There is a widely accepted belief that United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 “created” Israel, based upon an understanding that this resolution partitioned Palestine or otherwise conferred legal authority or legitimacy to the declaration of the existence of the state of Israel. However, despite its popularity, this belief has no basis in fact, as a review of the resolution’s history and examination of legal principles demonstrates incontrovertibly.
Great Britain had occupied Palestine during the First World War, and in July 1922, the League of Nations issued its mandate for Palestine, which recognized the British government as the occupying power and effectively conferred to it the color of legal authority to temporarily administrate the territory. On April 2, 1947, seeking to extract itself from the conflict that had arisen in Palestine between Jews and Arabs as a result of the Zionist movement to establish in Palestine a “national home for the Jewish people”, the United Kingdom submitted a letter to the U.N. requesting the Secretary General “to place the question of Palestine on the Agenda of the General Assembly at its next regular Annual Session”, and requesting the Assembly “to make recommendations, under Article 10 of the Charter, concerning the future government of Palestine.” To that end, on May 15, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 106, which established the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to investigate “the question of Palestine”, to “prepare a report to the General Assembly” based upon its findings, and to “submit such proposals as it may consider appropriate for the solution of the problem of Palestine”.
On September 3, UNSCOP issued its report to the General Assembly declaring its majority recommendation that Palestine be partitioned into separate Jewish and Arab states. It noted that the population of Palestine at the end of 1946 was estimated to be almost 1,846,000, with 1,203,000 Arabs (65 percent) and 608,000 Jews (33 percent). Growth of the Jewish population had been mainly the result of immigration, while growth of the Arab population had been “almost entirely” due to natural increase. It observed that there was “no clear territorial separation of Jews and Arabs by large contiguous areas”, and even in the Jaffa district, which included Tel Aviv, Arabs constituted a majority. Land ownership statistics from 1945 showed that Arabs owned more land than Jews in every single district in Palestine. The district with the highest percentage of Jewish ownership was Jaffa, where 39 percent of the land was owned by Jews, compared to 47 percent owned by Arabs. In the whole of Palestine at the time UNSCOP issued its report, Arabs owned 85 percent of the land, while Jews owned less than 7 percent.
Despite these facts, the UNSCOP proposal was that the Arab state be constituted from only 45.5 percent of the whole of Palestine, while the Jews would be awarded 55.5 percent of the total area for their state. The UNSCOP report acknowledged that
With regard to the principle of self-determination, although international recognition was extended to this principle at the end of the First World War and it was adhered to with regard to the other Arab territories, at the time of the creation of the ‘A’ Mandates, it was not applied to Palestine, obviously because of the intention to make possible the creation of the Jewish National Home there. Actually, it may well be said that the Jewish National Home and the sui generis Mandate for Palestine run counter to that principle.
In other words, the report explicitly recognized that the denial of Palestinian independence in order to pursue the goal of establishing a Jewish state constituted a rejection of the right of the Arab majority to self-determination. And yet, despite this recognition, UNSCOP had accepted this rejection of Arab rights as being within the bounds of a legitimate and reasonable framework for a solution.
Following the issuance of the UNSCOP report, the U.K. issued a statement declaring its agreement with the report’s recommendations, but adding that “if the Assembly should recommend a policy which is not acceptable to both Jews and Arabs, the United Kingdom Government would not feel able to implement it.” The position of the Arabs had been clear from the beginning, but the Arab Higher Committee issued a statement on September 29 reiterating that “the Arabs of Palestine were determined to oppose with all the means at their disposal, any scheme that provided for segregation or partition, or that would give to a minority special and preferential status”. It instead
advocated freedom and independence for an Arab State in the whole of Palestine which would respect human rights, fundamental freedoms and equality of all persons before the law, and would protect the legitimate rights and interests of all minorities whilst guaranteeing freedom of worship and access to the Holy Places.
The U.K. followed with a statement reiterating “that His Majesty’s Government could not play a major part in the implementation of a scheme that was not acceptable to both Arabs and Jews”, but adding “that they would, however, not wish to impede the implementation of a recommendation approved by the General Assembly.”
The Ad Hoc Committee on the Palestinian Question was established by the General Assembly shortly after the issuance of the UNSCOP report in order to continue to study the problem and make recommendations. A sub-committee was established in turn that was tasked with examining the legal issues pertaining to the situation in Palestine, and it released the report of its findings on November 11. It observed that the UNSCOP report had accepted a basic premise “that the claims to Palestine of the Arabs and Jews both possess validity”, which was “not supported by any cogent reasons and is demonstrably against the weight of all available evidence.” With an end to the Mandate and with British withdrawal, “there is no further obstacle to the conversion of Palestine into an independent state”, which “would be the logical culmination of the objectives of the Mandate” and the Covenant of the League of Nations. It found that “the General Assembly is not competent to recommend, still less to enforce, any solution other than the recognition of the independence of Palestine, and that the settlement of the future government of Palestine is a matter solely for the people of Palestine.” It concluded that “no further discussion of the Palestine problem seems to be necessary or appropriate, and this item should be struck off the agenda of the General Assembly”, but that if there was a dispute on that point, “it would be essential to obtain the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on this issue”, as had already been requested by several of the Arab states. It concluded further that the partition plan was “contrary to the principles of the Charter, and the United Nations have no power to give effect to it.” The U.N. could not deprive the majority of the people of Palestine of their territory and transfer it to the exclusive use of a minority in the country…. The United Nations Organization has no power to create a new State. Such a decision can only be taken by the free will of the people of the territories in question. That condition is not fulfilled in the case of the majority proposal, as it involves the establishment of a Jewish State in complete disregard of the wishes and interests of the Arabs of Palestine.