70 Years after UN Resolution 181: An Assessment

, November 26, 2017

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

Vol. 17, No. 33

  • Seventy years ago, on November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 calling for the partition of Mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Jews accepted the plan with a mixture of joy and hesitation, while the Arabs rejected it and launched a war to forcibly prevent its implementation.
  • The Arabs denied the Jews any right whatsoever in their ancestral homeland, and a large majority still maintains this view to this day.
  • Since the Arab states rejected the resolution upon its adoption and prevented its implementation, the Palestinian leadership can neither logically nor legally claim today that Resolution 181 can serve as a basis for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
  • Moreover, the partition plan refers to the creation of an Arab state, not a Palestinian state. Indeed, nowhere does it indicate the creation of a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people. There was never any such designation as “Palestinian” for the Arab population residing in the area.
  • Finally, according to the UN Charter, General Assembly resolutions are simply recommendations and are not legally binding. Only resolutions adopted by the Security Council under Chapter 7 of the Charter may be obligatory. Thus, Resolution 181 cannot in any manner be considered to be a basis for a Palestinian claim to statehood.
United Nations General Assembly partition vote, November 29, 1947

United Nations General Assembly partition vote, November 29, 1947

As we approach the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 for the partition of Palestine, which was adopted on November 29th, 1947,1 it is appropriate to examine the impact and significance of that resolution, most particularly for the Palestinian leadership. Indeed, Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the PLO and head of the Palestinian Authority, when appealing to the Secretary-General as well as the Security Council of the United Nations (UN), constantly refers to that resolution as the source of authority for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and for the delineation of its boundaries.2

Based on international law as well as factual and historical evidence, this paper details the meaning and impact of Resolution 181, in addition to explaining why it cannot serve as an authoritative and legal reference for the establishment of a Palestinian state and the right to self-determination for the Palestinian people.

United Nations Partition Map, 1947

United Nations Partition Map, 1947 (United Nations)

UN Resolution 181: Its Historical Context

On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly, in Resolution 181, approved what is known as the “partition plan.” This plan intended to split the geographical area of Palestine into two distinct states: one Jewish and one Arab, with Jerusalem as an internationally-ministered separate entity (corpus separatum – see map).3 Thirty-three countries voted in favor, 13 against, ten abstained, and one was absent.”4

Initially, both Jews and Arabs were shocked by the idea of partition.5 “The Zionist movement viewed the whole of Eretz Yisrael as a Jewish patrimony,” according to Israeli scholar Prof. Shlomo Avineri, “and the effort to reach a Jewish majority was aimed at giving this claim international support and legitimacy. And the emerging Palestinian national movement … viewed Falastin as integral a part of the great Arab homeland as all other lands from Morocco to Iraq.”6

However, although the two sides shared the surprise, their reaction to the partition plan diverged significantly. The Jews accepted the plan with a mixture of joy and hesitation, while the other rejected it and launched a war to forcibly prevent its implementation.

Although both parties claimed a legitimate right to inhabit the area, the Arabs denied the Jews any right whatsoever in their ancestral homeland, and a large majority still maintains this view to this day. The adoption of UN Resolution 181 was seen as cataclysmic by the Arab side; not only did they not abide by it, but they went to war against the nascent Jewish State to express their discontentment and their refusal to allow a such a state to exist.

UN Resolution 181’s Content

The partition plan officially terminated the British Mandate for Palestine. British forces were to be evacuated from Palestine within a few months after the implementation of the resolution, more precisely by August 1, 1948.7 It further suggested that the area of Palestine be divided into eight parts: three cities were meant to be under Jewish rule, three cities under Arab rule, and the city of Jaffa was intended to an Arab district under Jewish rule.8 Jerusalem was intended to be administered by a UN Ad Hoc Committee and therefore have the status of an international city, meant to belong to neither of the parties.

Secondly, the resolution stated that no party should attempt to prevent the successful implementation of all its clauses, at it states:

The resolution requests that the Security Council consider, if circumstances during the transitional period require such consideration, whether the situation in Palestine constitutes a threat to peace. If it decides that such a threat exists, and in order to maintain international peace and security, the Security Council should supplement the authorization of the General Assembly by taking measures, under Articles 39 and 41 of the Charter, to empower the United Nations Commission to exercise in Palestine the functions which are assigned to it by this resolution.9

However, the UN took no measures to follow through with its assessment when Arab aggression took place against Jews in 1947 and especially in 1948, following Israel’s declaration of independence.10 Therefore, although Resolution 181 was meant to create a modus operandi between the two parties, it utterly failed to do so, since the Arab party categorically rejected it. Its implementation could therefore not be accomplished.

The remains of a Hadassah hospital convoy to Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, April 13, 1948. The Arab attack killed 78 people heading to the hospital.

The remains of a Hadassah hospital convoy

The remains of a Hadassah hospital convoy to Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, April 13, 1948. The Arab attack killed 78 people heading to the hospital.

