Revisiting the partition of Palestine

By Henry Lowi

This past summer, I read several newspaper articles on the 60th anniversary of the partition of British colonial India into independent India and Pakistan.

Much was made of the mayhem, the chaos and the deaths that occurred 60 years ago on the Indian subcontinent. In numerous in-depth pieces, the distinction was drawn between the “secular” republic of India and the “Muslim” republic of Pakistan.

Comparisons were made of subsequent developments in the spheres of economic growth, political democracy, human rights and international relations.

The questions were raised: was partition justified? What other options were there? How has partition played out? This coverage has provided valuable food for thought, about postwar decolonization, its successes and failures.

One cannot fail to turn one’s thoughts to the postwar partition of Palestine in the aftermath of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947. The 60th anniversary of the partition resolution will be celebrated by the Israeli Knesset at the end of November (see Zvika Brot, “History in the (re)making” , Ynetnews, 16 August 2007).

Will the international press run multiple articles analysing the justice of partition, the positions of its opponents, the human suffering surrounding its implementation and subsequent developments? I doubt that my daily newspaper will delve into this subject matter. The topic is too hot, and the facts are too stark. More importantly, the powers that dominate and exploit the Arab East, are committed to not subjecting this history to critical scrutiny.

While partition was touted in its time as the only way to peace … it has, in fact, delivered the opposite. Partition has erected enormous obstacles to peace, accommodation and reconciliation, and has generated recurring and tragic bloodletting.

It falls to the anti-imperialist forces to raise the issue. The pro-democracy forces, the honest peace forces that recognize Palestinian rights, the forces for Palestine liberation and freedom – these need to reopen the discussion of partition, both the controversial plan and its disastrous implementation.

The purpose of the analysis is not to enhance abstract “narrative”. It has a more direct practical purpose.The pain of partition is being felt to this day, increasingly so. While partition was touted in its time as the only way to peace – to avoid bloodshed, to accommodate the legitimate interests of all the residents of Palestine, to facilitate reconciliation – it has, in fact, delivered the opposite. Partition has erected enormous obstacles to peace, accommodation and reconciliation, and has generated recurring and tragic bloodletting.

The obstacles need to be overcome, and that is why the study and analysis of partition is necessary. We need to identify the obstacles. They are there. They are in the way. They cannot be ignored.

It would be valuable if, in many places throughout the world, public meetings could be held on the topic of partition, in an effort to reach out to and educate new layers of activists. In some places, a panel discussion would be appropriate, with speakers addressing different aspects of the partition of Palestine. In other places, a formal debate format might be suitable. The topic of debate could be: “Palestine: peace or partition?” With whom would such a debate be held? With those who, maliciously or innocently, uphold the essentials of the partition strategy. Many peace activists, innocently, believe that partition was justified.

They say that it is unfortunate that the Palestinians did not embrace partition, and that their refusal resulted in a tragedy that can now be rectified by promoting an “independent Palestinian state beside Israel”. Others say that, whether or not partition was justified, it happened, and thanks to the “international consensus” following the June 1967 war, now is the time to work for establishing the “independent Palestinian state beside Israel”. Some take a “principled” position, holding that partition is the right way to go when “two nations” occupy the same land. Just like the principled false “mother” in the legend of King Solomon and the baby.

All of these positions should be aired, and criticized, by those who recognize the hurdles created by partition.

We deny the charge that we are engaged in a pursuit of “absolute justice”, or an attempt to “roll back the clock” and return to a status quo ante. We need to recognize that the hurdles erected by partition are still with us. They have caused untold misery and, unless overcome, will continue to cause untold misery. Those who support partition claim to be “pragmatists”, and promoters of “peace in our lifetime”. They are deceiving themselves and others. Their false pragmatism is so much hot air that cannot withstand scrutiny. They are the staunchest upholders of continued Zionist domination of Palestine, and bear political responsibility for the conflict that flows from that domination.

