The Map: The Story of Palestinian Nationhood Thwarted After the League of Nations Recognized It

On March 10, I posted on the humiliation heaped on Vice President Joe Biden by the Israeli government of far-right Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. Biden went to Israel intending to help kick off indirect negotiations between Netanyahu and Palestine Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Biden had no sooner arrived than the Israelis announced that they would build 1600 new households on Palestinian territory that they had unilaterally annexed to Jerusalem. Since expanding Israeli colonization of Palestinian land had been the sticking point causing Abbas to refuse to engage in negotiations, and, indeed, to threaten to resign, this step was sure to scuttle the very talks Biden had come to inaugurate. And it did.

The tiff between the US and Israel is less important than the worrisome growth of tension between Palestinians and Israelis as the Israelis have claimed more and more sites sacred to the Palestinians as well. There is talk of a third Intifada or Palestinian uprising.

As part of my original posting, I mirrored a map of modern Palestinian history that has the virtue of showing graphically what has happened to the Palestinians politically and territorially in the past century.

Andrew Sullivan then mirrored the map from my site, which set off a lot of thunder and noise among anti-Palestinian writers like Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, but shed very little light. (PS, the map as a hard copy mapcard is available from Sabeel.)

The map is useful and accurate. It begins by showing the British Mandate of Palestine as of the mid-1920s. The British conquered the Ottoman districts that came to be the Mandate during World War I (the Ottoman sultan threw in with Austria and Germany against Britain, France and Russia, mainly out of fear of Russia).

But because of the rise of the League of Nations and the influence of President Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about self-determination, Britain and France could not decently simply make their new, previously Ottoman territories into mere colonies. The League of Nations awarded them “Mandates.” Britain got Palestine, France got Syria (which it made into Syria and Lebanon), Britain got Iraq.

The League of Nations Covenant spelled out what a Class A Mandate (i.e. territory that had been Ottoman) was:

“Article 22. Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognised subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory [i.e., a Western power] until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.”

That is, the purpose of the later British Mandate of Palestine, of the French Mandate of Syria, of the British Mandate of Iraq, was to ‘render administrative advice and assistance” to these peoples in preparation for their becoming independent states, an achievement that they were recognized as not far from attaining. The Covenant was written before the actual Mandates were established, but Palestine was a Class A Mandate and so the language of the Covenant was applicable to it. The territory that formed the British Mandate of Iraq was the same territory that became independent Iraq, and the same could have been expected of the British Mandate of Palestine. (Even class B Mandates like Togo have become nation-states, but the poor Palestinians are just stateless prisoners in colonial cantons).

The first map thus shows what the League of Nations imagined would become the state of Palestine. The economist published an odd assertion that the Negev Desert was ’empty’ and should not have been shown in the first map. But it wasn’t and isn’t empty; Palestinian Bedouin live there, and they and the desert were recognized by the League of Nations as belonging to the Mandate of Palestine, a state-in-training. The Mandate of Palestine also had a charge to allow for the establishment of a ‘homeland’ in Palestine for Jews (because of the 1917 Balfour Declaration), but nobody among League of Nations officialdom at that time imagined it would be a whole and competing territorial state. There was no prospect of more than a few tens of thousands of Jews settling in Palestine, as of the mid-1920s. (They are shown in white on the first map, refuting those who mysteriously complained that the maps alternated between showing sovereignty and showing population). As late as the 1939 British White Paper, British officials imagined that the Mandate would emerge as an independent Palestinian state within 10 years.

In 1851, there had been 327,000 Palestinians (yes, the word ‘Filistin’ was current then) and other non-Jews, and only 13,000 Jews. In 1925, after decades of determined Jewish immigration, there were a little over 100,000 Jews, and there were 765,000 mostly Palestinian non-Jews in the British Mandate of Palestine. For historical demography of this area, see Justin McCarthy’s painstaking calculations; it is not true, as sometimes is claimed, that we cannot know anything about population figures in this region. See also his journal article, reprinted at this site. The Palestinian population grew because of rapid population growth, not in-migration, which was minor. The common allegation that Jerusalem had a Jewish majority at some point in the 19th century is meaningless. Jerusalem was a small town in 1851, and many pious or indigent elderly Jews from Eastern Europe and elsewhere retired there because of charities that would support them. In 1851, Jews were only about 4% of the population of the territory that became the British Mandate of Palestine some 70 years later. And, there had been few adherents of Judaism, just a few thousand, from the time most Jews in Palestine adopted Christianity and Islam in the first millennium CE all the way until the 20th century. In the British Mandate of Palestine, the district of Jerusalem was largely Palestinian.

