79. Britain abdicates its responsibility to the United Nations….

It was right in the beginning of 1947, in fact after the meeting spoken about earlier, that Britain’s position with regard to the Palestine issue, i.e. its leanings towards the Arabs, became clear. It obviously did not spell hope for the Jews. For the British to safeguard their interests in the Middle East, the cooperation of the Arabs was very essential. Thus they took a stance against the Jews and in favour of the Arabs. The situation called for some action to be taken at the earliest.

This was because the Arabs wanted the entire land of Palestine to be declared an ‘Arab nation’ that too devoid of any Jewish presence. All the Arab nations that neighboured Palestine and overall, all the Arab states in the Middle East too supported the idea. Having got wind of the British plan to soon end the ‘Mandate’ for Palestine, the Arabs were planning to launch attacks on the Jews the moment the last of the British forces exited Palestine.

Though the British wanted the Arab’s to cooperate, they were tired of the unending Jew-Arab conflict in the land of Palestine as the price that the British were paying to maintain peace in the region was now gradually turning out to be unaffordable for them. By the time, the freedom struggles in many of the British colonies like India had turned quite fierce, and the British forces deployed there were failing to suppress them. As a result, deliberations over the plans to grant independence to such colonies were underway in Britain. Palestine, where the situation had gotten out of hand, was an addition to these plans.

And hence, after World War II, the British were only too eager to wash their hands of Palestine, the land they had conquered defeating the Ottoman Empire post World War I and whose responsibility they had taken upon themselves under the name of ‘Mandate’. The British were now in search of someone to shoulder this responsibility.

And they got their opportunity in the form of the United Nations (UN)!

Although the issue was a topic of quite a few conferences and discussions over the year 1946, not a single one of the solutions tabled by the British found consensus with the two factions and every proposal ended up rejected by one party or the other.

Accordingly, in February 1947, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Ernest Bevin declared that, ‘Despite relentless effort, a unanimous solution to the issue could not be reached and so Britain had decided to disengage from undertaking to look for a solution to the issue and would hand over the problem to the United Nations’. 15th May 1948 was declared as the final time limit for the withdrawal of the British forces from the land of Palestine.

After the Palestine issue was handed over to the United Nations, the ‘United Nations Special Committee on Palestine’ (‘UNSCOP’) was formed on 15th May 1947.11 member nations of the UN were made a part of the Committee.

UNSCOP Members visiting Haifa

This Committee visited Palestine, recorded testimonials of many and finally arrived at two plans–

The first was – the entire land of Palestine would be a single ‘Federal State’, comprising of two sub-states, one each for the Arabs and the Jews. The two would be financially interconnected.

The other was – the land of Palestine would be partitioned into two – an ‘Arab state’ and a ‘Jew state’. However, Jerusalem and the nearby areas which were sensitive but very close to the heart of all three religions would be under the control of neither the Arabs nor the Jews; no particular religion would control Jerusalem which would be under the jurisdiction of the United Nations that is under international control.

However, when the above options were put to vote by the UNSCOP members before tabling them with the United Nations, the second option – that of the partition of Palestine ended up the winner and was recommended to the UN in August 1947.

A special session of the United Nations was summoned for discussing the issue. Presenting his side during the session, the Jewish representative reminded the house that the Jews had fought shoulder to shoulder with the Allied Nations in the world war and that the sacred text –the Bible, which was revered by the western world, was a product of the ancient Jewish culture. He further asserted that by then the Jewish homeland should have been established in Palestine and their representative should have been accorded a position at par with the representatives of all the other member nations.

The Arabs presented their side of the picture. ‘Why should the Arabs in Palestine be punished for the crimes of Hitler’, was the question their representative asked. ‘The Jews were returning to their rightful ‘Promised Land’ and they were being accommodated in settlements built with the tireless efforts of the Jews themselves and that too on barren pieces of land. The Jews did not stay in the Arab areas.’ retorted David Ben-Gurion in response.

At the time, the membership of the United Nations was 55. Arab nations like Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, which were under the ‘Mandate’ of Britain or the other powers after World War I, already independent then, were UN members. All these nations were lobbying to get Palestine recognized as an ‘independent Arab nation’ and take it on board as a member of the United Nations.

At the same time, the Jews too on their part were all set for an all-out effort.  David Ben-Gurion who, after the 22nd World Zionist Congress, officially held the reins of the Zionist movement had, in fact, breathed new life into it. He regularly met the officials and representatives of the Haganah at various locations to assess their preparedness and alerted them about a mighty decisive battle.

David Ben-Gurion with the Haganah in Negev desert

During the meetings, it emerged that the Haganah’s arsenal included about 10 thousand rifles, some 1900 submachine guns, 180-190 machine guns, around 450 light machine guns and a few pieces of heavy artillery.

These figures convinced Ben-Gurion that to face the impending Arab aggression, it was extremely essential to increase both the Jewish manpower and the firepower. The existing armoury with the Haganah could at the most suffice for small skirmishes; it was certainly not adequate for a full-scale war.

The Haganah Weapons

After coming to this conclusion, Ben-Gurion called for Shimon Peres (a mere 23-year-old youth then), one of his most trusted aides,– from his kibbutz and deputed him to Tel Aviv to organize military recruitment and increase the manpower of the Haganah. Later, he was also entrusted with the responsibility to increase the size of their weaponry.

However, the object of interest and curiosity was the verdict of the UN in the matter that Britain had offloaded from its shoulders onto the lap of the UN. What indeed was the UN’s stand going to be? (To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar

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