Palestine – Two States. Part II:

From Peel (1937) to the Woodhead Report (1938)

A Jewish Agency memorandum of 30 April 1936 stated that there were 450,000 Jews in Palestine who made up 29.8%. The 1937 Peel Report noted that, according to the census of 1922, the Jewish population had grown from 13% to nearly 30% by the end of 1936. In part of Palestine, 400,000 Jews already lived in their National Home with an infrastructure that was suited to a small country. “Half a loaf is better than no bread,” was the Peel refrain as it supported partition “for two vastly different communities.” An eastern portion just west of the Jordan River (just over 77%) was to be ceded to Transjordan with some million Palestinian Arab residents.

The 30% of Jews in Mandatory Palestine would receive 17% of the land, about 4% of the original entire area of Palestine under the Ottomans. The area of the Jewish State would include the Galilee, Haifa and the Carmel, and most of the Mediterranean coast from Ashdod to Rosh Hanikrah. The two states would sign treaties with the British government and eventually join the League of Nations as sovereign states.

The holy sites in Jerusalem and Bethlehem would be connected by a narrow corridor through the towns of Lydda (Lod) and Ramle to the Jaffa coast. There would be a special perpetual Mandate for this area to ensure that the sanctity of Jerusalem and Bethlehem remained inviolate and that safe access be provided to the Holy Places for the whole world. The treatment of the two populations would be equal[1] even though Jews were not allocated territory in proportion to their population.

This was really a three-state solution, 17% Jewish, 6% a British perpetual protectorate and 77% Arab. Jews would enjoy a small independent Jewish state along the Mediterranean coast protected by Britain. A British mandate would cover the religious sites linking to the coast – the Enclave. The remaining largest eastern part, west of the Jordan River, would eventually be annexed to Transjordan. The Peel Commission established the precedent that land settled by Jews would become part of a future Jewish state while most of the rest became part of an Arab state. A third portion, an Enclave with religious sites, would remain a de facto colony.[2] The Peel recommendations were sent to the League of Nations where they were approved.

The Woodhead Palestine Partition Commission (1938) was a technical body set up by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to determine the practicality of the Peel Commission proposals and was instructed to develop an implementation program with borders, an economic and financial plan.[3] It made a number of changes to the Peel Commission Report. The principle with respect to the promised Jewish state seemed to be, “What is given with one hand is taken back by the other.” A number of applied changes indicated that a primary objective of the Report was “to protect British future interests by securing military positions and access to resources, even though the result almost split the area assigned to the Jewish state in two.” “If the Mandatory is to be entrusted with the protection of the Holy Places, it was essential that the Enclave should have boundaries which were capable of being defended.”

For example, the following changes were made to the territory of the Enclave which would have a population of 211,400 made up of both Jews and Arabs:

  • Extending the northern boundary of the religious mandate, designated as the Enclave, from between Jerusalem and Ramallah to north of Ramallah to satisfy defence needs, specifically to make room for a landing strip at Qalandiya, to include the Ramallah-Latrun Road “as a necessary line of military communication,” and to embrace the Ramallah broadcasting station;
  • Further, in response to Christian sentiment, the Enclave would also be expanded to include Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee with control of the tributaries and waters of Lake Tiberias;
  • Because of past strife between Arabs and Jews, more particularly between the Arabs of Jaffa and the Jews of Tel Aviv, specifically along the irregular demarcation line between the two municipalities, a narrow straight road protected from access by iron railings from either the Jewish or the Arab state would be built between the two cities and would be owned by both states but protected by the Enclave;
  • Because of the need to ensure the water supply, the villages of Shuqba, Qibya, Budrus, Ni’ilin and Deir Qaddis were added to the religious Mandate;
  • Excise from the Jewish state the Arab villages of Salama, Al Kheiriya, Saqiya, Kafr Ana, and Al Yahudiya and to be added to the Enclave;
  • The southern border of the Enclave was extended to include the military cantonments at Sarafand and the projected Royal Air Force base at Aqir;
  • The strip between Jaffa and Bat Yam connecting the Enclave to the sea would be replaced by a wider, and more useful and defensible, strip by making the southern boundary of the Enclave much wider along the northern border of Rishon le Ziyon;
  • To make it even function for military purposes, the Mandatory Power was to be given the right to enter and use the area on the Jewish side of the corridor for military purposes in case of an emergency;
  • Military ranges would be provided by the Jewish state on its territory;
  • In addition to the above use rights, the Jewish state would also provide the Enclave with military entry rights to connect to the sea as far as the Wadi Rubin.

Does this not all sound very familiar with respect to negotiations over the West Bank currently, except the current proposed exchanges gave more land and population to Israel. To draw a straight boundary would entail exchanges of population and territories, such as assigning the Karton Quarter, a salient projected into Tel Aviv, to the Jewish state; the total population involved in the exchanges would be 15,700 Jews and 2,000 Arabs transferred from Jaffa to Tel Aviv and 5,400 Jews transferred from Tel Aviv to Jaffa.