The rise of the Nazis in the 1930s impelled massive Jewish emigration to Palestine, so by 1940 there were over 400,000 Jews there amid over a million Palestinians.

The second map shows the United Nations partition plan of 1947, which awarded Jews (who only then owned about 6% of Palestinian land) a substantial state alongside a much reduced Palestine. Although apologists for the Zionist movement say that the Zionists accepted this partition plan and the Arabs rejected it, that is not entirely true. Zionist leader David Ben Gurion noted in his diary when Israel was established that when the US had been formed, no document set out its territorial extent, implying that the same was true of Israel. We know that Ben Gurion was an Israeli expansionist who fully intended to annex more land to Israel, and by 1956 he attempted to add the Sinai and would have liked southern Lebanon. So the Zionist “acceptance” of the UN partition plan did not mean very much beyond a happiness that their initial starting point was much better than their actual land ownership had given them any right to expect.

The third map shows the status quo after the Israeli-Palestinian civil war of 1947-1948. It is not true that the entire Arab League attacked the Jewish community in Palestine or later Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. As Avi Shlaim has shown, Jordan had made an understanding with the Zionist leadership that it would grab the West Bank, and its troops did not mount a campaign in the territory awarded to Israel by the UN. Egypt grabbed Gaza and then tried to grab the Negev Desert, with a few thousand badly trained and equipped troops, but was defeated by the nascent Israeli army. Few other Arab states sent any significant number of troops. The total number of troops on the Arab side actually on the ground was about equal to those of the Zionist forces, and the Zionists had more esprit de corps and better weaponry.

The final map shows the situation today, which springs from the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 and then the decision of the Israelis to colonize the West Bank intensively (a process that is illegal in the law of war concerning occupied populations).

There is nothing inaccurate about the maps at all, historically. Goldberg maintained that the Palestinians’ ‘original sin’ was rejecting the 1947 UN partition plan. But since Ben Gurion and other expansionists went on to grab more territory later in history, it is not clear that the Palestinians could have avoided being occupied even if they had given away willingly so much of their country in 1947. The first original sin was the contradictory and feckless pledge by the British to sponsor Jewish immigration into their Mandate in Palestine, which they wickedly and fantastically promised would never inconvenience the Palestinians in any way. It was the same kind of original sin as the French policy of sponsoring a million colons in French Algeria, or the French attempt to create a Christian-dominated Lebanon where the Christians would be privileged by French policy. The second original sin was the refusal of the United States to allow Jews to immigrate in the 1930s and early 1940s, which forced them to go to Palestine to escape the monstrous, mass-murdering Nazis.

The map attracted so much ire and controversy not because it is inaccurate but because it clearly shows what has been done to the Palestinians, which the League of Nations had recognized as not far from achieving statehood in its Covenant. Their statehood and their territory has been taken from them, and they have been left stateless, without citizenship and therefore without basic civil and human rights. The map makes it easy to see this process. The map had to be stigmatized and made taboo. But even if that marginalization of an image could be accomplished, the squalid reality of Palestinian statelessness would remain, and the children of Gaza would still be being malnourished by the deliberate Israeli policy of blockading civilians. The map just points to a powerful reality; banishing the map does not change that reality.

Goldberg, according to Spencer Ackerman, says that he will stop replying to Andrew Sullivan, for which Ackerman is grateful, since, he implies, Goldberg is a propagandistic hack who loves to promote wars on flimsy pretenses. Matthew Yglesias also has some fun at Goldberg’s expense.

People like Goldberg never tell us what they expect to happen to the Palestinians in the near and medium future. They don’t seem to understand that the status quo is untenable. They are like militant ostriches, hiding their heads in the sand while lashing out with their hind talons at anyone who stares clear-eyed at the problem, characterizing us as bigots. As if that old calumny has any purchase for anyone who knows something serious about the actual views of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, more bigoted persons than whom would be difficult to find. Indeed, some of Israel’s current problems with Brazil come out of Lieberman’s visit there last summer; I was in Rio then and remember the distaste with which the multi-cultural, multi-racial Brazilians viewed Lieberman, whom some openly called a racist.

