The UN Partition Plan that Led to the Independence War

Celebrating after the UN vote

One of the most important events – if not THE most important event in Israel’s history – is the 1948 Independence War, which led to the establishment of the State of Israel. Not many people know, but the Independence War already started on 30 November 1947, a day after the UN voted and adopted the Partition Plan, which is also known as Resolution 181. In this post, I want to talk about the UN Partition Plan – what it was and why it didn’t become a reality. 

In the image above – the Jews are dancing hora after the UN announces that it has adopted the Partition Plan.

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What is the UN Partition Plan for Palestine?

In 1947, the British had a mandate over the Land of Israel, also called Palestine, or in Hebrew, Palestina. Back then, it was not an independent country then. The British were supposed to control the area and guide the region’s inhabitants—Jewish and Arab—until they could stand on their own. Learn more about the history of Palestine as a region here. 

In any case, the British had a tough time with the Jewish and Arab residents of the land. They were fighting each other, protesting, and sometimes even killing British officials who were fulfilling their duties in the region. Britain decided that it was time to leave and started preparing the ground for their leaving. In February 1947, they announced that they planned to finish their mandate and requested that the United Nations propose a plan for the future of the region.

The UN sent a special committee called UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) to explore the region and come up with a plan that would suit all of its inhabitants. The committee traveled around Palestine (the Land of Israel), visited settlements, talked with Arab and Jewish representatives, and, in the end, came up with the Partition Plan. UNSCOP understood that the Jews and the Arabs cannot live together and, therefore, need two independent states – one Arab and one Jewish.

As you can see in the map below, the Partition Plan proposed to divide the land as follows:

  • The Jewish people would receive approximately 55% of the land (the area in green). This included the Galilee Panhandle, the Eastern Lower Galilee, most of the Coastal Plain, and most of the Negev. They decided this based on the settlements that existed back then. Unlike the Arabs, who had no established settlements in the Negev, the Jews already had 11 settlements in the Negev. This impressed the UNSCOP representatives and convinced them to give the majority of the Negev to the Jews.
  • The Arabs were planned to receive approximately 45% of the land (the area in orange). This included the Western Galilee, the Gaza Strip, the Shfela lowlands, and most of the Judean Desert and Jordan Rift Valley.
  • Jerusalem and Bethlehem were supposed to be an international zone. 

The Arabs and Jewish people weren’t very happy about the plan. I will discuss why the Arabs were not happy later. Some of the Jews were not happy because they wanted Jerusalem to be part of the Jewish state because of its religious significance to the Jewish people. Also, they claimed that the Jewish state would be too small and would not be able to protect itself against the Arab enemies that encircle it. However, the Jewish leaders declared that they were willing to go with the plan, hoping that it would bring peace to the region. The plan was submitted and the UN General Assembly gathered to vote.

The vote on the 1947 UN Partition Plan

On 29 November 1947, families all over Palestine (the Land of Israel) gathered around radios, listening keenly to the UN assembly that took place far away in New York City. 

And then, they started announcing the votes of the 56 countries that took part in the assembly. The families stood next to the radios, their hearts pounding hard, their ears wide open. As Amoz Oz describes in one of his books, “The huge crowd stood petrified in the frightening silence of the night as if they were not real human beings, but just hundreds of shadows painted upon the flashing darkness… Not a word, not a cough, not a step of a shoe. Even the flies didn’t buzz.”

“Afghanistan – no… Ukraine – yes Soviet Union – yes United Kingdom – abstained United States – yes…” One after the other, the states voted. And then, after a long and tense wait, the votes were counted, and it was official – the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was adopted by the UN General Assembly. 33 countries voted in favor of the plan, 13 against it, and 10 were absent. 

You can hear and watch part of the assembly here:

The Jewish settlement burst into cries of joy, people started dancing and singing in the streets, sweets and pantries were given to anyone who desired them, and bottles of wine and beer were opened to celebrate this wonderful event—the Jewish people had a state of their own, at last! 

But, on the other hand, the Arabs weren’t happy with the results of the vote and did not plan to accept the resolution. The Arab leaders called to resist the Partition Plan with force. The next day, on 30 November 1947, the Independence War started. The Arabs call it “the Nakba” (“the disaster”).  

Why did the Arabs reject the UN Partition Plan?

So, the Arabs rejected the Partition Plan and started the 1948 War. Here are some of the main claims they had against the plan:

  • It violates the principle of national self-determination, which grants people the right to decide on their own destiny. 
  • It is not fair that the Jews, who are a minority, will receive 55% of the land. In 1947, there were approximately 1,180,500 Muslims and 630,000 Jews in Mandatory Palestine. As I already mentioned, the Jews were supposed to get the majority of the Negev, which was mostly unpopulated, because they had established settlements there, as opposed to the Arabs. The Negev makes up around 60% of Palestine (the Land of Israel), and therefore, the Jews got a larger percentage of land.  
  • Many Arabs were intended to live in the Jewish state. Demographically, in the Jewish territory, there were about 500 thousand Jewish people and 400 thousand Arabs. In other words, the foreseen Jewish state was not all Jewish and had a large population of Arabs. It was not clear what those Arabs would do in a Jewish state. 
  • When the decision was read out, the first thing that was said was that the Jewish people deserved a state of their own after the terrors of the Holocaust. The Arabs said that they had no connection to the Holocaust and asked why they needed to pay for the awful things that the Europeans did to the Jews.

The results of the war

On 30 November 1947, the local Arabs started attacking Jewish settlements to show that they were not bound to the Partition Plan.  However, the Independence War officially started on 15 May 1948, a day after David Ben Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel. It lasted until 20 July 1949.  

During the war, many of the local Arabs fled from their villages. In most cases, they were afraid of what might happen to them if the Israeli army would arrive. They fled before any Israeli soldier set foot in their villages. The Arab armies, who joined the war on 15 May, promised the local Arabs that they would defeat the Israelis and that, later, they would be able to return safely to their houses. The reality was that Israel won the war and gained control of 75% of the land, which was 20% more than it was supposed to get based on the Partition Plan. Around 700 thousand Arabs became refugees. They are in refugee camps in the West Bank and the neighboring Arab countries until today, still hoping that one day, the Arab armies will keep their promise and defeat Israel. 


The Partition Plan was a resolution that the UN adopted in November 1947. It proposed to divide the region of Mandatory Palestine (the Land of Israel) into two states – an Arab state and a Jewish state. The Palestinian Arabs rejected the plan and started the 1948 War. Until today, they call the war “the Nakba,” which means “the Disaster.” Well, this is what happens when you start a war.

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1 comment

The History of Jewish and Muslim Jerusalem – Backpack Israel .com December 8, 2017 - 4:37 pm
[…] will be a city under international control, not part of the Israeli state nor the Arab state (read more about the Partition Plan here). Later, on the 5th of December 1949, Ben Gurion will declare Jerusalem as the capital of […]
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