Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes – Part VIII UNSCOP

The discussion of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) is not included in Rashid Khalidi’s The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine. Nor for that matter are all the events of 1946 concerning President Harry Truman’s motives, vacillations and actions. If Khalidi had attended to these crucial years and events, it is impossible to understand how he could hold onto his thesis that Israel was created by a combination of colonial settlement backed by imperial power. This is especially true of the workings of UNSCOP that lead to the partition resolution in the UN and its passage.

Perhaps his selection and omission of materials were related to his own family’s involvement in the affairs as they unfolded. “Having carried out the main part of the message, my father then hesitatingly conveyed the message Dr. Husayn [Khalidi’s much older uncle] had entrusted to him. The king’s face registered anger and surprise and he abruptly stood up, compelling everyone else in the room to stand as well. The audience was over. Exactly at that moment a servant entered announcing that the BBC had just broadcast the news of the UN General Assembly’s decision in favour of partition of Palestine. Before stalking out of the room the king turned to my father and said coolly, “You Palestinians have refused my offer. You deserve what happens to you.”

The message had been that while the Palestinians appreciated Abdullah’s offer of protection, the Palestinians insisted on full self-determination. Clearly, Palestinian strategy and tactics had not only ignored any in-depth knowledge of the Americans and their leadership but also that of their fellow Arab, King Abdullah of Transjordan. The organization and behaviour of the members of UNSCOP, which Khalidi skips over entirely even though it was the critical event leading to the partition resolution, suggest strongly that the Palestinians also did not understand world public opinion at the time.

I have written on UNSCOP before. This is the very condensed version. You can skip it if you have read it before.

First, there is the structure of the special committee. There were no major powers on the committee. Second, the members came from countries distributed around the world. Third, the delegates on the committee were to be selected on the basis of their individual expertise and personal history in rendering wise judgments and not as representatives of the countries from which they came. In fact, as we shall see, contrary to instructions, two of the countries named representatives to attend to their country’s interests. The representatives from Australia and from Holland were mouthpieces for the foreign affairs of their respective states. The others were not even when they reflected national dispositions.

This is important because, though it was not widely known at the time, Dr. Herbert Vera Evatt, the Foreign Minister of Australia at the time, had the ambition to become President of the General Assembly. He would not want to alienate the large number of votes from Muslim, especially Arab states. The Netherlands wanted the Muslim and Arab states to support its continuing imperial role with respect to its colony of Indonesia. Here, imperial interests clearly initially favoured the Palestinian objections to partition. In effect. Israel started out with the problem of getting at least six votes out of nine to support partition, though Israel did not recognize that it was handicapped in this way.

The members named by their respective countries to the committee ae listed below with the preferences indicated before the committee began its deliberations.


  • Australia
    • John Hood, representative                                          Single Arab state
  • Canada
    • Justice Ivan Rand, representative                               Single federal state
  • Czechoslovakia
    • Karel Lisicky, representative                                     Single federal state
    • Richard Pech, alternate
  • Guatemala
  • India
    • Sir Abdur Rahman, representative                             A federal state
  • Iran                                                                                   Single unitary state
  • Netherlands                                                                      Single unitary state
  • Peru                                                                                  Separate internationally managed
    • Dr. Alberto Ulloa, representative                               Christian enclave and, in the end,
    • Dr. Arturo Garcia Salazar, alternate                          partition                      
  • Sweden
    • Justice Emil Sandström, representative                     neutral
  • Uruguay                                                                            partition
  • Yugoslavia                                                                        Single federal state

The choices in front of the committee were:

a) a unitary state;

b) a bi-national state;

c) a federation, or

d) partition in a number of variations.

Absolutely no one supported the continuation of the mandate or Britain having any future role in the administration of even the holy places. Britain’s exit was accepted as a given. Neither did anyone support a bi-national unitary state as a realistic possibility.Israel began with two votes for partition. The Arabs began with 3 votes for an Arab unitary state. There were 4 votes for a single state constructed as a federation. The single state as either a unitary or a federal state began with 7 votes. There was one apparently neutral person, Justice Emil Sandström, who became chair of the committee. Salazar from Peru was open initially, as long as there was a separate political entity for the Christian places. Knowing this, if you were a betting person, you might predict a victory for a federated state. That, of course, would be opposed by both the Arabs and the Jews.

How did the Zionists end up with 7 supporters for partition, 3 votes for a federal state and 1 abstention? The Arab preferred position for a unitary state had no support in the end.

UNSCOP arrived in Palestine on 16 June 1947 and some directly viewed the crisis over the Exodus. The committee took a strong stand against the British Hanging of Zionist prisoners in the Acre jail.

Members of the committee also went to visit the Jews in the camps and came away with the overwhelming opinion that the vast majority wanted to go to Palestine. Though this became true by 1948, Zionist support was still a minority or no more than a bare majority in the camps, but the Zionists so organized the meetings that the committee members got an opposite impression. In Israel, they were impressed by Jewish modernity and industry. The delegates were unimpressed by what they perceived as Arab backwardness and lack of cleanliness but especially by the use of child labour in one of the factories. They were also influenced by the Jewish lobbyists who, in an early incidence of espionage had the cleaning people replaced by spies who reported out the positions and leanings of each of the representatives.