End/ (Not Continued)

Posted in Uncategorized | 28 Responses | Print |

28 Responses

  1. But whilst everyone is talking, reviewing history, Israel is creating more and more facts on the ground.

    The intention is that the Palestinians will de-camp and move on to live in friendly Arab states with lots of space eg Saudi, Qatar, UAE etc.

    And who's to say these tactics won't work? The Arab leaders keep saying of the current situation – "This proves the Israelis are not interested in peace talks!" Well, indeed, and so…?

    I am surprised that the Israelis are being so flagrant in dismissing peace talks – I would have expected them to send delegates to keep talking (whilst facts on the ground keep accrueing), at least to give a fig leaf of cover to those that wish to support them and those that are expected to be seen to oppose them.

  2. Professor Cole,
    Can you please define what you mean by Zionist? Many people disagree passionately over the usage and denotation of this word (and it seems the degree of emotional investment is inversely proportional to the individual's understanding of the history of I/P). Thank you.

    Joe Keesler

  3. Another question I forgot to add is, how has the definition of zionism and zionist changed over time?

    Thank you.

    Joe Keesler

  4. Also re: the 6-day war, this was reported in the Independent in 2007

    "A senior legal official who secretly warned the government of Israel after the Six Day War of 1967 that it would be illegal to build Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories has said, for the first time, that he still believes that he was right.

    "The declaration by Theodor Meron, the Israeli Foreign Ministry's legal adviser at the time and today one of the world's leading international jurists, is a serious blow to Israel's persistent argument that the settlements do not violate international law, particularly as Israel prepares to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the war in June 1967."

  5. That clears up an awful lot of questions I have had.

    Thank you.


  6. An excellent post. I think it's important to note, though, that the UN partition plan did not award the Jews with anything:

    1) UN General Assembly resolution 181 was merely a recommendation resolution. It would have had to have been agreed upon by both parties. It wasn't.

    2) Only Security Council resolutions are considered legally binding. The partition plan never went to the UNSC.

    3) The UN had no more moral or legal authority to take land from the Arabs and give it to the Jews than did the League of Nations or Great Britain.

    I think it's also important to note that the Arab rejection of the proposal was perfectly reasonable:

    1) At the time, Jews owned a mere 7% of the land. Most of the rest was owned outright by Arabs. Arabs owned more land in every single district in Palestine, including Jaffa.

    2) The UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), which drew up the proposal, explicitly rejected the right of the Arab Palestinians to self-determination.

    3) The plan would have awarded (had it been accepted by both sides) a majority of the land of Palestine to its minority inhabitants who owned a mere fraction of the land in that same territory.

    For sources and documentation on these points, see my "The Rejection of Arab Self-Determination" (find it at or

  7. "Rethinking Israel's David-and-Goliath past"
    "At a little after 7 on the morning of June 5, 1967, as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's commanders were finishing their breakfasts and driving to work, French-built Israeli fighter jets roared out of their bases and flew low, below radar, into Egyptian airspace. Within three hours, 500 Israeli sorties had destroyed Nasser's entire air force. Just after midday, the air forces of Jordan and Syria also lay in smoking ruins, and Israel had essentially won the Six-Day War — in six hours.

    "Israeli and U.S. historians and commentators describe the surprise attack as necessary, and the war as inevitable, the result of Nasser's fearsome war machine that had closed the Straits of Tiran, evicted United Nations peacekeeping troops, taunted the traumatized Israeli public, and churned toward the Jewish state's border with 100,000 troops. "The morning of 5 June 1967," wrote Israel's warrior-turned-historian, Chaim Herzog, "found Israel's armed forces facing the massed Arab armies around her frontiers." Attack or be annihilated: The choice was clear.

