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Volume XLIV, No.47

Contemporary Relevance of India’s Position in Unscop

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by Sujata Ashwarya Cheema



There is a discussion in several political and intellectual circles that a permanent solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which is the source of instability in much of West Asia, must move away from the paradigm of a two-state solution to a new thinking based on several other possibilities such as religious, liberal, consociational, and post-nationalist lines. In the context of today’s realpolitik, the Palestinian Question is caught in the maelstrom of the US-Israeli conception of Palestinian statehood. A Palestinian state, from this perspective, is seen as a solution to the entire Palestine question superseding or even erasing the ‘final status’ issues agreed to at Oslo. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and moves to separate itself from the densely populated areas of the West Bank is based on the flawed assumption that all the problems would be solved with Palestinian ‘statehood’ thereby reducing the Palestine problem to a series of technical and procedural issues. There is no longer any debate about the need for justice or even fairness for the Palestinians by complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, dismantling the colonisation project of the West Bank, or compensating the refugees for their dispossession and exile.

In this context, it is worthwhile to take a look at the possibility of the Palestinian-Israeli ‘coexistence’, which was put forward by India to the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1947, as a workable solution to the conflict. Coexistence in the form of autonomous federated units, a plan proposed by India along with Iran and Yugoslavia, remains workable even today. It takes care of the contentious issues of the return of refugees and the status of Jerusalem and appears to have contemporary relevance taking into consideration the “enclavisation” of the West Bank through settlements and the separation wall, which have shattered the spatial basis of a two-state solution.

British Mandate, UNSCOP Proposals and India’s Position

In early 1947 the British announced their intention to abandon the Mandate, and turn the question of the future of Palestine over to the United Nations. At Great Britain’s insistence, the United Nations considered the Palestine question. The General Assembly decided to set up the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) to investigate the cause of the conflict in Palestine, and, if possible, devise a solution. The UNSCOP, composed of representatives of eleven nations, visited Palestine and heard testimony from the Zionists in Palestine and in the US and took evidence. They were given a ready-made partition programme by the well-prepared Zionist representatives, while the Palestinian and other side failed to prepare any coherent alternative. Despite this, the Palestinians’ consensual rejection of partition was fully known to the UNSCOP. The strong Palestinian objection prevented a unanimous decision on partition but it was not strong enough to avert a majority one (achieved to a certain extent by American and Russian pressure). The Arab Higher Committee boycotted the Commmission but demanded that the UN immediately grant Palestine its independence.

All eleven members of the UNSCOP agreed on termination of the Mandate (a foregone conclusion given the position of the UK after the War), independence for Palestine for a transition period under UN supervision, preservation of the Holy Places, minority rights, economic union and an appeal to both parties to eschew violence. The majority plan (in favour of partition), the minority plan (in favour of a federal state plan), and a possible conciliation between the two, were all considered by the UN. The Plan of Partition with Economic Union was supported by seven members of the Commission (Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, The Netherlands, Peru, Sweden and Uruguay) and came to be known as the Majority Plan. It envisaged the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and the other Jewish, with the internalisation of Jerusalem under UN jurisdiction.

The Federal State Plan was supported by three members (India, Iran and Yugoslavia) and came to be known as the Minority Plan. This plan called for an independent state of Palestine comprising an Arab state and a Jewish state, with Jerusalem as their capital. The federal state would have a federal government, and governments of Arab and Jewish states. Full authority would be vested in the federal government with regard to national defence, foreign relations, immigration, currency, taxation for federal purposes, and transport and communications. The Arab and Jewish states would enjoy full powers of local self-government and would have authority over education, taxation for local purposes, the right of residence, inter-state migration, settlement, police, punishment of crime, social institutions and services, public housing, public health, local roads, agriculture, and local industries.

The organs of government would include a head of state, an executive body, a representative federal legislative body composed of two chambers, and a federal court. The executive would be responsible to the legislative body. Election to one chamber of the federal legislative body would be on the basis of proportional representation of the population as a whole, and to the other on the basis of equal representation of the Arab and Jewish citizens of Palestine. Legislation would be enacted when approved by majority votes in both chambers; in the event of disagreement between the two chambers, the issue would be submitted to an arbitral body of five members including not less than two Arabs and two Jews. The federal court would be the final court of appeal regarding constitutional matters. Its members, who would include not less than four Arabs and three Jews, would be elected by both chambers of the federal legislative body.

