Today is the 60th Anniversary of the UNGA Partition Resolution 181

This resolution was adopted by a vote in the UN General Assembly on 29 November 1947. It partitioned the British mandate of Palestine into two states — one Jewish and one Arab — with Jerusalem having a special international status.

UN General Assembly voting to partition the Palestine Mandate on 29 Nov 1947

UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 29 Novemer 1947 is cited as a basis for the establishment of the State of Israel in the Proclamation of that state made from Tel Aviv on the night of 14 May 1948, as British forces withdrew. It is also cited in the 15 November 1988 Palestinian declaration of a state, and of independence, made by Yasser Arafat at a meeting of the PLO’s Palestine National Council (in exile) in Algiers — by which the most recognized and most legal Palestinian body can be said to have thereby recognized Israel as a Jewish state.

Here is the map associated with that resolution:

United Nations Map No. 103.1 (b)

This UN GA resolution requests the UN Security Council to “take the necessary measures as provided for in the plan for its implementation”.

Like the Palestine Mandate assigned to Britain to administer and set up by the League of Nations — the predecessor body to the United Nations — this resolution specifically authorized Jewish immigration: “The mandatory Power shall use its best endeavours to ensure than an area situated in the territory of the Jewish State, including a seaport and hinterland adequate to provide facilities for a substantial immigration, shall be evacuated at the earliest possible date and in any event not later than 1 February 1948”. This resolution also determines that “Independent Arab and Jewish States and the Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem, set forth in part III of this plan, shall come into existence in Palestine two months after the evacuation of the armed forces of the mandatory Power has been completed but in any case not later than 1 October 1948. The boundaries of the Arab State, the Jewish State, and the City of Jerusalem shall be as described … below”.

Here, interestingly, are the boundaries of Jerusalem (including the city
of Bethlehem) which was to constitute a special international regime under UN administration (specifically, by the Trusteeship Council) for at least ten years — as defined in UN GA Resolution 181

City of Jerusalem - boundaries proposed by UNGA Res. 181

The full text of UN GA Resolution 181 resolution can be found on the UN website here.

Ian Williams has written an interesting piece on Resolution 181 which is published in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian’s website. In his piece, dear Ian writes: “The resulting map broke many existing principles – not least of cartography. It produced a checkerboard state, without consulting the occupants directly. So, for example, the Jewish state held barely a majority of Jews and thus incorporated, presumably against their will, 400,000 Palestinian Arabs. Jerusalem, in a decision worthy of the setting for Pontius Pilate’s famous manual ablutions, was to belong to neither. It was to become a “corpus separatum” under UN direction – which is why today, except for a few banana republics, no country in the world, not even the US, will build an embassy there, or recognise it as Israel‘s capital, eternal or otherwise. Indeed, it is a telling argument against Palestinian claims to the city as its capital – but for obvious reasons it is not one that Israel and its supporters are likely to make. The resolution passed in the general assembly, but in the modern age, any such crucial decision would now go to the security council, where the US can wield its veto. Indeed, Israel and the US now argue that general assembly resolutions are not binding. This is something of an anomaly for a state whose raison d’etre is based on historical claims, since if general assembly resolutions are not binding, then the creation of Israel as a Jewish state was not binding on the Arabs. The resolution does in fact say that any breach by any party is a threat to peace and security to be dealt with by the security council – which is of course still ‘dealing with it 60 years later. On the contrary, of course, Palestine‘s supporters have somersaulted in the opposite direction and argue that general assembly resolutions are binding – but tend to overlook Resolution 181, which the Arab states in the UN at the time disregarded. It was certainly unjust in terms of self-determination, but legal. David Ben-Gurion and Israel’s founding fathers took a lot of flack from their diehard supporters for accepting partition but deflected it by pointing out quietly that they had no intention of restricting themselves to those boundaries – which in truth made little sense in any topographic, ethnographic or any manner. The partition would not be final, Ben-Gurion said, not with regard to the regime, not with regard to borders and not with regard to international agreements’. While Resolution 181 may seem anachronistic, its drafters presciently realised the Heath Robinson/Rube Goldberg nature of the boundaries, and drew up plans for an economic and customs union with free transit, which would almost make a two-state solution feasible. It allowed people to reside in one state while holding citizenship of the other, which points to solutions to populations left behind any new boundaries established. Maybe it is the time for Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to draw a line on the road map between the initial resolution and the final status. He should apologise for the failure of the Arab states to accept Resolution 181 and its determination that there should be a Jewish state. But he should use the resolution’s map as the starting point for negotiations to get back to the 1967 armistice line rather than start at the latter and negotiate backward to the separation wall”. Ian’s thoughts on Resolution 181 are here.

The doctrine, or the right, of self-determination had not been developed in 1947, when this UN General Assembly partition resolution was adopted by a (divided) vote. The doctrine — or the right — of self-determination was developed within the UN starting only in the 1960s.

And, international law experts say that the moment the Palestine National Council declared the Palestinian state in November 1988 — specifically, only in the Palestinian territory seized by Israel in the June 1967 war — the Palestinians gave up their claim to the land assigned to the “Arab” state in Resolution 181. But, these international law experts maintain, the Palestinians do have clear and uncontested legal title to that Palestinian territory seized in 1967 — to all of it, to all of the West Bank, to East Jerusalem, and to the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians are not required to negotiate their title to this territory, it is theirs.

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