    "Or was it? Little-noticed details in declassified documents from the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, indicate that top officials in the Johnson administration — including Johnson's most pro-Israeli Cabinet members — did not believe war between Israel and its neighbors was necessary or inevitable, at least until the final hour. In these documents, Israel emerges as a vastly superior military power, its opponents far weaker than the menacing threat Israel portrayed, and war itself something that Nasser, for all his saber-rattling, tried to avoid until the moment his air force went up in smoke. In particular, the diplomatic role of Nasser's vice president, who was poised to travel to Washington in an effort to resolve the crisis, has received little attention from historians. The documents sharpen a recurring theme in the history of the Israeli-Arab wars, and especially of their telling in the West: From the war of 1948 to the 2007 conflict in Gaza, Israel is often miscast as the vulnerable David in a hostile sea of Arab Goliaths."

  8. Prof. Cole — A key statement in your excellent and much appreciated writeup is that in 1946jews "then owned about 6% of Palestinian land". I gather this is based on the maps you included in your earlier post. What is the source of the maps, especially the 1946 one? I'd be interested in knowing also what data it's based on. Thanks — Phil Sollins, Corvallis, OR

  9. It's a sad reflection of the state of I-P discourse in this country that simply documenting what the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine has meant to the preexisting, overwhelmingly non-Jewish, population is considered a controversial act.

  10. You were right. The map is accurate.

    The "special relationship" is not in the interest of the US.

  11. The problem with American Likudniks is that they can't admit, perhaps even to themselves, the logical endpoint of their thinking. Which is alignment with the Kahane/Avidor Lieberman eliminationism.

    Which leads to the same kind of historical revisionism that let the anti-Semites talk of "rootless cosmopolitans" in pre-war years, as if you could just wash away hundreds of years of history of European Jewry.

    I had occasion to read through the Book of Joshua recently and the irony was tragic, change a few terms and you have a recipe for Lebensraum.

    I have given up hope on I-P anything, the Israel we thought we knew in the 60s and 70s, a vibrant, mostly secular and dare I say it multi-ethnic and socialist society seems lost forever. So sad on so many different levels.

  12. How do we get to one state? I think that's the only tenable solution, but I can't figure out the road map.

  13. What do the Israelis think is the final endgame here?

    Clearly, they will annex all the Palestianian territories within Israel and make any discussion of a two-state solution impossible.

    What happens then? You will then have a country (Israel) with a disenfranchised majority (Palestinians). The Israelis do extremely well in the propaganda war pointing to the terrorist actions of Palestinians to justify Israel's action, but sooner or later this is going to wear thin.

    If the Palestinians ever grow a leader like Ghandi, MLK, Mandela, etc then you might see the destruction of Israel (as a Jewish state) through entirely non-violent means. And if that never happens, then you'll just have perpetual terrorism…

    Once the oil runs out, I fully expect to see American antisemitism start to cut against the US support of Israel as well.

    What is the ultimate vision behind Israel's actions, other than hoping that at some point the Palestinians just "go away"?

  14. To Anonymous @9:52:

    I believe the source for the 6% figure is the survey of Palestine carried out by the British authorities in 1944-45 for the UN Special Committee on Palestine. The survey has been scanned and is online here: link to

    A detailed map of land ownership based on the findings of the survey of 1944-45 is available here: link to

  15. The maps are terribly saddening. Palestinians are continually being made more desperate, and the Israeli government wants only more desperation.

  16. By the way, probably too whimsical for the comments thread, but, knowing of your interest in Science Fiction, I wonder if Gaza reminds you of The Dosadi Experiment.

  17. It's very helpful to have an objective visual representation like that map, but simply labeling Israel-controlled territory as 'Israeli' still doesn't convey the blatant illegality of the affair. The map needs to show where Israel's legal borders are, and then show which parts of Palestine are unlawfully occupied – not 'disputed' or some such euphemism, but occupied land that Israel has no legal or historic claim to. That would really help show the ugly truth.

  18. Your map of Palestine in 1946 seems to undermine your claim that:
    "Personally, I see Zionism as just a garden variety form of modern romantic nationalism not different in any way from scores of other nationalisms (including Arab nationalism, Serbian nationalism, and Iranian nationalism)."
    Nationalism does not involve immigrating to a land in order to displace the local inhabitants.

  19. Do you know what we should expect from the Palestinians? That they recognize Israel's right to exist, and then go about their lives in complete peace and harmony in their own state and with East Jerusalem as their capital.