The Constitution was to guarantee equal rights for all minorities and fundamental human rights and freedoms. It would guarantee, inter alia, free access to the Holy Places and protect religious interests. The Constitution would provide for an undertaking to settle international disputes by peaceful means. There would be a single Palestinian nationality and citizenship. The Constitution would provide for equitable participation of representatives of both communities in delegations to international conferences. A permanent international body was to be set up for the supervision and protection of the Holy Places, to be composed of three representatives designated by the United Nations and one representative of each of the recognised faiths having an interest in the matter, as might be determined by the United Nations.
For a period of three years from the beginning of the transitional period Jewish immigration would be permitted into the Jewish state in such numbers as not to exceed its absorptive capacity, and having due regard for the rights of the existing population within the state and their anticipated natural rate of increase. An International Commission, composed of three Arab, three Jewish and three United Nations representatives, would be appointed to estimate the absorptive capacity of the Jewish state. The exact boundaries could be determined taking into account the current realities.

The Indian representative felt that with partition Jewish-Arab cooperation would be unlikely and there would be a constant danger of war. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who led the Indian delegation to the UN, explained India’s stand to the ad hoc committee in October 1947. She asserted that Palestine was primarily an Arab country, and this fact should not be altered to the disadvantage of the majority population. However, seven members endorsed a ‘partition plan’ favoured by the Zionists, while three ‘dissenting’ members endorsed a federal state. No members endorsed the unitary Arab state recommended by the Arab Higher Committee. This process ultimately led to the UN General Assembly vote for the partition of Palestine on November 29, 1947.

To begin with, India regarded the Palestinian problem as a colonial question and considered the elimination of colonialism, in terms of the termination of the British Mandate and establishment of an independent state of Palestine. India’s position here was primarily anti-colonial and directed against the British policy of ‘divide and rule’, that is, exploitation of Arab-Jewish differences to perpetuate the domination of Palestine. In this phase, India viewed the Palestine question in the light of its own colonial experiences. In an expression of solidarity, the Congress Working Committee sent its greetings to the Palestinian Arabs and observed September 27, 1936 as the Palestine Day.

India’s perception of the Arab-Jewish problem in Palestine registered a shift with the large-scale migration of Jews from Eastern and Central Europe to Palestine, between 1935 and 1947, primarily owing to Nazi persecution. While India deeply sympathised with the sufferings of the Jews, it was opposed to a separate state for the Jews in Palestine on two grounds. First, it regarded any state exclusively based on religion as untenable. The foundations of a secular India are laid on this principle. Secondly, it considered a remote historical connection with the area as an insufficient ground for the creation of a separate Jewish state in Palestine. Here it supported the Minority Plan, which envisaged a single Palestinian state based on federal principles.

Contemporary Relevance of India’s Position

At the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the question of who has the proper claim to the land known through history as Canaan, Israel, Judea, Palestine, and the Holy Land. With respect to the possession of Israel-Palestine, according to Frank Epp, the Arabs identify with the Canaanites and base their claim to the land partly on this association, as descendants of the earliest recorded inhabitants. Palestinian peasants under Turkish rule perceived the ownership of their lands to be based on a long-standing possession and cultivation.

The Israeli-Jewish moral claim to the territory of Palestine derives from the historic Hebrew occupation of the land. The “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel”, enacted in 1948, begins: “Eretz Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people.” To Israelis, this moral claim was given international recognition when the League of Nations awarded Great Britain a Mandate in Palestine whose purpose included “a national home for the Jewish people”, so long as it did not “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Some may claim that the Israelites lost title when they were slaves in Egypt, but Genesis 47: 13-20 relates that while Israelites were in Egypt, before they were enslaved, there was a famine in Egypt and Canaan. The Canaanites first bought food from Joseph on behalf of the Pharaoh, and when the money was gone, they sold their animals, and when the famine continued, they sold their land, and thus lost the title.

