Revisiting the UN Partition Plan: Is It Still Relevant?

On the occasion of the 68th anniversary of the Partition Plan, a comprehensive survey of the resolution's place in Israel's history and its demographic ramifications today.

Ehud Ein-Gil
Ehud Ein-Gil
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People gather in the streets of Tel Aviv after radio broadcasts announce UN plan for partition of Palestine and the new Jewish state, November 30, 1947.
People gather in the streets of Tel Aviv after radio broadcasts announce UN plan for partition of Palestine and the new Jewish state, November 30, 1947.Credit: AP
Ehud Ein-Gil
Ehud Ein-Gil

The United Nations Partition Plan of November 29, 1947, was short-lived. The Palestinians did not accept it and did not prepare for the establishment of the Arab state in the territories allotted to them in the plan. So it was that they set up the All-Palestine Government on September 22, 1948, in the Gaza Strip, then under Egyptian military control, and which had no authority in Gaza itself, let alone other parts of the country. The Jordanians reacted by convening in Amman the First Palestinian Congress, whose delegates repudiated the All-Palestine Government and expressed their support for King Abdullah of Transjordan.

The leadership of the Yishuv – the Zionist settlement enterprise in Palestine – and the Jewish Agency – the executive body of the World Zionist Organization – seemingly accepted the partition plan, but did not come to terms with the international status that was to be bestowed on Jerusalem, an inseparable part of the plan, nor accept the proposed borders of the partitioned states.

In effect, up until the vote endorsing the UN blueprint, it was supported by the Zionist movement, simply because the alternative was independence for a unitary state of Palestine in which there would be an Arab majority, or perhaps federalization of the land, as delegates of Arab states suggested in response to the partition proposal.

The moment the plan was approved by the General Assembly, there was an outburst of spontaneous and joyous celebration in the Yishuv, but the Jewish masses in the streets were largely celebrating only that part of the scheme that called for the establishment of a Jewish state – not the decision on partition itself.

And how did the leadership react? This question piqued the curiosity of Daniel Honigwachs, a resident of Jerusalem who burrowed through the stacks of the Central Zionist Archive and found the minutes of a meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive from November 30, 1947 (document S/100). He failed to discern any real acceptance or espousal of the partition plan, nor any indication of public support for its realization.

The first item listed on the agenda of the Agency executive that day was, “Greetings on the occasion of the UN resolution.”

“You have to pay attention to the wording,” says Honigwachs. “Greetings – but not a debate on the position of the executive regarding the partition resolution. Nor do the minutes of the meeting indicate that any vote was held on a resolution that would have determined any such position, either for or against.”

According to the minutes, David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Agency executive, had this to say: “Let us open the meeting with words of congratulations to the Jewish people, although what was decided upon is part of the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, all through our entire history, the Jewish people has never achieved in one moment what has been achieved now. One verse in the Bible will have to be changed, however: not ‘From Dan to Be’er Sheva,’ but rather ‘From Dan to Eilat.’”

David Ben-Gurion.Credit: AP

Ben-Gurion spoke about the Jewish people’s ability to achieve in stages what it cannot realize all at once. “What this means,” argues Honigwachs, “is that Ben-Gurion is not calling here on the Jewish people to view the UN resolution as a final decision and to make do with part of the Land of Israel. Moreover, even when Ben-Gurion explicitly refers to the partial nature of the achievement the Jewish people had now reached – it should not be concluded from the formulation of his words that the part not achieved by the Jewish people is to be assigned to an Arab state that would arise in the Land of Israel” – which the future prime minister of Israel did not mention at all.

Territories outside the borders

The Arabs’ opposition to the realization of the UN Partition Resolution, as reflected in their attacks on Jewish settlements and the roads that connected them, gradually led to the removal of the plan from the agenda of the Zionist leadership. Every so often, reference was made to it and to the boundaries of the designated Jewish state, but nearly always this reference was accompanied by some mention of the territories beyond the borders.

“There were 279 Jewish settlements in Palestine on 29 November 1947,” writes Benny Morris in his book “Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem: 1947-1949” (Cambridge Middle East Library). “Between the start of Arab-Jewish hostilities the following day and the beginning of March 1949, 53 new Jewish settlements were established, followed by about 80 more by the end of August 1949. Almost all of these were established on Arab-owned lands, and dozens of them were established on territory earmarked in the UN partition resolution for the Palestine Arab state.

“The partition resolution, only reluctantly accepted by the Yishuv’s leaders, left outside the Jewish state-to-be clusters of Jewish settlements – the Etzion Bloc, the settlements in Western and Upper Galilee and several settlements north and east of Jerusalem – and forbade, at least for a transition period, Jewish settlement in the areas earmarked for the Palestine Arab state,” the historian writes.