The pattern of taking land away from the Jewish state and allocating it elsewhere was certainly not a constant. For example, in the case of the Triangle of Settlements  (Jewish), that included Dagania A, Dagania B, Kfar Gun, Afiqim, and Dalhamiya, where over 50% of the land between Lake Tiberias and the Jordan River was owned by Jews, Woodhead recommended their attachment to the Jewish state.

There are too many other changes to the boundaries between the proposed Jewish and Arab states to list them here. The primary determinant of the proposed boundaries was British interests and neither Jewish nor Palestinian interests. Compared to the Peel Commission, Jews were the major losers. Thus, for example, instead of including the Arabs of Tulkarm in the Jewish state into which it projected, because the railway from the south to Haifa passed through the town, the Commission recommended Tulkarm be part of the Arab state and 100,000 pounds be expended to move the rail lines.

To what extent did economics and demography affect its decisions? These issues are not just important for recounting the historical record; they will inform the current economic relationship between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank. At that time, the Arab birth-rate was very high. For an agricultural population living largely off the land, the death-rate was unusually low. The Commission attributed this situation to the Arab population feeding off the benefits of a much more developed and urban Jewish population “under an enlightened modern administration with the necessary funds at its disposal to enable it to serve a population unable to help itself…except through the appropriation of tax-revenue contributed by the Jews.” (p. 24)

The Report, used the assumption of absorptive capacity, namely that a population should be proportionate to the agricultural yield from an area needed to support that population. Otherwise “the land under cultivation by the much larger Arab population of 1937 compared to 1922 is insufficient to support the same percentage of the total Arab population.” The Commission argued that the Jews were responsible for enabling the large growth of the Arab population by 360,000, even though the cultivatable land available to them had been reduced as a result of Jewish purchases of land. Further, the Jews had also significantly increased the area of cultivatable land. As the Peel Report had previously described the situation, “it is thus clear that nearly a quarter of the (ARAB) agriculturalists would be unable to maintain their present standard of life.”

In terms of economic development, the Report also declared that employment (of Arabs) in the towns as well as on agricultural land will be intensified because “capital is only likely to be invested by Jews.” (p. 30) That investment can be used to increase yields partially through improved irrigation and agricultural intensification. The Report, as I said, reflected the ideas of “absorptive capacity” extant at the time. “Neither of these two things can be brought about without the assistance of Jewish taxable capacity and Jewish capital.” “Arabs in Palestine would be faced with the prospect of greater economic hardship if Jewish immigration should be completely closed down.” Economic conditions among Arabs are “closely bound up with Jewish immigration, both actual and prospective.”

At the end of May 1937, Jews owned 7% of the land. “The amount of land in the Arab state is very small, being about 92,000 dunams, including the Jewish land in Beersheba sub-district which was as large as the whole rest of Palestine but where the water in wells was too saline and the amount that fell as rainfall was too little to support agriculture.” The situation was even worse in the Jordan Valley except for about 10,000 dunams plus land irrigated by perennial streams – up to 20,000 additional dunams. The amount of Arab land in the Jewish State was “very large, about 3,854,000 dunams, as compared with about 1,140,000 dunams of Jewish land.” (p. 51) Given the percentage of the Arab population and the land owned by Arabs, the division into two states would necessarily be asymmetric with the largest part of the territory going into Arab hands.

The Report also considered the “voluntary” exchange of populations between the two prospective states, the Jewish state and Transjordan, for the British government had rejected the recommendation of compulsory transfer in the Peel Report. However, the Woodbridge Report found little prospect of voluntary exchanges of land and populations, especially since Jews owned such a tiny proportion of the land in the Arab state.

The prospect of water canals and other innovations were examined with some promise, but the basic conclusion was the limited absorptive capacity of the land. For example, Hebron with an existing population of 38,000 supported by agriculture, almost all Arabs, but cultivatable land was only able to support less than half the population – 16,500. Except for areas like Gaza and the Beisan Plain, improvements in agricultural techniques would help, but only marginally.

The Report also examined the Jewish claim to Jerusalem and examined the possibility of connecting the Jewish parts in western Jerusalem (71,000 of the 74,500 population) by means of a narrow corridor to the Jewish areas on the plains. Since the area includes Christian churches, hospitals and schools, a monastery, an orphanage and the British war cemetery, as well as the main road from Jerusalem to the Maritime Plain, the Report concluded partition of Jerusalem would be an administrative nightmare, that is, “administrative problems of great complexity” related to the maintenance of law and order, division of custom duties, division of water.