There is, therefore, an ancient as well as historical basis for the possessor claims of both the Israeli Jews and the Palestinian Arabs. These contradictory claims over the land were sought to be resolved in the UNSCOP by considering the three options: unitary state, partition, and confederation.
In 1988, a study by the Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies examined these options for dealing with the Occupied or Disputed Territories and came to the conclusion that a ‘confederate’ would best satisfy the aspirations of the two peoples. The study argues that the first intifada showed that a centralised unitary state with authority over the entire territory and people with conflicting claims to that territory was unanimously rejected. As a consequence of this Arab uprising, the major political parties of Israel abandoned attempts to govern the whole territory, and turned to partition, with Palestine demilitarised for an interim period.

The study says that a two-state partition still would not satisfy the territorial aspirations of either side. The Israeli settlers in the occupied territories [now only the West Bank] would not leave without a fierce fight. Also, many Arabs within the pre-1967 borders would not prefer to live permanently in a Jewish state, with de facto discrimination by a state partial to Jews, even if the state nominally endows Arabs with political equality. There is also a question of the economic viability of a Palestinian state. Since 1967, the economies of the West Bank and Gaza have become integrated with Israel, due to factors such as daily labour movement to and from Israel, though with continuing violence, some movement in the opposite direction has occurred. The West Bank requires access to Gaza. Disputes over the use of water would require cooperative agreements. Conflicts that resulted in barriers to trade would cause economic havoc. Thus we see the development of social and economic ‘structural dependency’ between Israel and the Palestinian regions.

The two-state solution has already lost a great deal of its historic appeal, given the lack of meaningful territorial gains for the Palestinians and progress on the crucial question of the return of refugees, under the now failed Oslo Accords of 1993. The two-state solution for the resolution of contending claims over land has also been questioned by political geographers, who argue that the separation wall being built by Israel to secure its settlements built deep into the West Bank and to draw up a unilateral border, dismembers the territory into a chain of enclaves, shattering the spatial contiguity of the territory and the viability of a two-state solution. Both the political dead-ends of the Oslo process as well as greater economic integration and changes in political geography of the region make it worthwhile to explore the third method of coexistence, proffered by the study mentioned above. The states within a confederation, could offer the benefits of unity without the danger of domination, a position India had asserted in the UNSCOP.

As the American social philosopher and economist Henry George wrote, “Warfare is the negation of association.” Perhaps the reverse is true as well: association is the negation of warfare. A Confederate association would not interfere in the internal activities of the states, being charged only with defence, external affairs, and administration of Jerusalem and represented by the constituent states. Each of the states, Israel and Palestine, would govern its domestic affairs as it saw fit. This idea of a confederation based on the principle of ‘One Land for Two Peoples’ would not only solve the problem of self-determination of both peoples, but also the issues of refugees, Jerusalem, and security. It does this while preserving the Jewish and Arab character of the respective states. However, the question of military withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and the dismantling of colonial settlements diminish support for the Confederation on the Israeli side. Giving up struggle against these two issues could limit support for a Confederation on the Palestinian side.

One criticism of the Confederate solution to the conflict is that it does not offer a programmatic position but is simply the expression of a desired outcome: an ideal, not a plan. While it now has the status of a ‘utopian’ political proposal, talking about federal coexistence in practical terms may force people to confront more seriously the limits of alternative approaches, and their own denial about those limits. Everyone agrees that the circumstances are now disastrous. Moreover, there is considerable pressure, in the wake of the September 11, 2001 events and increasing incidence of political violence in the region, to find a solution to the conflict, and much disquiet, not all of it publicly expressed, about the two-state solution. If Confederation is a desirable outcome, as even its critics sometimes acknowledge, then it may have some chance of crystallising opinion and emerging as a serious alternative.

Such as decentralist solution certainly would not look like the de facto ‘Bantustans’ that the Israeli Government has been trying to create in the Occupied Territories since the Oslo accords. The official Palestinian position is that Palestinians are willing to accept a coexistence with Israel if it retreats to its June 4, 1967 borders—a demand long made even by the United Nations (Resolution 242)—and recognises the right of return. Israel refuses to give up the territory and recognise the right of return—which would soon turn Israel into a majority Arab state—and continues retaliation in ‘self-defence’ of these confiscated lands. Perhaps only a transcendent political solution like one or more confederations, arrived at through non-violent negotiation, can resolve this conflict—a proposal that India along with two other countries had advocated in course of the UNSCOP debates.

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