Smith describes the White Paper of 1939 as a repudiation of the earlier 1937 plan for partition proposed by the Peel Commission. Nonetheless, ten years later, partition was on the table again with the UNSCOP plan. What was the essence of each of the three proposals (Peel Commission proposal, White Paper, and UNSCOP plan)? And in each case what were the reactions of the Jews and the Arabs? Were the Jewish and the Arab leaderships consistent in their approaches?
Partition Plans and White Papers: Jewish and Arab Response
The Peel Commission partition plan, the 1939 MacDonald White Paper, and the UNSCOP partition proposal, when taken in concert, were in large measure responsible for producing a unified Jewish people in pursuit of a National Home in Palestine, and creating an antagonistic coalition of anti-Jewish Arabs. Jewish and Arab responses to the three proposals were generally consistent. While Arab responses were sometimes limited in their consistency due to the competing agendas of the various Arab factions and by the inability of the Arabs in the region to coalesce into a unified voice or agree on a single message, they were generally unified in their opposition to a Jewish population on an equal footing with the Arab populace in Palestine, and were consistent in their rejection of the three proposals. Jewish planning and strategy through the cooperation of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, while sometimes conflicted in approach, generally had a single goal and a single message, and at least on the surface, reflected the Jewish willingness to compromise and co-exist with the Arabs in the region in order to achieve their primary goal: a safe haven for Jewry.
The Peel Commission Report, published in July of 1937 following the Arab Revolts, recommended further partitioning of what remained of the British Mandate of Palestine (Figure 1) in an attempt to reconcile both Arabs and Jews in such a manner as to preserve British imperial interests in the Middle East. In the years immediately after the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain had promised the Jews a “national home” in the British Mandate of Palestine, the mandate territory had already been partitioned once. In March of 1921, Emir Abdullah, the Arab son of King Husayn, along with around 2000 Arab warriors, occupied the mandate east of the Transjordan River. This Arab land grab was rewarded the following year by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s decision to grant the entire mandate area east of the Transjordan River to Abdullah.1 Many view this action as the fulfillment of Britain’s promise to create an independent Arab nation in Palestine; it had the added impact of reducing the area available for a Jewish national home by approximately 75% (Figure 2).
In essence, the Peel Commission Partition Proposal did three things: it recognized the impossibility of a fusion of Arab and Jewish cultures2 it suggested a two-state solution (excluding the Holy Places) to solve the crisis of the widening gulf between the Arab and Jewish races and the concomitant violence arising from that gulf, and it envisioned an “exchange of population” requiring Jews living in the future Arab state to move to the Jewish partition, and Arabs living in the future Jewish state to move to the Arab partition.3
Arab response to the Peel partition proposal was an unqualified rejection, despite the fact that Arabs had already been ceded the largest portion of the mandate in the form of the new Arab protectorate of Transjordan. The Arab response further ignored the fact that Jewish immigration had been limited by the mandatory authority in the years preceding the Peel Commission Report, while Arab immigration had continued apace and did “a certain injustice to the Jewish immigrant outside the country whose place is taken” by the Arab immigrant.4 The only exception to the unilateral Arab rejection of the Peel Commission’s suggested solution was the aforementioned Emir Abdullah, who hoped that partitioning would lead to an opportunity for him to take over the remaining Arab portion of the mandate.5 According to Smith, the Peel Commission also “envisaged Arab Palestine being united with Transjordan.”6 This assertion is supported by the Peel Commission Report itself7
The Peel Commission Partition Plan led to a more united Arab resistance than had been seen before, and resistance to Jewish aims became an Arab issue, and not just a Palestinian Arab issue.8 Arab response following the publication of the report became incrementally more violent and more retributive, especially with regard to Arab-British interactions. The Arab Revolt continued, more aggressively than before, and added the British mandatory authority as well as leading Arab families to the list of targets, which previously had included mostly Jews.9
Jewish response was more measured. After much consideration, the Jews accepted the partition plan even though the acreage allotted for Jewish settlement was much smaller than that set aside for Arab settlement. Jewish acceptance of the partition plan was chiefly given in an effort to ensure a safe haven for European Jews who were desperate to escape Nazism. Secondarily, according to Smith, the Jews believed they would be able to negotiate or purchase additional territory as required in the future; the Jewish people would not necessarily be confined to the borders as delineated in the Peel plan.10
Interestingly, Smith comments that “[a]dherence to administrative procedures established under the mandate guaranteed the progressive loss of Arab Palestine” and that “[e]ventually, violence [against Jews] became the only recourse,”11 yet this seems to disregard the reality that there was not at that time, nor had there ever been, a unified Palestinian Arab community, and ignores the fact that the British had already established an independent Arab state in the British Mandate of Palestine. Further, Smith does not appear to take heed of the fact that Arab immigration into the remaining territory of the Palestine mandate far outpaced Jewish immigration, according to a comparison of British census data from 1922 to 1931, which showed an increase in Arab population of around 173,120 people, while the Jewish population increased by 70,610 during the same period. Jews comprised 11% of the population in 1922 and 16.8% of the population in 1931.12
It could be argued that the tribal rivalries between groups such as the Husaynis and the Nashashibis made the Arabs unwilling to assimilate into a cohesive nation, despite their similar religious and societal structure. For all their supposed pan-Arab aspirations, it appears to have been preferable in the Arab view to demand territory from the subservient “dhimmi” population in the remaining British mandate than to resolve their tribal differences and coexist in the newly-created independent Arab protectorate of Transjordan.13
The Arab response to the Peel plan and the brutal Arab attacks against Jews, Arabs, and the British, generated retaliatory actions by both the Jews and the British, as well as fomented the rivalries among existing Arab factions, and the violent unrest that followed, combined with events unfolding in Europe, led to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s decision to appease the Arabs via the publication of the MacDonald White Paper of 1939.