The Resolution Cannot Be Utilized as a Basis for Palestinian Statehood

 Since the Arab states rejected the resolution upon its adoption and prevented its implementation, the Palestinian leadership can neither logically nor legally claim today that Resolution 181 can serve as a basis for the establishment of the Palestinian state. One cannot reject and undermine a formal resolution and change one’s mind 70 years later.

With incredible chutzpa (audacity) PLO observer Nasser al-Qidwa sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1999, demanding that “Israel must still explain to the international community the measures it took illegally to extend its laws and regulations to the territory it occupied in the war of 1948, beyond the territory allocated to the Jewish State in Resolution 181.”12  This territory included several modern-day Israeli cities, as well as Jerusalem.  

Dr. Dore Gold, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, was directly confronted with this issue. He responded by quoting Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s address to the Knesset in December 1949, in which he asserted that Israel could no longer accept the UN Resolution of 1947 as binding. Since the UN failed to implement its own resolution, Israel regarded the resolution as null and void.13

Concerning the city of Jerusalem, the rejected resolution itself formulated that the city was to be internationally ruled for ten years, after which a referendum would be held by its residents to decide on its sovereignty.

In addition to never being properly implemented and having been rejected by Arabs, the partition plan is semantically nebulous in that it refers to the creation of an Arab state, not a Palestinian state. Indeed, nowhere does it indicate the creation of a Palestinian state for the Palestinian people, but it states the creation of two states within the area of Palestine, one Jewish and one Arab. There was never any such designation as “Palestinian” for the Arab population residing in the area, and the designation was only adopted in 1964 with the creation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Therefore, when Mahmoud Abbas claims that Resolution 181 is a solid proof and basis that “Palestinians” have a right to their state of their own within the frontiers that it delineates, he is misleading the international community. 

Since Arab states not only rejected the plan but went to war against the new Jewish State, they are in no position whatsoever to use it a legal source for the establishment of a state of their own.

Lastly, according to the UN Charter, General Assembly resolutions are simply recommendations and are not legally binding. Only resolutions adopted by the Security Council under the Seventh Chapter of the Charter, to deal with threats to international peace and acts of aggression, may be obligatory. Therefore, the General Assembly through its 1947 Partition resolution, was not empowered to make any rules, and even less so to draw the borders of nations.14

Furthermore, Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948 further reduced the importance of Resolution 181. It and its partition plan were rendered insignificant. According to Professor Eugene Kontorovich, who cites Israel’s reliance on the uti possidetis principle, a Latin term which means “as you possess,” the borders of the new state of Israel remained those of Mandatory Palestine.15 Indeed, since the Arab leadership rejected Resolution 181’s clauses, the delineation of borders is now defined by the aftermath of the 1948-1949 War of Independence. Therefore, Israel is lawfully entitled to the territories it acquired following its conflict with the Arabs in 1949.

In conclusion, based on solid factual and historical evidence as well as international law, Resolution 181 is not only non-binding, but it cannot in any manner be considered to be a basis for a Palestinian claim to statehood. The Arab leadership categorically rejected it in its entirety, in addition to waging war against the newborn Jewish State in order to render the resolution inoperable. The Palestinian leadership today cannot validly refer to that resolution as the basis for establishing a Palestinian state and by the same token, cannot accuse Israel of not abiding by it.  Moreover, since the UN did not even manage to implement its own resolution, what credibility and legitimacy does it have? It is time for the Arab leadership to stop manipulating the United Nations and historical facts. Sadly, based on their outward behavior in recent decades, it would be hard to expect a change from them anytime soon.

* * *

This article was written under the supervision of Amb. Alan Baker.

* * *

Notes

1 Official UN website. The Palestinian Question. http://www.un.org/french/Depts/palestine/history2.shtml

2 Application of the State of Palestine for Admission to Membership in the United Nations http://www.un.org/en/ga/president/66/Letters/PDF/Palestine%20Application%20for%20Admission%20-%2023%20September%202011.pdf

3 UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947.

4 Israel State Archive. Results from the United Nations vote, with signatures, November 29, 1947

5 Avinery, Shlomo. 2011. Self-Determination and Israel’s Declaration of Independence, p.36

6 Ibid

7 Resolution 181

8 Official Un website. The Palestine question. http://www.un.org/french/Depts/palestine/history2.shtml

9 Resolution 181

10 Dori Gold. 2011. The Palestinians Resurrect the Partition Plan. Published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. http://jcpa.org/article/the-palestinians-resurrect-the-partition-plan/

11 Arab League declaration of the invasion of Palestine, 15 May 1948

12 Letter dated 25 March 1999 from the Permanent Observer of Palestine to the United Nations addressed to the  Secretary-General https://unispal.un.org/DPA/DPR/unispal.nsf/0/C84892FBB9963ACE052567450051EA88

13 Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 5 Statements to the Knesset by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/foreignpolicy/mfadocuments/yearbook1/pages/5%20statement%20to%20the%20knesset%20by%20prime%20minister%20ben-g.aspx

14 Eugene Kontorovich. 2014. Crimea, International Law and the West Bank. Commentary Magazine.

15 Idem

About Liora Chartouni

Liora Chartouni was an intern for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in September 2017. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Montreal and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Human Rights and Transitional Justice at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.