“But as the hostilities turned into full-scale war, attitudes in the Yishuv to the partition resolution and to settlement changed. The partition plan was a peacetime solution to Palestine’s problems; the war undermined its ‘sanctity.’ Already in early February 1948, Ben-Gurion spoke of the need, in order to secure the road to Jerusalem, to establish Jewish settlements in the Jerusalem corridor (an Arab-owned area earmarked in the partition plan for the Palestine Arab state). Establishing settlements was a tool in the struggle. Security needs, he said in March, dictated setting up ‘a string of points’ [i.e., settlements] in the Negev, the Beit She’an Valley and in the Galilee.”

In a subsequent book, “1948,” Morris describes these plans in a somewhat different manner. He writes that within just a few days, starting in mid-April 1948, a month before the establishment of the State of Israel, following the Yishuv’s transition from a defensive posture to an offensive one, the national institutions began building new settlements not only to ensure control over the important roads that linked urban and rural areas, but also to reinforce the hold on newly occupied territory.

At first, writes Morris, these new settlements were built on Jewish-owned land within the area allotted to the Jewish state by the partition plan, but such fine distinctions soon fell by the wayside, and within a few months new settlements were being built on Arab-owned land and/or land outside the boundaries delineated in the UN scheme.

In July 1948, immediately after the so-called Ten Day offensive, a spell of intense fighting between the nascent Israeli army and Arab armies and militias, during the War of Independence, the Jewish National Fund’s Yosef Weitz and his colleagues presented Ben-Gurion with a proposal for establishment of 21 settlements in the Western Galilee and the Ramle-Lod district. Most of these were to be located on Arab-owned land situated outside the partition borders.

Toward the end of the Mandatory period in Palestine, the General Staff of the Haganah – the pre-state underground defense organization – also prepared a settlement program, to be based partly on the boundaries described in the UN plan. But the program also took into account certain territorial additions dictated by the defensive needs of the nascent Jewish state, writes Yoav Gelber, in his book “Palestine 1948: War, Escape and the Emergence of the Palestinian Refugee Problem.”

The emphases of the new scheme were ssecurity needs, Gelber says. These included stabilizing the partition lines, reinforcing the settlement array along the road to Jerusalem, and creating a contiguous stretch of settlement from the borders of Israel to the settlement blocs that were left outside the boundaries of the state by the UN plan, such as in the Western Galilee. The intent was to foster a fortified form of settlement akin to the 1930s’ tower-and-stockade communities, adapted to the new military reality.

The plan was devised by Mishael Shaham, a member of the Haganah General Staff, who assessed that it would provide added motivation to clear Arab combatants from the areas, as they, the Arab combatants, would find themselves surrounded by “Jewish points.” The occupation points, as Shaham also called them, were meant to arise on lands whose purchase the Jewish National Fund had been negotiating, government-held land, property owned by the German Templer settlers, most of whom were detained and deported to Australia during World War II, and also occupied Arab territory, the extent of which would be determined when a new, general political arrangement would be finalized.

The operatisonal Haganah program, dated March 10, 1948, was known as Plan D. In her book “An Army is Born” (published in Hebrew by the Ministry of Defense Publications), Zehava Ostfeld writes that it was “the first strategic plan devised on a broad political basis, and which was meant to gain control over the territory designated for the Jewish state, to defend its borders, the blocs of settlement and the Jewish population that was outside the boundaries of the appointed state The Haganah General Staff, which was having a hard time maintaining centralized control over the brigades, delegated to its commanders widespread authorities for the purposes of executing the plan, particularly its offensive sections, which included: the authority to decide which villages were to be conquered and demolished, as referred to in the wording of the command: ‘The villages in your sector that are to be seized, destroyed or exterminated – you will yourself determine, in consultation with your advisers on Arab affairs and with officers of the intelligence service.’

“Plan D was also linked to the territorial issue, based upon two of its main sections: one – the declared objective introduced in the preface to the plan, in which it was decided that the Jewish settlement blocs outside the borders of the state were to be defended, and the other, as reflected in the great detail devoted to the operational tasks at hand: conquering and taking over the advance bases of the enemy, which were situated close to the border and which were liable to serve as a springboard for infiltration into bases critical to the state; conquest and maintaining hold over key strongholds along a number of roads in order to ensure freedom of movement to Jewish centers outside the borders of the state.

“It would seem, then, that in spite of the defensive conception, which was at the core of the plan, there were also some noticeable options for expansion. Nevertheless, those who drafted the plan avoided taking explicit stands, because the situation was still fluid, and there were more than a few doubts related to the ability to execute the partition plan.”

