General debate on the future government of Palestine

This is an extract from the Year Book of the United Nations, 1947-48. It describes the General Debate on April 20, 1948 during the special session of the General Assembly called to discuss the future government of Palestine.


Following the completion of its organization, the First Committee, during its 118th meeting, embarked upon an initial general debate on the question of the future government of Palestine.

(1) Viewpoint of the United States

The representative of the United States recalled that his Government had introduced the resolution requesting the calling of the special session of the General Assembly which the Security Council had adopted on April 1, 1948.

It seemed to the Government of the United States that the problem facing the Assembly was, in essence, that of establishing peace in Palestine and of creating conditions for a constructive political settlement in the Holy Land.

The representative of the United States held that it had been conclusively proved that resolution 181 (II) of the General Assembly, which called for the partition of Palestine with economic union and which had been adopted on November 29, 1947, could not be implemented by peaceful means, contrary to the hopes of the United States. Moreover, the Security Council had failed to adopt a United States proposal to place the Council formally behind the Partition Plan.

The situation in the Holy Land was fast deteriorating; already there was bloodshed, and even greater disorders must be expected after the termination of the Mandate on May 15. Appeals for a truce, such as had been issued by the Security Council, were a step in the right direction, but could not ensure the continuance of governmental authority in Palestine.

Under the circumstances, the United States believed that the Assembly should consider the establishment of a Temporary Trusteeship for Palestine. Without submitting a draft Trusteeship Agreement worked out in every detail, the United States was putting forward a working paper (A/C.1/277) containing suggestions for such an Agreement. These suggestions were based upon the draft statute for Jerusalem prepared by the Trusteeship Council pursuant to the Assembly’s resolution of November 29,246/ as well as upon ideas advanced informally by members of the Security Council; they thus represented, to a very considerable degree, a collective view.

In the view of the United States, such an agreement for a temporary period of Trusteeship should provide that major governmental functions be exercised by a Government of Palestine, headed by a Governor-General appointed by, and responsible to, the Trusteeship Council, whose own role would be supervisory. Pending the establishment of an elected, possibly bicameral, legislature, the Governor-General should be authorized to legislate by decree. He should also be empowered to call upon certain states, to be listed in the Trusteeship Agreement, for assistance in the maintenance of law and order, if need be.

The Trusteeship Agreement should also contain provisions for immigration into Palestine on some agreed basis, for a policy concerning land purchase, and for the protection of, and access to, the Holy Places.

The United States would be willing to provide police forces for the implementation of such a plan, provided other governments were willing to do the same.

The Temporary Trusteeship should not be regarded as a substitute for the Partition Plan, or for any solution agreeable to Arabs and Jews. It was an emergency measure to safeguard human lives and to create an atmosphere in which negotiations for a permanent solution could proceed more smoothly, and the Trusteeship should be terminated promptly as soon as a general solution of the Palestine problem had been found.

The representative of the United States suggested that the First Committee call upon the Fourth (Trusteeship) Committee to study without delay all aspects of the Trusteeship suggestions.247/

(2) Viewpoint of the United Kingdom

The representative of the United Kingdom declared that it had now been proved that the partition resolution could only be enforced by the use of arms. It might be advisable for the Assembly to give second thoughts to the Palestine problem.

It was clear that there was danger of anarchy in the Holy Land following termination of the Mandate on May 15.

Those who proposed to adhere to the resolution of November 29 should consider squarely whether their governments were prepared to assist in its enforcement, whether any enforcement action could secure the essential co-operation of the local population, and whether the necessary forces could be provided by May 15.

The representative of the United Kingdom took issue with those who criticized the role of his Government in connection with the implementation of the November resolution. He stated that his Government’s warnings that its authority as Mandatory Power in Palestine could not be divided until the end of the Mandate, had gone unheeded.

Parts of the Partition Plan had not been conceived impartially and little attention had been paid to the difficulties of implementation, to assured opposition, to the certainty of deteriorating conditions, or to the problems facing the Mandatory Power. Under these circumstances there could not have been full co-operation on the part of the Mandatory Power with the Palestine Commission. Yet, short of complete implementation, there had been co-operation over a wide field; a great volume of information had been placed at the disposal of the Palestine Commission by the Mandatory Power, many arrangements had been agreed to, and on several points the United Kingdom had taken the initiative.