The argument can be made that, now that George Bush and Co. have publicly adopted the “two states for two peoples” strategy, this is clearly a strategy of “divide and conquer”. The imperialist masters appreciate that Palestine divided will never be able to mobilize its main resource – its diverse human capital – to achieve decolonization and democracy, overcome underdevelopment and backwardness, racism and ethnic nationalism, and take its rightful place on the world stage.

It is timely to challenge the principle of partition now, when the imperialism-led secret diplomatic process is being restarted, with hopes and illusions aroused. Popular opposition to the secret diplomacy will undoubtedly attack “President” Abbas’s treachery and the illegality of his manoeuvres, will highlight the misery of the Palestine refugees and advocate for their right to return, and will focus on the political prisoners, and the rights of the oppressed Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Palestinian oppositionists will also propose new or old-new organizational structures, such as a re-convened Palestinian National Council, or a revived Palestine Liberation Organization, or reorganized popular committees like those that emerged in the Intifada. They will call for improved and effective international solidarity, moving forward from merely declarative “Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions campaigns” (that do not affect the Zionist regime, but serve only to rally Zionism’s supporters), and start to implement people-to-people solidarity. All of this can and must be done. But, at the core of all this opposition, partition must be criticized, its history exposed, its paradigm for the future overthrown.

The Soviet Union under Stalin, and the United States under Truman, each for their own reasons, joined forces to prevent popular sovereignty in Palestine. They obstructed the realization of a fundamental principle of the democratic era.

Fundamentally, it must be recognized that postwar decolonization failed in Palestine. Despite the United Nations Charter, the British White Paper of 1939 and the substantial dissenting minority of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, decolonization was denied to the people of Palestine. The Soviet Union under Stalin, and the United States under Truman, each for their own reasons, joined forces to prevent popular sovereignty in Palestine. They obstructed the realization of a fundamental principle of the democratic era.

Partition denied the people of British Mandate Palestine the right to popular sovereignty and national self-determination. Political democracy would have required that, at the end of the British Mandate, an elected sovereign constituent assembly be convened, to express the political will of the residents of former British Mandate Palestine. That constituent assembly would have been empowered to formulate a democratic constitution, with guarantees for individual rights and liberties, and all the necessary protection for minority rights. It would not have been easy. But, like all democratic governing bodies, the Palestine constituent assembly would be the forum within which the people’s representatives would have had to thrash out a formula to make popular sovereignty work.

Partition undercut the right of national self-determination, and instead gave the more powerful faction (economically and militarily) – in this case the settler-colonialists of the Yishuv – the opportunity to dominate the country, expel a huge portion of its residents and institute a regime of ethnic supremacy and national oppression. That regime persists to this day. It claims legitimacy, it demands recognition by its victims, and it seeks new and innovative ways to dominate Palestine and threaten its neighbours.

One of the overlooked hurdles raised by partition is the “principled”, or psychological hurdle, that persists to this day. Intelligent people will look you in the eye and argue for segregation. Sensitive and fair-minded people will swear by the need to “separate” the populations. For them, the RIGHT of national self-determination is not a RIGHT to non-domination, but is a DUTY to segregate. They hold segregation to be the epitome of fairness and democracy and equal rights. To this day, the advocates of partition have not learned what the US Supreme Court recognized decades ago, i.e. that “separate” can never be “equal”.

In order to redress the balance – in power, in resources, in education – serious corrective measures will need to be taken by a democratic regime. Political democracy and popular sovereignty are prerequisites to overcoming the legacy of oppression and to open up new possibilities of coexistence. But, “principled” segregationists seem oblivious to all the accumulated experience in this regard. The “principled” segregationist mentality is one of the lasting hurdles created by partition.

One suspects that the pacifist segregationist advocates of partition are really adhering to Ehud Barak’s view, that the State of Israel is a “villa in a jungle”. They want to preserve that “villa” and, when possible, to enlarge it and – to hell with the “jungle”. That is the logic of partition. An example of this logic is the environmental partition of Palestine, in which the Palestinian “jungle” becomes the garbage dump of the Israeli “villa” (see Shlomi Zecharia, “Occupation bad for environment”, Ynetnews, 27 August 2007, and Steven Erlanger, “Little boys dig a living in settler trash“, New York Times, 2 September 2007).