    Simple right? I mean once they get everything they want then Hamas and Fatah will lay down their arms and will never attack Israel ever again? And they won't invite the Iranian army onto their now soverign territory as "military trainers" right?

    It's going to be Ebony and Ivory, side by side on my piano keyboard, isn't it?

    I'll tell you something about this whole argument, and that is the Israeli's would actually like nothing better than to just be left alone to live their lives in peace with their Arab neighbors. Can you guarantee that a Palestinian state wants the same thing?

  20. Given that they will hold the balance of political power in America's future, I wonder how Hispanic Americans view the distorted media narrative of Israel. Your map might remind them of the map of the United States and Mexico from 1835 to 1850.

    However, that swings the other way. When will Jewish Americans' growing dismay at the behavior of their Israeli cousins be affected by the realization that neither Israel or the US can eternally forestall coming under the majority rule of "brown" people? People whose cheap labor is needed to do the growing amount of dirty work that "white" people can't get off the Internet to perform.

  21. the multi-cultural, multi-racial Brazilians


    Read Anthony Marx, "Making Race and Nation". Just because people are "multi-racial" doesn't mean they're not racist. Brazil has a strong and long history of pigmentocracy.

    Not to say that Avigdor Lieberman isn't an insane bigot.

  22. Thanks Prof. Cole for the excellent piece. As back up for the facts conveyed I recommend two works: BEFORE THEIR DIASPORA, by Walid Khalidi, and the British journalist Alan Hart's two volume work, ZIONISM, THE REAL ENEMY OF THE JEWS. It seems clear that the only solution now is a single, pluralistic, democratic secular state, where not only would it be unnecessary for fanatical Jewish settlers to go camp out on and take over Palestinian land, but Palestinians would be free to live in and among the Jews in the coastal cities and lands elsewhere from which they have been evicted by the Zionists, the West, and in particular, the enabler in chief, the United States. How radical is all that?

    Bob in Virginia

  23. The "Mandate for Palestine" does NOT say what Cole claims. See the text here or explications from Wikipedia here or a deeper analysis here.

    And it is not at all clear that the Palestine Mandate was class "A", or any other letter. It seems to be sui generis.

  24. an excellent read! thank you for clearing out my confusion about this whole situation.

  25. Professor Cole, writes "the Zionists had more esprit de corps and better weaponry."

    Or perhaps they had just witnessed the mass extermination of their uncles, mothers, daughters, sons and friends in death camps because of the genocidal hatred and racism of the majority of Germans.

    Faced with the threat from those who would also kill them, perhaps the "Zionists" felt a little more passion in defending themselves so that what happened in Dachau and Auschwitz and Buchenwald would never happen again.

  26. @Metternich, Cole quoted Article 22 not of the Palestine Mandate, but of the charter of the League of Nations, which is applicable to the Palestine Mandate, which, by definition, makes it a "Class A" Mandate.

  27. We could say that the rabidly pro-Israel/Israel-can-do-no-wrong camp are pulling out the big guns, except that they have no big guns in the intellectual sense.

    They do have a legion of vicious bigots enamored of libel and slander — Jeffrey Goldberg, Alan Dershowitz, David Horowitz, Martin Kramer, etc. These are the big rhetorical guns. The big political guns are bigots like Senator Joseph Lieberman. And there are the big media guns — Thomas Friedman, The New York Times and the entire Fox Network.

    (By the way, I do not the term "bigot" lightly. By any reasonable account, the people named above are bigots . . . and worse. Their arguments match very closely the 50s and 60s arguments of those who opposed equal rights for Blacks. In some instances, the pro-Israel rhetoric matches closely that of the Nazis — disturbing and depressing.)

    Another weapon in the arsenal is now the "Lawfare Project," which (put kindly) seeks to oppose the abuse of domestic and international law to abuse freedom loving, democratic wonderlands like Israel.

    Put truthfully, it is a campaign against the growing effort to apply law to the state which leads the world in defying international law — Israel. Even the US has to heed concerns about civilian casualties. Not so Israel, which has the US to cover for whatever atrocity Israel commits. No other nation enjoys this protection. Though states like the US and China enjoy effective immunity, they nevertheless pay some attention to morality for fear that popular opposition may prove consequential in the absence of state opposition. Israel, however, knows that the US will step in no matter what.

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