The Partition of Palestine
Today, November 29th, is called Kaftet be-November in Israel. It is the commemoration of the U.N. decision, on this date in 1947, to partition Palestine. This decision led to the creation of the state of Israel. To commemorate this day we have excerpted a portion of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy by Shlomo Ben-Ami. The book is a balanced and evenhanded history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the excerpt we have chosen sheds some insight on the importance of this day.
…No other state in modern times was born with such a degree of international sympathy and guilt feelings as the Jewish state. But not only did Zionism now have the Jewish catastrophe as its major ally, it also possessed a formidable institutional infrastructure and a reliable military force. For all practical purposes, a Jewish state had existed for some time in all but name. The war being over, the British were in no condition to impose a settlement of their own. With the future of Palestine an international issue, the Mandate government was reduced to impotence.
The British–Zionist clash was an experience that broke all the known patterns of colonial rule. It was under British protection that the Zionists built their power and state-like infrastructures. Now, in defiance of British rule, the Yishuv commanded an extraordinary and well-equipped military force of about 100,000 men. Exhausted by an unpopular war in Palestine, a land British public opinion saw more as a liability than as a strategic asset, and harassed by Jewish terrorism on the one hand and by the Arabs’ utterly unrealistic expectations on the other, the British government decided to refer the question of Palestine back to the UN.
UN Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947 partitioning western Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state was a resounding victory for the Zionist undertaking and for the Jews’ millenarian longing for statehood. It was the crowning achievement of one of the most brilliantly successful national enterprises of the twentieth century. The Zionists finally achieved the charter of international legitimacy that Herzl had established as the central objective of the movement from the moment he conceived it as a political enterprise. The Arabs were defeated by the Zionists’ remarkable persistence and by their extraordinary capacity to combine military means with diplomatic savoir faire. The Zionists’ bold creation of facts on the ground and construction of the institutions of the future state were now complemented by a skilful manipulation of the Jewish catastrophe, the Holocaust, in order to enlist international support for their cause. The prospects of Zionism were always fed and enhanced by unique encounters between global and local developments. The rise of Hitler to power, the consequent upsurge in Jewish immigration in the 1930′s, the awesome impact of the Jewish Holocaust and the change in the global balance of power with America’s ascendancy to world leadership were all historical opportunities that the Zionist leaders responded to in a masterly way. A sense of realism and the unique capacity of the Zionist mainstream leadership to respond to changing historical conditions made the Jewish state possible….
The paradox of the winter of 1947 was that the Jews, who accepted Resolution 181– the Jewish public acclaimed its endorsement by the UN with genuine outbursts of jubilation – were ready and well deployed to face a war should this be the outcome, and the Arabs, who rejected the Resolution out of hand and made no secret of their intention to subvert it, were not at all prepared for war. Ben-Gurion, who upon his appointment as the ‘defence minister’ of the Jewish Agency in 1946 made it clear that the time had now arrived for ‘a showdown of force, a Jewish military showdown’, had been for some time meticulously preparing for a war he was convinced, at least ever since the Arab Revolt, was inevitable. The Palestinians, who on 1 December 1947 made their views clear when the Arab Higher Committee declared a general strike, were totally unprepared and poorly equipped for an armed conflict. Arab society had been crumbling from within ever since the brutal repression of the 1936-9 Revolt. Leaderless and decapitated of their traditional elites, deeply fragmented, respectful and frightened of the Yishuv’s military power, and disorientated as to their real or achievable objectives, the Palestinians approached the imminent conflict and, as it turned out, their second catastrophe in a decade, in a state of disarray and fatalistic despair.
The Arab disaster of 1948 was that of a people that opted for high stakes – doing away with the aggressive Zionist presence in Palestine and with the 181 Resolution that legitimised it – with inadequate resources. In a debate at the UN on 16 April 1948 the Palestinian delegate explicitly acknowledged Moshe Shertok’s allegations that the Palestinian Arabs had started the fighting and had no intentions of accepting a ceasefire. ‘We do not deny that fact,’ he admitted. But neither the Arabs of Palestine with the support of volunteer units from neighbouring Arab countries in the first phase of the war, nor the Arab armies that invaded Palestine in the wake of the British departure on 14 May 1948, proved to be problems an embattled but well-organised Yishuv, which stretched its energies and resources to the outer limits of its capacity, was not prepared to face….
The State of Israel was born in a storm of military superiority and was the product of the victory of power and national will that had no precedent in the history of the struggle of other nations for independence. Jewish independence was born out of the defeat of a Western superpower, Great Britain, the crushing capitulation of the indigenous Arab population and the almost unconditional rout of the invading Arab armies. As in Israel’s future wars, nothing could stop the Israelis’ military exploits and their territorial expansion but the outside pressure of the superpowers. It was because of British and American pressure that Ben-Gurion ordered General Allon to refrain from taking over the Sinai Peninsula, and it was Ben-Gurion’s fear of British intervention that stopped him from proceeding with his plan to conquer the West Bank of the River Jordan and pose a threat to the Transjordanian Hashemite kingdom whose survival was guaranteed by an unequivocal British commitment. The 1948 war did not only usher in the birth of a state; it also resulted in the emergence of a regional superpower. It was, therefore, hardly a prelude to peacemaking in the aftermath of the war.
But the hubris of victory was not exactly the predominant feeling when the war ended. This was to be the paradox of Israel’s existence over the years, a sense of power combined with a no less genuine, ever present, almost apocalyptic fear of annihilation. There was a genuine sense of fatalism as to the prospects of ever reaching a settlement with the Arabs. That Israel became a state in the storm of war and amidst its total and unconditional rejection by the entire Arab world indicated to its leaders the road for national survival in the future: to live by the sword. Not even its military victory diminished Israel’s mistrust in the willingness of the Arabs ever to come to terms with a robust Zionist presence in their midst. ‘Even if we conquer the whole of the land down to the Jordan River,’ wrote Ben-Gurion in his diary in the last days of the war, ‘the Arabs will not accept us, for their fear will only increase and the war will continue.’…
Israel as a society also suppressed the memory of its war against the local Palestinians because it could not really come to terms with the fact that its finest Sabras, the heroes of its war for independence and the role models of the new nation, expelled Arabs, committed atrocities against them and dispossessed them. This was like admitting that the noble Jewish dream of statehood was stained for ever by a major injustice committed against the Palestinians and that the Jewish state was born in sin. When the war was over the Palestinian problem practically disappeared from Israeli public discourse; it was conveniently defined as one of ‘refugees’ or ‘infiltrators’. There was no Israeli–Palestinian conflict, hardly a Palestinian plight. This was submerged into one single issue: the Arab–Israeli conflict.
Want to learn more? Check out some of the pieces Shlomo Ben-Ami has written for the OUPblog: Live Chat, The Future of Israeli Politics (in light of Sharon’s stroke), and the Palestinian Elections.