At its heart, the MacDonald White Paper was an attempt to ensure continued British security in the Middle East by appeasing not only the Arab population in Palestine, but also the Arabs in the surrounding countries who were becoming more interested in the Palestine situation. The Chamberlain government felt that if steps were not take to secure Arab sympathies in the upcoming war, British strategic interests in Palestine, including access to the Suez, Mideast oil and the harbor in Haifa, would be untenable.14
The 1939 White Paper abandoned the concept of partitioning the remaining Palestine mandate as proposed in the Peel report in favor of creating an independent Arab Palestine within ten years, denied the intent of the Balfour Declaration, and limited Jewish (but not Arab) immigration, possibly sentencing hundreds of thousands of European Jews to death by denying them a safe haven to which they could escape.15
The Arab response to the 1939 White Paper was, again, unilateral rejection. The root of the rejection, according to Smith, appears to be due to the fact that the policy paper did not grant to the Arabs immediate and independent authority over the Palestine mandate.16 Interesting again is the statement by Smith that “the Arab community in Palestine was essentially leaderless, riven with more factions than ever before,” which seems to belie his repeated insinuations that there was a developing “Palestinian Arab” identity—something that clearly was not part of the Arab collective to that point.17
Jews also rejected the 1939 White Paper, asserting that the British act of political expediency was “a breach of faith and a surrender to Arab terrorism,”18 as well as a violation of promises made to the Jews in the Balfour Declaration and afterwards. The future effects of this British perfidy are foreshadowed as Smith details the unintended consequences of the British release of the 1939 White Paper and Britain’s attempts to adhere to the policy put forth therein.19 While the Jews had no option other than to support the British in the war effort against the fascist Axis powers, the White Paper forced upon them the realization that Britain was willing to abrogate her promise to aid in the establishment of a Jewish national home in order to appease the Arabs and further British aims; under the leadership of Ben-Gurion, the Jews prepared themselves militarily for an eventual war against Britain herself.20
The UNSCOP partition plan recognized what the Peel Commission had determined a decade previously: that the Jewish desire for a national home in Eretz Israel and the Arab demand for sovereignty in Palestine and a return to rightful Arab superiority over the dhimmi, were irreconcilable. The UN delegation’s majority recommendation acknowledged:
The outstanding feature of the Palestine situation today is found in the clash between Jews and the mandatory Power on the one hand, and on the other the tension prevailing between Arabs and Jews. This conflict-situation, which finds expression partly in an open breach between the organized Jewish community and the Administration and partly in organized terrorism and acts of violence, has steadily grown more intense and takes as its toll an ever-increasing loss of life and destruction of property.21
The UN committee recommended a two-state solution, with the Holy Places under international control, similar to the recommendations of the Peel Commission before it. The Jews, although dismayed at the small partition allotted for their national home, accepted the compromise. The Arabs, consistent with their flat rejection of every other proposal set before them, and somewhat united under the leadership of al-Husayni, rejected the UNSCOP proposal.
The British problems were compounded by increasing Jewish immigration and continuing Jewish violence against British troops. The UN committee witnessed the shambles the mandate had become when Jewish refugees, some of whom had survived German concentration camps, had their refugee ship turned away by the British and found themselves interned in the very same concentration camp from which they had so recently been liberated.
With the horror of the Holocaust and the debacle of the mandate looming over the upcoming decision and the British announcement of their intention to wash their hands of the entire situation contributing to the urgent need to implement a solution, the United Nations approved the partition plan and recognized the Jewish right to an independent state within Palestine.
The Peel Commission and the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine both understood the undeniable incompatibility of Arab and Jew, and their inability to peacefully coexist in a single state. A two-state solution, similar to the partition plans set forth by both committees, may set the stage for a future solution to the Arab-Israeli problem. However, where the partition plans and even the 1939 White Paper appear to have positively impacted the socioeconomic development of the Jewish state and cemented their unified pursuit of the realization of a Jewish National Home, the Arab refusal to compromise had not done the same.
The establishment of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization allowed the Jewish people to develop a cooperative and functional infrastructure that could support their aspirations of nationhood, and their willingness to accept compromises and to negotiate in the attempt to further their objectives demonstrated cohesive national unity. Despite the divergent methods promoted by some groups within the Jewish population, they remained cooperative and communicative within their society. By contrast, the Arabs, in part because of their inability to coalesce around a single positive plan of achievement or a single goal (driving the Jews into the sea is not a positive aspiration), and in large measure because of their factionalism, were and remain unable to develop a viable infrastructure to support their aims of nationhood; because of this, no two-state solution will be viable unless and until the Palestinian Arabs are able to achieve economic stability and a social structure devoid of or at least not dominated by factionalism and competing agendas.
1Smith, Charles D. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History with Documents, 7th Edition, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009) p. 84.
2Peel Commission Report, 1937, Part I, Chapter V, par. 1
3Peel Commission Report, Part III, Chapter XXII, Section 10
4Hope Simpson Report, 1930, Chapter X, Page 126
5Smith, page 141
6Ibid., page 138
7Peel Commission Report, Part III, Chapter XXII, Section 1
8Smith, page 138
9Ibid., page 141
10Ibid., page 138
11Ibid., page 121
12British Census, 1931, www.ismi.emory.edu/Articles/Census_1931.pdf, page 3
13Smith touches briefly upon the rivalries and factionalism on page 121 and later on page 133
14Smith, page 143
15Ibid., page 145
16Ibid., page 146
17Ibid., page 148
18Jewish Agency for Palestine: Zionist Reaction to the White Paper, 1939 from www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org
19Smith, page 148-9
20Smith, page 148
21UNSCOP Recommendations to the General Assembly, September, 1947, Section A