Fundamentally, the partition paradigm entrenched a racist and supremacist attitude that continually sabotages empathy and solidarity. It generates fear and loathing and contempt for the masses of suffering humanity.

Fundamentally, the partition paradigm entrenched a racist and supremacist attitude that continually sabotages empathy and solidarity. It generates fear and loathing and contempt for the masses of suffering humanity. It creates a walled-in mentality, grotesquely reviving the most backward attitudes of the European ghetto, and cultivating a new basis for anti-Semitic sentiment. It caused an unseemly clash between the European Jewish victims of European genocide, and the indigenous Arab Palestinian victims of Zionist colonialism. It manufactured a truly tragic conflict between the Jewish Arab immigrants (also victimized by Zionism) and the native Arab Palestinians.

Partition is the antithesis of the solidarity that must be developed in order for peace to eventually take hold in the Holy Land.

The strategy of partition requires the tactics of partition, i.e. ethnic cleansing and ongoing segregation. The practice of partition engenders the mindset of partition, i.e. racism, xenophobia and elitism. These are the hurdles that must be overcome today. They cannot be overcome by a reorganized partition. Efforts to reorganize partition will only exacerbate these hurdles, with disastrous consequences for the people living in the partitioned land.

Much has been written anecdotally about all of this. Ilan Pappe’s book and other books have described the systematic ethnic cleansing operations of 1947-49. Various studies have analysed the Soviet and American decision-making processes that came to support partition. The Arab leaders, in Palestine and outside, have been denounced to high heaven for their ineptness and their primitiveness and their selfishness. The desperate warnings published by courageous working class opponents of partition, who stood up against the whole world with the message of solidarity, have been published, but seldom read.

An interesting contemporary analysis by Adel Samara, entitled “Palestine:from historical de-classing to a stand-by regime”, can be found in three parts here: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

To those who argue, based on a self-styled claim of “realism”, for accommodating the ethnic nationalist ethos, and for the “pragmatism” of partition, I ask: then why not return to the original partition map of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, providing for two states, a “Jewish state” in 55 per cent of Palestine, and an “Arab state” in the rest? In this scenario, the refugees can simply return to Akka and Jaffa and Ashkelon and Ramleh and Lod. Ask the question of those who are adamant that partition is “realistic”, given the present relationship of forces, because, so they say, neither Israelis nor Palestinians will easily relinquish their own ethnic nationalist narrative and goals.

If you ask those questions, you will discover that ethnic cleansing is implicit in partition, as it was anticipated by the UN, the USSR and the USA, and as carried out by the forces fighting in Palestine in 1947-49. You will reach the realization that there is no “pragmatism” in partition except the pragmatism of “might makes right”, and the “realism” of settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing and racist discrimination. That is the realism of partition. That is the realism of the so-called “two states solution”.

That is why, I propose that honest, realistic and pragmatic peace activists “go for the jugular” to expose partition, protest against it and propose an alternative solution to the question of Palestine. It is necessary to correct and redress the injustice (yes, the injustice) perpetrated (by the UN, the USSR, the USA, the Zionist leadership, the Hashemites and the Palestinian leadership of that time) on Palestine.

This requires us to confront the Quartet, the Zionist state and its lobby, the Hashemites and the Palestinian leadership of this time, and propose an approach that is realistic, and pragmatic, that addresses the source of the conflict and that points to a solution. No more pipe dreams. No more “solutions” that violate the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. No more solutions that require the people of Palestine to accept less than government of the people, by the people and for the people.

With the approach of 29 November, I think that it would be good to stimulate debate on the partition of Palestine, why it was wrong, how it was wrong and how it creates hurdles, today, that stand in the way of peace.

Partition was and is the true enemy of peace and reconciliation in Palestine. Let us take this opportunity to make that point loud and clear.


Henry Lowi is a Jewish peace activist living in Toronto, Canada.

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