The Mandatory Power could not agree to the transfer to the Palestine Commission of a port for the admission of Jewish arms and immigrants without inflaming the entire situation and delaying the scheduled withdrawal of British forces from Palestine.

The United Kingdom has been accused of being pro-Arab. Yet its actions had been just as severely criticized by Arabs as by Jews. In reality it had never been anything but impartial in fulfilling its thankless task, and all its actions had been aimed at securing a settlement agreed to by Jews and Arabs.

Less than a month now remained to devise a new plan to avoid large-scale conflict in Palestine. The United Nations had the right to ask both Arabs and Jews to contribute to stability by making the necessary mutual concessions.

It was clear that partition could only be put through by force of arms and that the forces could not be supplied by May 15.

A truce was therefore of the first importance, and the Security Council’s actions in this respect were to be welcomed and supported.

Regarding Trusteeship, the United Kingdom had previously made, without success, a proposal similar to the plan put forward by the United States. The plan offered an interim authority. A Trusteeship plan involved many difficulties, but it, as well as any other alternative, including partition, should be studied against the background of the present situation.

Since both sides were convinced of the justice of their cause, and since any final settlement without their agreement could not be effected without force, the Assembly was, perhaps, obliged to aim at a more modest objective than Trusteeship, in order to prevent danger to world peace. In any attempt to find a solution, the United Kingdom would co-operate, subject only to the limitations involved in its decision to withdraw from Palestine.

The Palestine problem could be eased if other states, following the example set by the United Kingdom, took positive action regarding displaced persons in Europe and opened their gates more widely so that the pressure of refugees upon Palestine would be reduced.

(3) Viewpoint of the Arab Higher Committee

The representative of the Arab Higher Committee, reviewing developments leading up to the present situation in Palestine, said the Mandate had been ratified in 1922 in disregard to peoples’ right to self-determination. The Arabs, having no alternative, had resorted to their sacred right of self-defence; and since then Palestine, the Land of Peace, had known instability, hatred and disorder.

During the second regular session of the General Assembly, Members had heard the people of Palestine proclaim their intention of defending their national patrimony to the last man. Nevertheless, two thirds of the Members, ill-advised, misled or acting under compulsion, had accepted an illegal scheme which could not be carried out and which was contrary to the rights and interests of the Arabs.

Confronted with what was a scheme to carve up the living body of Palestine, the Arabs had done what any self-respecting people would have done under the circumstances they had fought in self-defence.

Arabs had been living in Palestine for at least thirteen centuries. When the British occupied Palestine, the Arabs had formed 93 per cent of the population, the Jews seven per cent. This basic fact had been totally ignored in the Mandate, which had rested on the principle of a Jewish National Home, to be created at the expense of the existing Arab National Home.

British bayonets had opened the country to Jews whose number in Palestine had risen from 50,000 to 700,000 in a quarter of a century. Arabs, traditionally farmers in Palestine, had been deprived of their land. This process had led to the formation of a proletariat of landless Arab peasants who had settled around the towns. The resources of the country had become a Jewish monopoly to the detriment of the Arabs, a development which had elicited expressions of concern even in the British Parliament.

Acting in self defence, the Arabs had resorted to uprisings.

Some of the worst abuses, including large-scale Jewish immigration, were to have been ended by the Mandatory Power, according to the White Paper issued in 1939. But, yielding to Zionist pressure, the United Kingdom had not enforced the policy stated in its own White Paper.

Once it had decided to relinquish the Mandate, the only course the United Kingdom could have taken, morally speaking, was to turn over Palestine as a unit to one Palestinian Government representing all the lawful citizens of the Holy Land. Instead of doing this, the Mandatory Power had requested the assistance of the United Nations.

The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) had been given objectionable terms of reference and its composition had likewise been not above suspicion since it numbered among its members three persons known for their connections with the Zionists. For these reasons the Arabs of Palestine had not assisted UNSCOP’s investigation. UNSCOP had thus heard only the views of the Jewish Agency and of the British, the views of Arab States having been given a hurried hearing in the course of a two day visit to Lebanon.

