UN archives reveal plan to arm Jewish militia
It was November 29, 1947. The United Nations General Assembly had just passed Resolution 181 - the Partition Plan, according to which the British Mandate was to be divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Civil war broke out between the Jewish and the Palestinian residents, particularly in the mixed cities and on the roads. The UN faced a difficult problem: how to implement the partition resolution together with the economic union of the two states, as specified by the resolution. The UN Secretariat created a Special Committee to deal with what was seen as the first major challenge of the young body.
Dr. Elad Ben-Dror, a historian at Bar-Ilan University, has been studying UN diplomacy after the Partition Plan, at the University Institute for Diplomacy and Regional Cooperation of Tel Aviv University. Last year, he sat in the UN archives and read recently-declassified documents relating to the work of the Special Committee. He made an interesting discovery: The UN had planned to implement the Partition Plan by means of a Jewish militia, trained by the UN and armed, also by the UN, with weapons, combat aircraft and tankettes.
"The plan to establish a militia was the most surprising material I found at the UN," Ben-Dror says. "As part of the Partition Plan, both states were to create militias - a military force under government control and charged mainly with domestic policing duties."
But because the Palestinian leadership viewed Resolution 181 as a pro-Zionist plan and did everything possible to foil it, the UN focused only on establishing the Jewish militia.
"From quite an early stage, due to a lack of cooperation, the UN dropped half of the Partition Plan - the idea of establishing an Arab state," Ben-Dror explained.
"The idea was to implement at least part of the plan - that is, the Jews would create the Jewish state, on the assumption that eventually the UN Security Council would implement the creation of the Arab state," Ben-Dror continued. "As soon as the Partition Plan was adopted, UN Secretary General Trygve Lie and senior UN officials became identified with the idea of the Jewish state. The Arab assault was interpreted as an assault on the UN resolutions, and the UN trusted that the Jews would carry out the partition and not do anything beyond that."
According to the plan, the main role of the Jewish militia was to impose the authority of the Jewish state over its Arab residents; under the partition map, the Arab population within the Jewish state was nearly the same as the Jewish population. The militia command was to be supervised by the UN, which would also appoints its commanders. In practice, however, the Special Committee intended to base the Jewish militia on the Haganah [the pre-state underground Jewish militia].
"It was clear to them that there was no need to create an army out of thin air, and that they could rely on the Haganah," Ben-Dror said. "All that was left to do was to give the UN seal of approval to the Haganah and to provide arms. Among others, there was the question of how to control the Negev Bedouin, who would oppose being under Jewish sovereignty. So they planned to supply the militia with combat aircraft, using British military techniques. At that stage, they didn't think the militias would engage each other."
The story of the Special Committee, in particular its failure to implement the plan created by UN diplomats, is similar to that of many other plans in the following decades that remained on paper only. Ben-Dror attributes the failure of the Partition Plan primarily to opposition from the Palestinians and the Arab states as well as lack of cooperation from Britain.
"The UN resolution spoke of two independent, sovereign states, but with an economic union and common transportation, taxation and currency systems," Ben-Dror explains. "But the Arab Higher Committee, headed by Haj Amin al-Husseini, refused to cooperate with the partition. And so, the Special Committee was given a plan that looked good on paper but had no military backup and was thus impossible to implement. Even before the committee managed to convene to discuss the issue, it turned out that war had broken out. It dispatched a fact-finding delegation, with an economist from India, but when he arrived, he was unable to leave the King David Hotel in Jerusalem."
The borders of the State of Israel were eventually determined by the balance of forces on the ground. "[David] Ben-Gurion wrote to [Moshe] Sharett that he didn't care about resolutions from Downing Street or the UN - what mattered was how many weapons he had," Ben-Dror says. "In March 1948, the Haganah decided to conquer all of the territories allocated for the Jewish state. On May 15, Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of Israel and obtained de facto recognition from the U.S. and other states. As a result, the UN committee was dissolved. In the end, the Jews established a state on their own."
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