Prior to publication of the second stage of Plan D on May 11, 1948, and leading up to the Israeli declaration of statehood just days later, Ostfeld writes, there were already significant conspicuous changes in the geographical boundaries of the territory under Jewish control: “The conquest of Arab centers, including their cities and villages, enabled the establishment of territorial contiguity from the Eastern and Western Galilee toward the Judean lowland and the northern Negev, and from the Judean lowland toward Jerusalem. This meant that the map of boundaries of the partition plan was no longer valid by the day of the state’s establishment. Even after the Arabs consented to a cease-fire, acting Chief of Staff Yigael Yadin ordered that ‘occupied territories are not to be conceded.’

“Thus, even if those who devised Plan D did not intend to establish borders, the military moves and accomplishments in the field are what helped the political leadership to formulate the territorial outlook. Indeed, only one month after the declaration of statehood, Ben-Gurion declared that it could be assumed that ‘the November 29 decision was dead and that the territorial issue would be resolved by force.’ This policy was carried out by the IDF in the second half of 1948, in the course of which territories that were not included within the partition boundaries were occupied, as well.

“In the wake of the occupation of large tracts of enemy territory,” Ostfeld continues, “another department was established [in the IDF] on the basis of a decision of the minister of defense – a military government in the occupied territories (except for Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed and Haifa), to be headed by General Elimelech Avner. His job was to organize the government in cities and villages that had been (or would be) occupied.”

In the initial weeks of the military government’s existence, it was not clear if it had jurisdiction only over territories that were conquered outside the November 29 boundaries, including Jewish settlements, or whether it included areas inside the zones outlined in the UN plan, writes Tom Segev in his book “1949.” Within a few months, the military government was abolished in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Lod, Ramle and elsewhere, as well as in Jewish communities in “occupied territories,” which left only Arab places of settlement both within and outside the partition boundaries.

Yoav Gelber expands on this subject: “On the next day [June 6, 1948], [Yosef] Weitz handed Ben-Gurion a memorandum listing the abandoned villages, the number of former inhabitants and the size of their lands. He calculated that 335,000 Arabs had run away by that time. More than 123,000 villagers had abandoned 155 hamlets, and 77,000 Arabs had fled from five towns within the Jewish state’s territory; 40,000 Arabs had departed from Jerusalem; 73,000 had escaped from two cities within the proposed Arab state’s borders (Jaffa and Acre) and 22,000 fellahin had abandoned 35 villages located beyond the Jewish state’s borders.”

On June 16, 1948, a debate took place in the provisional government on the policy positions of the nascent Jewish state, which was about to enter discussions with the UN-appointed mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte. Israel’s territorial appetite had by this time been whetted. Gelber writes that Israel aspired to add to the territory allocated to it in the partition plan parts of the Western Galilee, Jaffa, new Jerusalem and the corridor that led to that city from the coastal region. At the start of the cabinet session, Ben-Gurion declared that the UN partition plan had ceased to exist, and that the conflict between the State of Israel and the Arabs would be resolved by force.

‘Central military apparatus’

“The IDF’s conquests beyond the partition borders required an organized and centralized military administration. Up until this point, different types of military government had developed independently in various areas,” writes Gelber. “Ben-Gurion decided to establish a central military apparatus that would take responsibility for the occupied territories and command their garrisons. He offered the post of chief military governor to Elimelech Avner, the former Haganah commander of Tel Aviv.”

Avner prepared a memorandum for Ben-Gurion in which he analyzed the situation of the occupied territories, based on both Israeli and international law, and then proceeded to cite the contradictions between them. The former granted primary status to the military government, whereas the latter enabled the activity of civil authorities without their being subordinate to the military government, since it viewed the territories as part of the State of Israel.

Avner asked Ben-Gurion to come to a decision. If the state saw a need for the existence of a military government because it maintained that international law applied to the occupied territories, or for any other reason – then the newly legislated Occupied Territories Order (which imposed Israeli law on the newly conquered lands) should be abolished, the military governor said. Conversely, if the government saw the occupied territories as an integral part of the State of Israel, then there was no justification for having a military government in place there.

Ben-Gurion decided not to decide: He viewed the territories as an integral part of Israel, and also left the military government unchanged. The vote on the constituent assembly, the first general election held in the State of Israel, was scheduled for January 25, 1949. An argument broke out in the cabinet around the issue of whether to give Arab residents the right to vote. Gelber reports that the cabinet rejected a proposal by Minister of Police and Minister of Minorities Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit to deny the right to vote to Arabs residing in the occupied territories – in other words, outside the partition boundaries. The cabinet affirmed that the right to vote would be granted also to local Arabs incarcerated in POW camps in Israel.

