December 1, 1998 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 7

The Independent Palestinian State and the Partition Resolution of 1947

December 1, 1998 | By Y. Feldner*
Syria, Palestine, Iran, Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 7

Since the signing of the Wye Agreement, the Palestinian media has, on an almost daily basis, been citing statements by senior Palestinian figures, some implicit and some explicit, that the Final Settlement should be modeled - in some way - on the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 181, the Partition Resolution of 1947. The Oslo process is being conducted under UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 242, which states that Israel should withdraw from territories occupied in the 1967 war. But this resolution no longer seems to meet Palestinian aspirations and political goals, as senior Palestinian officials begin to question the validity of Resolution 242 as the source of authority to the next stages of the peace process.

While the Israeli public believes that the peace process would be limited to territories occupied in 1967, some Palestinian leaders go beyond this. By focusing on Resolution 181, the Palestinians are challenging the 1967 Demarcation Line, relying on the same Partition Resolution that they claim gave Israel its international legitimacy.[1] The fact that, for the Israeli public, even discussing these borders is inconceivable, does not dampen the Palestinians' belief in the political realism of their aspirations.

The precursor of the above mentioned Palestinian political move is Zakariya Al-Agha, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, who now draws on the Partition Resolution as the source of authority for a future settlement. Al-Agha stated that the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, after the expiration of the Interim Period in May 1999, was supported by "the Resolutions of international legitimacy, particularly the UN General Assembly Resolution of Partition 181."[2] He added that Israel's existence would continue to be illegitimate, "until an independent Palestinian state is declared on the land that was occupied in 1967."[3]

In a speech at the Gaza Teachers College, Al-Agha stated that the expected May 4, 1999 unilateral declaration of Palestinian sovereignty over the territories occupied in 1967 was winning wide international support, "despite [our] demand that [sovereignty] be declared over the 1947 lands."[4] On another occasion, Al-Agha again stated that Resolution 181 "reaffirms [the right of] the Palestinian people to establish an independent state with full sovereignty."[5] Member of the PLO Executive Committee Taysir Khaled joined this trend, when he recalled that the 1988 Declaration of Palestinian Independence "derived from UN Resolution 181."[6]

The Fatah Secretary-General in the West Bank, Marwan Al-Barghouti, stated, "[We] must revise the source of authority for the negotiations before the Final Settlement,"[7] adding that a source of authority for the Final Settlement should be enacted in a new Palestinian Charter. In addition, the 19th Plenum of the Fatah Revolutionary Council [FRC] held a discussion under the heading "Recent Developments in the UN." In its concluding statement, the FRC stressed that all UN Resolutions pertaining to the "international legitimacy," which accept the Palestinian declaration of statehood, should be adhered to.[8]

These repeated statements are not accidental; they are made by people at the core of the PA's ideology and decision making. Yaser Arafat himself concurred in a speech to the Parliament of New South Wales in Australia, which held a ceremony marking the 10th Anniversary of the Palestinian Declaration of Independence. In the speech, read by the Palestinian ambassador to Australia, 'Ali Al-Qazaq, he expressed his "willingness to set up an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, based on the spirit of UN Resolution 181, ruling that Mandatory Palestine should be divided into two states, a Palestinian one[9] and a Jewish one."[10]

Is the Partition Resolution cited as a matter of principle only, or does it aspire to the Demarcation Line it had set out?

In most cases, Palestinian officials refer to the Arab state mentioned by the Partition Resolution, while obscuring the question of its specific borders as set in the resolution. Thus, Arafat speaks of "the spirit" of the Partition Resolution, and Zakariya Al-Agha - though conceding that the borders of the future Palestinian state will be the territories occupied in 1967 - also refers only vaguely to a Palestinian demand for the 1947 borders.[11] Jihad Timraz, a political commentator in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds, wrote that the Palestinian state would be established "in accordance with Resolution 181 as a source of authority, but with lesser borders than the ones granted by that Partition Resolution."[12]

