JERUSALEM AND THE CORPUS SEPARATUM PROPOSED IN 1947

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Mandate-period schemes for the partition of Palestine, beginning with that of the 1937 Peel Plan, isolated Jerusalem from the proposed Jewish and Arab states. They did so in recognition of the
impracticable nature of any equitable partition of the city and out of a desire to prevent Jerusalem (and
Bethlehem to its south) being drawn into the eventual arena of violent conflict; something the planners
believed likely if not inevitable.
Lord Peel’s proposal envisioned a permanent British Mandate over Jerusalem and Bethlehem, connected to
the coast at Jaffa by way of wide corridor incorporating most of the Palestinian villages in the west of the
Jerusalem district along with those in the Ramleh district. The British were to guarantee access to the two
cities’ holy sites and protect and preserve these under the supervision of the League of Nations. The Peel
Commission evoked the original Palestine Mandate document when it spoke of British rule over Jerusalem
as “a sacred trust of civilization,” but made no clear provision for the involvement therein of the Palestinian
and Jewish residents in running their own affairs: “This trust does not belong to the people of Palestine
alone, but to the multitudes of people in other lands for whom one or both of these places [Jerusalem and
Bethlehem] is sacred.”
Subsequent partition plans, throughout the Mandate years, adopted the Peel formula for ‘internationalization’
(albeit under a British regime), altering only the territorial definitions of the proposed Jerusalem
Mandate area. In the meantime, Britain struggled to contend with the administrative
running of the capital. Jewish-Arab tensions, exacerbated by Britain’s 1937 arrest and expulsion of Jerusalem
mayor Hussein Fakhri Al-Khalidi, rendered the municipality ineffective and frequently threatened to
spark serious strife in the city. In 1945, Sir William Fitzgerald, head of Palestine’s High Court Judges,
drafted a plan for a new municipal mechanism - the so-called ‘Borough-Plan’. This allowed for the
preservation of the city’s unity but suggested separate Arab and Jewish councils be created with a degree
of autonomy over respective boroughs. An 11-member British-run administrative council would oversee the
elected councils and monitor issues pertaining to shared spheres and holy sites. Fitzgerald held that
Jerusalem was indivisible per se but nonetheless presented an outline map for sectoral subdivision along
the lines of “an administrative county.” The Jewish borough was to be situated to the northwest of the Old
City, while the Arab borough ran north to south with the Old City at its center.
With the referral of the Palestine Question to the UN, the premise of retaining British rule over the city was
dropped, but the guiding principles of access to, and protection of, holy sites gained their most solid expression.
The November 1947 UNGA Partition Plan (Res. 181) called for the creation of a 258 km2 Corpus
Separatum under the supervision of a UN Trusteeship Council. Dispensing with the corridor to the coast,
the proposed enclave stood to include Bethlehem as well as 17 large Palestinian villages and two main
Jewish settlements. Within the Corpus Separatum area an estimated 105,000 Palestinians and 100,000
Jews were to elect separate semi-autonomous municipalities, while the UN was to ensure the area’s
demilitarized and neutral status. A UN-appointed governor was to supervise the creation of an international
police force and remain responsible for foreign affairs and access to the holy sites. Unlike previous
schemes, the plan provided for a plebiscite after 10 years, whereupon the Trusteeship Council would review
the situation and issue further recommendations - potentially including partition of the city.
The Corpus Separatum plan, along with the Partition Plan as a whole, was no sooner ratified than it was
consigned to failure. Violent attacks and counter-attacks on villages within the proposed enclave as well as
upon Jerusalem neighborhoods began immediately following the UN vote. On 1 April 1948, Zionist militias
stepped up their combined offensives against the villages to the west of the city. On 9 April, at Deir Yassin,
a massacre was committed. In all, 39 villages were depopulated around Jerusalem. An estimated 10,000
homes and properties were seized in the city itself, their inhabitants and owners expelled to the east. Only
on 15 May did Transjordanian forces enter from the east and prevent the fall of the entire capital.
By the time the British, charged with maintaining order and protecting the civilian population, left Palestine
(14 May 1948), nearly 85% of municipal Jerusalem had been seized and the process of expelling its
remaining Palestinian inhabitants was in its final stages. Already, by February 1948 - barely six weeks after
the UNGA approved the Corpus Separatum plan - JA Executive Chairman Ben-Gurion could declare: “From
your entry into Jerusalem, though Lifta [a Palestinian village], Romeima [a Palestinian suburb]... there are
no Arabs. One hundred percent Jews... in the west one sees not a single Arab; I do not assume that this will
change.”