Cease-fire agreements

In “1949,” Tom Segev writes about the Conciliation Commission talks between Israel and Egypt, in August 1949: “The Egyptians demanded that the Negev, as well as the West Bank, become an independent Arab state, serving as a buffer between Egypt and Israel as well as between Egypt and Transjordan.”

The head of the Egyptian delegation, Abd al Mun’im Mustafa, saw a big advantage to the plan, Segev notes: “It could be presented as being based on the 1947 Partition Resolution. In exchange, he offered a peace treaty. [Israeli delegates Eliyahu] Sasson and [Reuven] Shiloah pointed out to the Egyptian that the UN Partition Resolution allotted the Negev to the Jewish state. The Egyptian replied that was an issue he was aware of, but on the other hand, the partition resolution had allotted the Galilee to the Arabs, and Israel was obviously determined not to give that up. Sasson and Shiloah replied that neither would Israel be willing to give up an inch of the Negev.”

In the armistice agreement between Transjordan and Israel, the former conceded territories in the Triangle, in central Israel, which had been under the control of the Iraqi army, including several villages that were supposed to be included in the Jewish state according to the partition plan (Kalansua, Tira, Kafr Kara), as well as many more villages that were meant to be included in the Arab state, Segev says.

These locales, with their tens of thousands of residents, were transferred to Israel complete with their residents, who received Israeli citizenship but who were subjugated, like the majority of Arab citizens of the country, to the military government.

On the map

The territory of each of the two entities, Jewish and Arab, on whose establishment the United Nations decided in 1947, included three separate blocs that were to be linked to one another at two points. The territory of the Arab state also included the Jaffa enclave, which was surrounded by the territories of the Jewish state. The map was drawn such that the latter territories would be as large as possible (approximately 55 percent of the area of Mandatory Palestine), and would still have a slight Jewish majority. The territory of the Arab state included only a small number of Jewish settlements, populated by some 10,000 residents (approximately 1 percent of the total of all residents of the Arab state).

These two entities existed only on paper. By the time the State of Israel was established in May 1948, it already controlled not only most of the territory that was earmarked for the Jewish state according to the UN Partition Plan, but also territories intended for the Arab state. At the end of the War of Independence, not only was nearly all the territory originally designated for the Jewish state under Israel’s control, but also extended tracts that were to be allocated to the Arab state – including one of its three blocs in its entirety (the Galilee). As part of the cease-fire accord with Transjordan, a strip of territory (Bloc 5) was annexed to Israel, including its villages and their residents.

Only a minority of the Arabs who until 1947 had lived in territories that were to be part of the State of Israel within the cease-fire boundaries (the so-called Green Line), remained within its borders and became citizens of Israel. Since then, the number of Jews in Israel has multiplied by a factor of 10. Still, Arabs continue to constitute a majority in two regions that were supposed to be allocated to the Arab state according to the partition plan: the Galilee (Bloc 4) and the “Triangle” (Bloc 5). Conversely, the number of Arabs currently residing in the territory of the Jewish state according to the plan is smaller than the number of Arabs who were living in these territories in 1947.

Precise data concerning the number of residents living today in the territories that were originally designated to be part of the Jewish state or Arab state are not available. To calculate them, in a way that makes it possible to see the present demographic picture, it was necessary to chart the boundaries of the partition and the boundaries of the Green Line on an up-to-date map of Israel, and then assemble a list of settlements situated in each bloc. Finally, the author of this article had to compile data on numbers of residents in each settlement from demographic information published by the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2013. The number of Jews and Arabs living in mixed settlements were calculated separately, based on the official municipal websites of these settlements.


‘Any law that applies to the State of Israel also applies to the occupied territory’

– From an item published in Haaretz, January 10, 1949

“The State of Israel is based first and foremost on the natural rights and history of the Jewish people, and therefore also the boundaries in the UN resolution are not those that essentially dictate the boundaries of the state.” Such was stated in a precedent-setting verdict handed down by the special Haifa court that dealt with cases of wartime profiteering.

The case in question involved a resident of Shfaram who was arrested on November 16, 1948, at the entrance to that village, and found to be in possession of 60 kilos of rice and 10 cans of olive oil, in conditions that raised the suspicion that he was conducting commerce without a permit from the supervisor of foodstuffs. His attorney, Elias Kussa, argued in court against the charges as a matter of principle, saying that his defendant had not violated any laws, since the laws of the State of Israel did not apply to the territory where he was arrested, which was situated outside the boundaries of the partition plan. It was, therefore, “one of the territories under occupation.”

The court ruled that the ordinance entitled Area of Jurisdiction and Authorities 5708 (1948) clearly stated that every law that applies to the State of Israel also applies to the occupied territories.

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