As the committee proceeded, the positions of each member shifted or developed. For example, John Hood was an Australian foreign service officer directly under the control and direction of Evett, the Foreign Minister. Evett needed Muslim and Arab country support to become the President of the General Assembly. He did not succeed. When that happened, he instructed John Hood to abstain on a technicality. Ironically, it was Australia that eventually cast the first vote for partition when the recommendation came before the General Assembly. That is why Evett has remained a hero for the Australian Jewish Committee even though, decades later, the role Evett and Hood played in the debate was published in academic journals.

Blom was instructed by the Dutch foreign ministry to shift his position from support for the Arabs when, in early August, the Arab League came out in full support for the independence of Indonesia.

Justice Ivan Rand, from Moncton, a bilingual city in a binational province, was an archetypal mediator in search of compromise to resolve opposing positions. He was the author of the Rand formula which resolved the conflict in the Ford Company between workers who did not want to be involved or support a union and those who insisted on universal membership since a union served all members. The compromise allowed workers to opt out, but they would still be required to pay union dues. This resolved the long Ford strike and became the model for all other union employer agreements in Canada. His career culminated with his appointment to the Canadian Supreme Court in 1943 and he became renowned for his decisions on human rights and against Jewish restrictions on medical placements in hospitals and restrictive covenants on ownership of land.

Ivan Rand was expected to push for a federal solution. He did. And hard. However, when he recognized that support for that position was weakening because the Arabs made it very clear that they would not participate in a federal state with the Zionists – a position communicated even though they boycotted the committee hearings – he shifted to supporting partition.

The force of Rand’s initial argument and detailed analysis convinced Salazar to support partition in return for a UN protectorate for Nazareth, Jerusalem and Bethlehem as recommended by the Woodhead Commission. Rand also convinced Simic to shift from support for a federal state to partition when he made that shift himself. Further, Rand, along with Ralph Bunche, was responsible for a good part of the drafting of the final document.

Commenting on one draft, Rand wrote in one memorandum (undated), that “it is not the contention to establish the three ‘states’ as independent entities but really to recognize the necessity of a federal system with a central or national government which can exercise the national interest the usual powers vested in such a government.” He then went on to write what was in effect an explanation of why he shifted from supporting a federal state to support for partition. “In this instance, however, the central authority is set up somewhat prayerfully without giving it the status it would require in order to achieve the entirely proper purposes envisaged or the means of enforcing its actions with regard to such purposes.” In other words, better two separate states than an unworkable federated one.  

What about Lisicky from Yugoslavia who was intimately acquainted with five different nations in a single federal state. He initially believed he could help create an even better federal state than Yugoslavia because there were only two nations involved. But, like Ivan Rand, he gradually came to recognize that partition was the only answer given the degree of animosity between Arabs and Jews.

Granados started off as a liberal admirer of what the Jews had accomplished in Palestine and their idealistic creation of kibbutzim, and that admiration grew. So did his distrust of the Arabs, especially when he visited a cigar factory that employed 9 and 10-year-old children. He needed no persuasion to support partition. Neither did Fabregat who wrote the first draft of the partition proposal in which he supported creation of separate entirely independent states for Arabs and Jews with a separate mandate for the Negeb (Negev), a free port in Haifa and a separate polity for the Old city and the management of other major Holy Places. After each was constituted and acquired both experience and institutions, each could, “Hold a plebiscite (ten years after) in order to decide for themselves under which of the different forms of government they might wish to live and progress.”

Rahman was a very interesting participant. He was obviously a brilliant jurist and was most afraid that partition would lead to the horrors of India and Pakistan. He was a Muslim citizen of India who had strongly supported federation. He argued for that solution to the very end when the choice boiled down to two alternatives, a federated state or partition.

Entezam from Iran shifted his position from support for a unitary state to support for a confederation. Salazar, a very religious Catholic, eventually supported two states on condition that Jerusalem remain a protectorate of the United Nations. It was only near the end of the deliberations that it became clear that Sandström favoured partition.

Once it became obvious that the majority report would support partition, immigration became a non-issue post-partition for each state could determine that by themselves. The main issue was boundaries. Because the Arabs had boycotted the proceedings, with some exceptions for private meetings, the Zionists did better than might have been expected, but the territory assigned to them was relatively small, a sliver along the Mediterranean.

War would change that. It was surprising that so little attention of the written committee report focused on the likelihood of war if partition was recommended. The brilliant Ralph Bunche was keenly aware of such a likely outcome and did warn about it. But he was too much of a mandarin to shift the preference of the committee towards favouring his option – continuation of the mandate but under UN auspices. However, in their memoranda, members did take note and Sandström predicted that the Jews would win the ensuing war.

The partition option won by a vote of 7:3 and 1 abstention. It was soon endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly. War was now certain once Britain in a peek at how it had been treated picked up its wares and abandoned Palestine as fast as possible. There was no UN peace force as a replacement. War followed and the defeat of five Arab armies that invaded what was quickly named the Independent State of Israel while Transjordan annexed the Western area that was supposed to be assigned to it and took control of the Old City and East Jerusalem. UN officials arrived on time to take control, but they were entirely ignored.


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