UNSCOP had ignored Arab opposition to the partition scheme, which could never be carried out peaceably without the consent of the majority of the population of Palestine. And yet the Assembly had endorsed this plan under circumstances unworthy of the United Nations.

As for the United States suggestions, if they aimed at the establishment of an interim government, destined to remain in being for a short, explicitly stated, period of time, pending final settlement of the question, they were worthy of consideration, provided it was clearly understood that they were intended to lead to the independence of Palestine as a single democratic state in which the legitimate rights of the different sections of the citizens would be safeguarded.

Failing agreement on some such plan, the overwhelming majority of the people of Palestine would establish an independent Palestinian Government in conformity with Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations and Article 28 of the Mandate, these being the Articles which provided for the establishment of such a government on the termination of the Mandate.

(4) Viewpoint of the Jewish Agency for Palestine

The representative of the Jewish Agency said that explanations for the convocation of the present session of the Assembly had an air of unreality. The argument, advanced by some representatives, that a new solution should be sought for the Palestine problem because the Partition Plan could not be implemented without recourse to force, was fallacious.

Assembly expectations that the Security Council would carry out its basic task and that the mandatory Power would maintain law and order in Palestine while the Mandate remained in force had proved incorrect. The report of the Palestine Commission revealed the extent to which the Mandatory Power had created obstructions and difficulties.

In the face of these developments it could not be said that the Partition Plan could not be implemented peacefully or that it was unworkable.

It was not correct to assert that the Security Council had decided not to assume the task entrusted to it by the Assembly. The Council had merely decided to postpone a decision on this matter until the five permanent Members had had an opportunity to confer among themselves concerning the best means of implementing the Assembly resolution of November 29 and of drawing up the recommendations to be given by the Council to the Palestine Commission. This demonstrated clearly that, far from refusing to support the Assembly, the Security Council had every intention of devising a concrete program for implementing the resolution of November 29.

During one of their meetings, the five permanent members of the Security Council had been presented with a nine-point implementation program by the Jewish Agency. Not only had there been no action on that program, but it seemed that it had not even been discussed. The Jewish Agency had been forced to conclude that the decision to thrust aside the Assembly resolution had been arrived at by certain members of the Security Council even before the Council met to consider the matter.

The facts of the situation were simple: confronted with Arab threats and acts of violence, the Security Council had faltered, retreated and, confronted with defiance, capitulated. The proposal to abandon the Partition Plan was, in effect, an invitation to the United Nations as a whole to emulate the example of the Security Council, i.e., to capitulate likewise. Violence was to be appeased, aggression to be rewarded, and law was to yield to terrorism. There was a very real danger that the United Nations might repeat the mistakes of the League of Nations when the latter failed to act in the face of Japanese aggression in China, Fascist Italy’s attack upon Ethiopia, and Nazi Germany’s subjugation of Czechoslovakia.

Arab reaction to the Assembly’s resolution of November 29 was no mere non-compliance, but a violation of the Charter with its ban on recourse to the threat or use of force in international relations, save in the common interest.

The report of the Palestine Commission had clearly established the facts in the situation. Partition had become a reality in Palestine.

The United States suggestion was untenable. It was too late to impose Trusteeship on the peoples of Palestine, and the receptiveness of the Arabs to a Trusteeship regime should be discounted as a manoeuvre designed to defeat partition. There were two distinct peoples in Palestine. A common Palestinian citizenship had no moral meaning, for neither Jew nor Arab had any sense of service to a single state.

The force that would be needed to impose even a Temporary Trusteeship regime would better be used to enforce partition as a final solution.

May 15 would mark the end of the Mandate. On the following day, a provisional Jewish Government would begin to function in accordance with the spirit of the United Nations resolution. The Jewish State would thus become a reality. The only threat to its existence would come from the Arab States. The problem before the Assembly was not how to implement the resolution of November 29, 1947, but rather how to prevent the Arab States from violating their Charter obligations and from thwarting the will of the United Nations.

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About David Gerald Fincham

Retired academic scientist.
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