THE WOODHEAD COMMISSION PARTITION PROPOSALS, 1938

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With the Zionists unwilling to accept even 33% of Palestine as sufficient and the Palestinians refusing
absolutely to endorse a plan calling for their expulsion and mass ‘transfer’ from that portion, the British were
clearly unable to adopt the Peel proposal as it stood. However, the need to resolve the crisis was becoming
ever more urgent with the renewal of the Arab Revolt and escalating confrontations. In acknowledgement of
the WZO’s August 1937 resolution to accept the principle of partition, though not the Peel boundaries, and
to work for its implementation on a more ‘generous’ basis, the British undertook to examine the notion
further.
Thus, the Technical Commission of Inquiry headed by Sir John Woodhead (and referred to as the Partition,
or Woodhead, Commission) was sent to Palestine in April 1938, with the purpose of “ascertaining facts
[and]... considering in detail the practical possibilities of a scheme of partition.” Britain attempted to allay
Palestinian concerns by declaring they had “not accepted the [Peel] Commission’s proposals for the
compulsory transfer...”
But Palestinians remained doubtful that the Zionists were prepared to accept a state of any size on a basis
of coexistence. Immediately following the Peel Plan, the WZO had formed the “Population Transfer
Committee.” Even while the Woodhead Commission was in Palestine the JA Executive held a series of
meetings in Jerusalem, discussing in detail the issue of transfer. JA Exec. Chairman, David Ben-Gurion
declared his support for “compulsory transfer,” and the Agency noted, “...regarding the transfer of
individuals, we are always doing this. But the question will be the transfer of a much greater quantity.” Also
coinciding with the Commission’s visit was a series of bombing attacks in Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa,
carried out by the Zionist Irgun militia, as part of a campaign that would claim nearly 600 Palestinian lives by
the end of the year. By the late 1930s, the British army and Zionist militias were all but operating in unison
vis-à-vis the Arab Revolt. Special units, dominated by Haganah recruits and headed by British Zionists had
earned a grisly reputation for ‘preemptive’ attacks on villages in the Galilee area; their cadre included the
future elite of Israel’s armed forces.
The Woodhead Commission took as the starting point of its inquiry the Peel Plan (Plan A), but examined at
least three partition possibilities in all. The Zionists themselves drew up a plan calling for a large Jewish
state while splitting a small Palestinian state into two cantons. While the Palestinian leadership refused to
participate officially in the negotiation of what they saw as their own dispossession, Amir Abdullah of
Transjordan again sought union with Palestine and submitted his plan for a “United Arab Kingdom.” The
Woodhead Commission’s findings amounted to a forceful rejection of the feasibility and equity of any
partition. The Commission was bound by its terms of reference to identify territorial concentrations of Jewish
demography and so posited, with much reservation, a plan affording what it deemed the “least
objectionable” means of creating a Jewish state in Palestine (Plan C), while illustrating by way of another
(Plan B) the only viable means of bringing together all the scattered Jewish landholdings of the Galilee.
Attaching a “Note of Reservations” to the final report, Commission member Thomas Reid emphatically
pointed to the “absence of equity,” “absence of security” and “absence of consent” inherent in adopting any
partition plan and concluded that even were Plan C adopted, “it would not and could not be implemented.”
In recognition of the rise in Zionist circles of the ‘transfer’ doctrine, his reservations called for “the abandonment
of all schemes for carving up the country by artificial boundaries, of plans for its dismemberment
and the logical sequel thereto, removal of Arabs from their homes and occupations to make room for
Jews.”
With the 'principle of partition’ thus dismissed, the British had little choice but to shelve the Peel formula.
The government called for a general conference to discuss Jewish immigration and land acquisitions to be
convened in London (The London St. James Conference in February 1939) with the participation of Jewish,
Palestinian and other Arab representatives.