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October 7, 2011 – By Ronen Bergman
Ronen Bergman is a senior political and military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
Sixty-four years ago, in August 1947, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine presented to the General Assembly a startling and unexpected report, calling for an end to the British Mandate of Palestine and division of most of the territory into two independent states, with the Jewish state occupying the majority of the land. What came next, of course, is well known — a vote in the General Assembly on Nov. 29, 1947, in favor of partition, and the war that immediately followed. The decision is viewed in the Arab world as “the great crime,” and Palestinian leaders, including the current president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, regard it as the original sin that led to the catastrophe, the nakba, that befell their nation — a disaster they now want the General Assembly to remedy. What is not widely known is how a possibly pro-Arab committee, or at least one that was supposed to be neutral, came to issue a report that led directly to the establishment of the state of Israel. What happened on that committee’s trip to Palestine, and how were the minds of its members changed in a way that so radically altered history?
For decades, Unscop’s classified documents were scattered in archives all over the world, and only recently have they been made available. Many were discovered by the historian Elad Ben-Dror, whose book on the Unscop role in the Arab-Israeli conflict will soon be published. The committee consisted of 11 members who arrived in Palestine on June 15, 1947. Because the U.S. and Britain wished to maintain the appearance of neutrality, no international powers were represented in the delegation. The Palestinians believed a deal to establish a Jewish state had already been made behind closed doors and so ordered a complete boycott of committee proceedings. Palestinians were warned against making any contact whatsoever with Unscop, and Arab journalists were forbidden to cover their visit. Out of fear of appearing to support one side over the other, the British, too, avoided contact with the committee. In the vacuum created by the Arabs and the British, Zionist diplomats and spies were able to work unencumbered on the Unscop members. The Jewish Agency (the representative body of the Jewish community in the British Mandate) appointed a former British intelligence officer, Aubrey (Abba) Eban, to serve as a liaison with Unscop. Eban focused his energies on two Latin American members, from Guatemala and Uruguay, who became increasingly pro-Zionist as the committee’s investigation proceeded, providing Eban with inside information on specific members and their deliberations.
Alongside Eban, the entire intelligence service of the Jewish underground organization Haganah was put to work monitoring Unscop members. Microphones were placed in hotel and conference rooms. All phone conversations were tapped. The cleaning staff in the building in Jerusalem where the committee held daily hearings was replaced by female agents who reported back each day on its activities. The tactic did not go unnoticed. A member of the Swedish delegation complained that the women on the cleaning staff were “too pretty and educated. They are the eyes and ears of the Zionist leaders, who come to hearings with replies prepared in advance.” The committee’s chairman, Emil Sandstrom, also suspected the Guatemalan member of leaking information to Eban. “I don’t know that he took their money,” Sandstrom commented, “but he certainly took their girls.” At the end of each day, intelligence was collated and circulated to the heads of the Jewish community under the code name Delphi Report, which bore the inscription “Read and destroy!”
The Haganah also gathered personal information on each member, in an effort to discover his particular areas of interest and vulnerabilities. On many of the field trips that committee members took, efforts were made to ensure that they serendipitously encountered someone who spoke their language or shared a common interest. N. S. Blom, a former Dutch official in Indonesia, arrived in Palestine with a pro-Arab agenda, but during his stay he found himself in frequent impromptu meetings with immigrants from the Netherlands, who pressed a different perspective upon him. On one occasion, while traveling in his official vehicle, he came across two farmers herding dairy cows across the road. When Blom got out of the car he discovered that, amazingly, the two farmers were immigrants from the Netherlands. Even more important, their cows were also of Dutch stock! In his otherwise dry reports to the Dutch Foreign Ministry, a welling up of national pride over the contribution of Dutch dairy farming to agriculture in the Holy Land stands out.
Wherever they went in Arab centers of population, committee members encountered empty streets and Palestinian Arabs fleeing restaurants in fear for their lives. Their experience in Jewish areas was quite different. In Tel Aviv, the day Unscop visited was declared a public holiday. The streets were decorated with flags, and friendly crowds surrounded the members wherever they went. The mayor of Tel Aviv welcomed them warmly, and at the end of a meeting at City Hall, the members were invited to step out on the balcony, at which point the crowd below broke into the Jewish anthem, “Hatikvah.”
Even the Iranian delegate, Nasrollah Entezam, initially viewed by the Jewish Agency as a die-hard opponent of Zionism, turned into a supporter of sorts. During a visit to an agricultural settlement in the Negev, Entezam’s Jewish liaison officer (who was a Persian-speaking Haganah agent) overheard him telling a colleague: “What asses the Arabs are! The country is so beautiful, and it can be developed. If they gave it all to the Jews, they would transform it into Europe!”
By contrast, committee members were dismayed by what they saw of British rule in Palestine. The U.N. secretary general’s main representative on the committee, the American Ralph Bunche, wrote of “daily bombings, shootings, kidnappings, sirens, security checks.” Some members traveled to the port city Haifa, where they witnessed 4,500 Holocaust refugees being taken off the famous ship Exodus and transferred to another vessel that would take them back to Europe. The Swede Sandstrom was particularly affected by the experience. “Without this evidence, our investigation would not have been complete,” he wrote in one of the classified documents located by Ben-Dror.
There were also meetings, some held secretly, with Jewish representatives and leaders of underground organizations. The Jewish leadership impressed the committee with its moderation. David Ben-Gurion’s willingness to accept a watered-down partition plan, for example, went well beyond the Jewish political consensus of the day. The underground leaders painted a rosy (and false) picture of the Jewish community’s ability to defend itself in case of war. By contrast, the sole Arab official willing to speak to the delegation, the secretary of the Arab Higher Committee, informed the visitors that the Arabs would not under any circumstances give up on the establishment of an Arab state extending over the entire territory of Palestine.
Nearly three months later, Unscop duly presented its report. The General Assembly voted in favor of partition, and the next day the Arabs went to war with the express goal of annihilating the Jewish community in Palestine.
The day before the vote in the General Assembly, the C.I.A. sent President Truman a classified report, “The Consequences of the Partition of Palestine,” arguing that the Jewish community in Palestine would collapse under Arab attack and warning that partition and war in the Middle East would do serious harm to American interests in the region. The State Department took the same position. Last-minute U.S. diplomatic efforts to create an international trusteeship for Palestine failed, as did pressure on the Jewish leadership to delay the declaration of a Jewish state. President Truman acknowledged the inevitable, and the representative of the Zionist movement in Washington was invited to formally request recognition. The new Jewish state did not yet have a name. In his haste to submit the request, the representative left the name of the country blank — to be filled in later.