On the other hand, there are explicit demands for the actual Partition Resolution demarcation line. "Our Position," the bi-weekly mouthpiece of Fatah has declared on behalf of its movement: "the Palestinian state we call for - a state over the territories that were recognized as internationally legitimate in the UN Resolutions 181, 242, 338 and the principle of land for peace - is [a state for all] Palestinians wherever they may be."[13]

The Timing of the Palestinian Demands Regarding Resolution 181

Why have the Palestinians started to invoke the Partition Resolution now? First, their intention of declaring statehood on May 4, 1999 poses to them the question of what should be the borders of this state. Having to address this essential question, they have chosen to bring up the borders of the Partition Resolution. Since their declaration will not meet Israel's approval, Palestinians are focusing their efforts on gaining international support that will compel Israel to accept their Declaration of Independence. Therefore, they view the Partition Resolution, passed in 1947 in the UN General Assembly, which signified to them the international legitimacy of Israel's creation, as an effective political vehicle for their declaration.

Secondly, raising this far-reaching demand serves them tactically and strategically. The Palestinians see their engagement in the peace process that is based on UN Resolution 242 as a major concession. They maintain that by doing so they "forfeited half of Historic Palestine." In exchange for this "major concession," embraced even before final settlement negotiations started, the Palestinians lay far-reaching claims to all the other major issues left for the Final Settlement. If, as the Palestinians forecast, their demands are not met by Israel, they will at least insist on their demand of the 1947 demarcation line.


The Israeli public is engrossed in a debate on how Israel should react if, on May 4 1999, Arafat declares a Palestinian state comprising the West bank and the Gaza Strip as well as East Jerusalem. In the meantime, the PLO has already launched diplomatic activities, laying the groundwork for a unilateral declaration of statehood based on the Partition Resolution.

No distinction should be made between the principle of Palestinian sovereignty, and the actual demarcation line designed in it. The principle of partitioned sovereignty and the demarcation of borders both appear in Article A3 of the first section in Partition Resolution 181. Therefore, they are, interdependent. If the UN endorses Palestinian sovereignty based on the Partition Resolution, Palestinians will be able to demand readjustment of the demarcation in the future accordingly. Moreover, by shifting the underlying basis for Israel's right to exist from the League of Nations 1921 Mandate, in which there is no mention of a Palestinian Arab state, to UNGA Resolution 181, Al-Agha's statement might well represent an attempt to redefine Israel's legitimacy as contingent on the creation of Palestinian state.

On May 4, 1999, Arafat will probably declare an independent Palestinian state. He is likely to include Resolution 181 as a source of authority. Even if he chooses an indirect approach by just adding the 1988 Declaration of Independence to the new one planned for May 1999 - it would still mean that the Partition Resolution was added as a source of authority because Resolution 181 had originally appeared in the same 1988 Declaration.

*Yotam Feldner is MEMRI's Director of Media Analysis.

[1] In fact, Israel's legitimacy derives from the 1921 League of Nations Mandate, which carries the weight of international law, not UNGA 181, which as a General Assembly Resolution does not.

[2] UN Resolution 181, also known as the Partition Resolution, called for halving the British Mandate over Palestine into two roughly equally sized independent states – Arab and Jewish.

[3] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 18, 1998.

[4] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 13, 1998.

[5] Al-Quds, November 19, 1998.

[6] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 17, 1998.

[7] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 11, 1998.

[8] Al-Ayyam, November 25, 1998 (obviously including UN Resolution 181.)

[9] The original Resolution refers to an "Arab state."

[10] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 18, 1998. Leaders in New South Wales promptly concurred with Arafat. Premier Bob Kerr, and Senate Speaker Virginia Shadwick expressed their "support for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, as defined by the international community through UN Resolution 181 of 1947 on the partitioning of Palestine."[10] The Australian parliamentarians have gone one step farther: while Arafat spoke of "the spirit of the Partition Resolution," the hosts referred to Resolution 181 per se. Australia was one of the countries to vote in favor of the Partition Resolution of 1947 in the UN.

[11] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 18, 1998.

[12] Al-Quds, November 11, 1998.

[13] 'Our Position,' Fatah communique, published in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, November 17, 1998.

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