 181. The other and maybe more significant factor is the establishment of a legal foundation for the principle of two states. In the Palestinian and Arab perception, and probably from a legal perspective as well, the two state concept is not a half measure. Having an independent Palestinian state is the other face of the coin of having an independent and legitimate Israeli state. In other words, the establishment of a Palestinian state is necessary for the legitimacy of the Israeli state. That is the essence of UNGAR 181, which was the source of legitimacy for the creation of the state of Israel.
One should look at international legality vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in its entirety and not in a selective way. UNGAR 181 legitimizes the principle of two states, Israel and Palestine, while UNSCR 242 in addition to the most recent UNSCR 1397 which adopts the roadmap, determine the specific, realistic and legal borders between those two states.- Published 13/9/2004 © bitterlemons.org
Lessons from the past
by Naim Al Ashhab
UN General Assembly Resolution 181 was passed in November 1947. The first internationally accepted partition plan of Palestine apportioned the land in about equal measure to a future Palestinian-Arab state and a Jewish state, both of which were to have consisted of three cantons, Jerusalem would have been under international administration, and the two states would have economic unity, including a common currency.
The British government called in the UN to settle the "question of Palestine" in 1947. The British took the issue before the General Assembly as a conflict between two communities, the Arab Palestinians and the Jews. In doing so, they presented the British Mandate Authority as neutral. In fact, their hope throughout this period was that the General Assembly would prolong the British mandate.
The UN decided to hold a special session devoted to the issue in April 1947, a meeting that resulted in the advent of the UN Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP). UNSCOP was comprised of representatives from 11 member states and came to Palestine in July 1947 to meet all the concerned political parties. The Palestinian side boycotted the commission, a position imposed by the then Palestinian leadership under Haj Amin al Husseini. As a result, no single Palestinian faction met the commission, although the Arab Liberation League (ALL), the forerunner of the Palestinian Communist Party, had intended to. Under pressure, the ALL changed its mind on the pretext that it did not want to cause any split in the national ranks at that critical time. The party did, however, send a memorandum to the UN entitled "The Way to Freedom for Palestine" describing the situation as it saw it.
At the beginning of September 1947, UNSCOP came out with its recommendations. The majority suggested partition, while the minority opinion wanted a single democratic Palestinian state for Arab Palestinians and Jews. On November 29, the General Assembly adopted the majority partition plan.
Not long after the resolution was adopted, violence erupted between the Palestinian and Jewish communities. This violence was provoked and encouraged on the one hand by the British Mandate Authority, still hoping to prolong its mandate, and by a well-prepared and well-equipped Zionist movement on the other. The Palestinian leadership played its own not insignificant part.
The British took certain measures to intensify the clashes. On January 15, the British Mandate Authorities shut down Al Ihtihad newspaper, the paper of the ALL. Al Ihtihad was the only newspaper that had foreseen the likely outcome of the violent confrontations. In its articles and editorials, the paper worked to prevent the Palestinian people from taking part in the confrontations, and advocated acceptance of the partition plan. Even though Palestinians felt the plan to be unjust, the paper reasoned that to have an independent democratic state in part of Palestine would be better than to have no state at all. It also saw acceptance of UNGAR 181 as the only way to avoid what was to become the Palestinian catastrophe: the exile of over half the Palestinian people from their homeland.
The party the paper represented only followed belatedly. In February 1948, the Arab Liberation League changed its long-standing position in support of one democratic state for Jews and Palestinians alike, and adopted the partition plan. It was the only Palestinian party to formally accept UNGAR 181. The rest of the Palestinian factions were under the tight control of a conservative and autocratic Haj Amin al Husseini, who had always advocated an independent Palestinian Arab state, where the Jews present before 1918 and their descendants had a right to stay because of their ancestry while those who arrived later would have to return to their countries of origin.
It came down to pragmatism. The Zionist project was a colonialist project. The 1917 Balfour declaration and the subsequent immigration into Palestine had as its explicit aim to create an alien entity in Palestine at the expense of the indigenous population. In principle it was wrong for Palestinians to go along with it in any way, shape or form. In practice it might have avoided the Nakba that Palestinians are still suffering from today.
But despite its pragmatic stand, the British authorities took administrative measures to shut al Ihtihad down, and only five days later, on January 20, the British government declared it would give up all its security responsibilities, urging both sides to take measures to defend their respective communities. It was a clear indication that the British would not stand in the way of the violence. The British were hoping that a conflagration of the violence would force the UN to extend the British Mandate.
On September 16, 1948 Count Folke Bernadotte, who had been mandated by the UN to mediate a solution between the warring factions based on UNGAR 181, publicized his report. He proposed to redistribute the territory, with the Negev becoming part of an Arab state, crucially not a Palestinian state, but a greater Jordanian one, while the Galilee would become part of a Jewish state. It was a plan that would have suited the British well, providing territorial contiguity between the Suez Canal and Jordan all of which was under British control. But the plan never came to fruition and Bernadotte was assassinated the very next day, apparently by Jewish terrorists under the leadership of Yitzak Shamir, a later Israeli prime minister. UNGAR 181 finally died with the Swedish envoy.
While no one talks of UNGAR 181 any longer, lessons have been drawn from the experience. Most importantly, during the 19th session of the Palestinian National Council in Algiers in 1988 the Palestinian leadership adopted the so-called declaration of independence envisaging a state on the land occupied in 1967. Considering that that land is less than half of the land promised a Palestinian state by UNGAR 181 the decision was a very serious compromise in favor of peace.
The Palestinian people have also learned from the period that their greatest weapon is their presence. Israel has always wanted the land without the people. That is the single most important reason the territories occupied in 1967 were not annexed. Only east Jerusalem was annexed, at a time when the Palestinian population of this "unified Jerusalem" constituted 27 percent of the total population. Despite the best attempts of the Israeli authorities and the influx of new Jewish immigrants, Palestinians now constitute 33 percent of the city.- Published 13/9/2004 © bitterlemons.org