Jerusalem would be part of the Enclave. The goal linking Jerusalem to the Jewish state along the Mediterranean Sea was not impossible, as the outcome of the War of Independence indicated, but, according to the Commission, it could only be accomplished provided “reliance could be placed on the mutual goodwill and cooperation of the two adjoining communities.” The authors were very pessimistic that this could be accomplished (p. 74) and concluded that political and religious objections to the Jewish claims were insuperable. “Moslems throughout the world would be most vehemently opposed to the inclusion of any part of Jerusalem in the Jewish State” and “would regard the establishment of a Jewish State overlooking the Moslem Holy Places as the first step towards the ultimate absorption of the Old City by the Jews.” This would inevitably lead to disorders of most Moslems throughout the world who would most vehemently oppose the inclusion of any part of Jerusalem in the Jewish State.

The outbreak of violence on 23 August 1928 as detailed in the Shaw Commission Report offered a case in point. “We are convinced that the dominant desire of the whole body of Christians would be to preserve the peace of Jerusalem and to safeguard the Holy City from any change which threatened to provoke hatred and bloodshed within its walls or in their neighbourhood.” (Para. 172) “The unique character of Jerusalem as the object of affection and veneration of the adherents of three of the great religions of mankind must be recognized by its retention in trust for the world under Mandatory Government.” (p. 80)

The Report concluded that only the central section would be partitioned and be given independence immediately; limited Jewish immigration would be permitted into the Enclave provided that the rights and interests of the existing inhabitants were respected. In sum, the obligations assumed by the Balfour declaration actually shrunk with each inquiry and report – the Shaw Commission, the Peel Commission and the Wedgewood Commission. As far as the Arabs were concerned, the Wedgewood Commission felt that it had assuaged their fears of Jewish economic and political domination and the blockage to a route to independence in the future.  

Then there came this surprising self-appraisal of their proposed Plan C, parts of which were sketched above. Plan C “presents a fresh opportunity to carry out on a smaller scale (my italics) and, as we trust, in a more favourable atmosphere than ever before, the experiment, which the original framers of the Balfour Declaration must surely have had in mind, of seeking to build up, by joint efforts of both Jews and Arabs, a single state in which the two races may ultimately learn to live and work together as fellow-citizens.” Partition had become an interim stage. In other words, a One State solution may arise from the partition proposal. This was the culmination of the series of reports from the 1930s on that kept shrinking the amount handed over for an independent Jewish state. For a report that repeatedly cited the animosity between the two groups, most emphatically the animosity of the Arabs towards the Jews, such a hope appears as a piece of ironic black humour.

The real result had to be an increased distrust by the Arabs of the British, for they were not given their independence, the toehold of the Jews in Palestine was widened and the increase in economic domination was virtually guaranteed. Zionists had to be infuriated because, though they received an independent Jewish state, it was a sliver of what had originally been promised and was even smaller than the proposal of the Peel Commission a year earlier.

The Zionist Jews would never again trust the British to assist them to achieve their aims. The sale of Arab land to Jews in the northern Mandate and the religious Enclave (Jerusalem, etc.) was prohibited. The rest of the report was spin. For example, restrictions on the purchase of lands by Jews in the Southern Mandate in the Negev area of Beersheba, which would continue for at least ten years, would be lifted gradually when the Bedouin “will be ready to reconsider their attitude” to Jews. For the Jews to gain access to the Galilee, they would have to convince the Arabs resident in the area that they would be good neighbours. In other words, you cannot become neighbours until you are respected by the inhabitants who do not trust you and fear you in the first place.

Jews could only acquire land adjacent to existing settlements for reclamation of agricultural land and where Jews already own an interest, though the suggestion of a standstill for five years for Jewish purchase of land in any part of the Northern Mandated Territory was rejected. However, the restrictions on immigration made this provision moot unless the migrants went to urban areas and supported the creation of industries.

Much more was said about religious protections, rights and language, about rail lines, industry, the post office, budgets, welfare and broadcasting, but I will only comment on language. The Report recommended that Hebrew and Arabic be permitted to be used in both the Jewish and Arab states in courts and other situations, but neither was made an official language in the other state. Even though there would be a substantial minority of Arabs in the Jewish state, no recommendation was made that it be an official language. Rights to use Arabic in courts and to educate children in Arabic in both primary and secondary schools were included.

One final note. There was very little included about the military, the police or security in general, especially surprising in light of the “disturbances.” The recommendation concerned “excess” cost of the British army and air force. The clear presumption was that defence would remain the responsibility of Britain. “The Jewish State under plan C, though small, is compact and is easily defensible.”

What??? (p. 236)


[1] Cf. Chapter XII, paragraphs 10 & 11

[2] The greatest danger may not be borders but disputes over enclaves as provided for in the 2020 American peace proposal. In the 2020 Trump peace plan, there are 15 Jewish enclaves with 3.3% of the West Bank Jewish population, 11 in Samaria and the South Hebron Hills. For an example of such danger, look at the current outburst in violence over the Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan with likely repercussions for the Azerbaijani enclave immediately southwest of Armenia. Making the situation more dangerous is the fact that Azerbaijan is backed by an ill-suited pair, Turkey actively and Israel more passively, whereas Russia backs Armenia.

[3] https://archive.org/details/WoodheadCommission

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