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Saturday, November 29, 1997 Published at 13:58 GMT

World: Analysis

Arab-Israeli partition: a Middle East milestone

Fifty years ago, the UN General Assembly voted for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. BBC Middle East analyst, Roger Hardy, looks back at an event which paved the way for the birth of the state of Israel - and marked a turning point in the evolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The UN has passed countless resolutions on the Middle East. But the partition resolution of 1947 was a milestone in the history of the Middle East.

The problem of Palestine was turned over to the UN because Britain was unable to solve it.

The British had emerged from the First World War as the dominant power in the Middle East. For 30 years they ruled Palestine, but could find no formula to reconcile the conflicting claims of the Arab and Jewish communities there.

The Arab majority wanted Palestine to be an independent Arab state, since Arabs had lived there continuously for centuries. The Jewish minority - settlers from Europe known as Zionists, or Jewish nationalists - wanted to create a Jewish state in Palestine.

The plight of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe added new urgency to this aim.

By the end of the Second World War, Britain's position was much weaker and the Zionists had acquired powerful friends in the United States. The new American president, Harry Truman, pressed Britain to allow a further 100,000 Jews into Palestine.

The British - fearing the consequences for Arab-Jewish relations - declined to do so and referred the whole problem to the infant United Nations.

On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly was asked to decided whether Palestine should be partitioned into a Jewish and an Arab state.

It was a dramatic moment. Twice the vote was postponed, as first the Zionists, then the Arabs, asked for more time to lobby the undecided. These included representatives of Latin American states far removed from the passions of the Middle East, who suddenly found their arms twisted by Zionist and US officials.

Even as the votes were cast, it was unclear if the Zionists would get the two-thirds majority they needed. In the end, the resolution was passed by 33 votes to 13; Britain was one of 10 states that abstained.

The UN lacked the means to enforce the resolution and Britain had already said it intended to withdraw from Palestine. But the partition resolution gave new impetus - and new legitimacy - to the quest for Jewish statehood.

In May 1948, British rule came to an end, the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the birth of the state of Israel and Arab and Jew were left to fight the first of many Arab-Israeli wars.

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