A 'High Iron Railing': Plans to Implement Partition in the Palestine Mandate and British India.

Author:Chester, Lucy
Position:Commentary and Analysis - Essay

September 2016

Links to Maps

The Woodhead Plan A

Overview map of pre-partition India

Partition in Punjab

Partition in Bengal

Author's note: It is difficult to find appropriate illustrative maps because the cartography of Israel/Palestine and of India and Pakistan remains extremely controversial. Details like the location of the Line of Control in Kashmir or the rendering of place names such as Jaffa/Yafo can alter dramatically the way that various audiences will interpret the map. The maps offered here represent British perceptions during the period discussed.

When the British Empire withdrew from South Asia in 1947, it carried out a hasty and poorly planned partition. When it withdrew from the Palestine Mandate in 1948, imperial officials chose not to divide Palestine. Prior to the Palestine decision, British officials spent decades examining the practical implications of partitioning the Mandate. During the same period, the British resisted discussing the possibility of partition in South Asia, only to hastily divide India and Pakistan in 1947. (1)

Despite their radically different approaches, these cases demonstrate three important points about the relationship between infrastructure, power, and partition (defined as territorial division carried out by a third party). First, infrastructure expresses state and colonial power. (2) Second, in the case of Mandate Palestine, infrastructure illuminates how imperial priorities limited and ultimately doomed prospects for an Arab-Jewish partition. Detailed planning contributed to Britain's rejection of partition in Palestine. Third, in South Asia, Britain's lack of serious planning and failure to understand what partition would involve facilitated a territorial division marred by ethnic cleansing and mass migration--while also creating two proudly independent states.

The implementation of partition is significant because of its impact on residents' everyday lives. Infrastructure and its preservation (or disruption) also have major implications for the economic viability of new states created by partition. And discussions of the practical impact of partition matter because of infrastructure's relationship to national and, in this case, imperial visions and priorities.

The human costs of Britain's 1947 partition of India and Pakistan have received a great deal of scholarly attention, and rightly so. (3) These costs included massive displacement, hundreds of thousands dead, and widespread rape and abduction of women and girls. Less attention has been paid to the new boundary's disruption of infrastructure systems. (4) These systems included the elaborate canal networks that made Punjab, in India's Northwest, the breadbasket of the subcontinent. In April 1948, India actually shut down a major portion of Pakistan's water supply, before the two parties negotiated a temporary solution the following month. In 1960, the Indus Waters Treaty, a landmark success in Indo-Pakistani relations, provided a long-term solution. In other words, it took a great deal of time and expertise to find a lasting solution to this one aspect of an incredibly complex physical division.

Any partition has the potential to disrupt crucial networks, including transportation, communication, agricultural, and energy systems. In the 1940s, these networks included railroads, roads, telegraph lines, water supply lines, electricity networks, and oil pipelines. The way these features of the colonized landscape were divided, diverted, and in many cases destroyed has had lasting implications for post-British states. In many cases, the conflict that accompanied Britain's withdrawal gave rise to new landscape features, such as guard posts, fences, walls, and even minefields. The Indian case demonstrates that any serious plan to implement partition must consider how to divide such systems without leaving borderlands areas isolated and economically devastated.

Historical and Scholarly Context

This article is part of larger book project that examines imperial and anti-colonial connections between British India and Mandate Palestine in the 1920s-1940s. India and Palestine differed in crucial ways, including size, administration, and length of British control. India was much larger and was an empire in its own right (controlled through a mix of direct and indirect rule), while Palestine was a mandate, governed in accordance with League of Nations requirements (at least in theory). British control over South Asian territory dated back to the eighteenth century, while the Palestine Mandate originated in the post-World War I period.

Another key difference between India and Palestine is, of course, the fact that the British partitioned India and Pakistan in 1947, while rejecting partition in the Palestine Mandate during the same period. The Palestine decision came after decades of British, as well as Jewish and Arab, debate over the form that partition might take in Palestine. In India, by contrast, British officials avoided any serious consideration of territorial division until only months before what became a rushed and chaotic division.

Domestic politics in India, Mandate Palestine, and Britain played a crucial role in shaping the events of 1947 and 1948. I discussed Indian issues, including debates over the shape of independence, the influence of the princely states, and the central role of the Sikh community, in my book on the 1947 partition. (5) The larger project from which this article draws analyzes nationalist and anti-colonialist connections between India and Palestine, in addition to British thinking. (6) I also hope to examine the development and reception of Muslim demands for the partition of South Asia in a new book project, now in the early stages, on the geographical imagination of Pakistan.

This article has a narrower scope, focusing on British thinking about the practical details involved in implementing partition in Palestine (and the lack of such thinking for India). Here, I am primarily interested in British discussions of what Penny Sinanoglou calls "concrete planning." (7) The historiography of Palestine partition planning is rich in analysis of politics and strategy, and development and construction are important parts of the literature on Mandate-era nation-building. (8) But the role of infrastructure in partition planning specifically has received relatively little attention. (9)

Political aspects of partition continue to interest historians and other scholars in part because of their ongoing policy relevance. On the face of it, it may seem pointless to discuss how outmoded hydroelectric systems and obsolete telegraph lines could have been, but were not, divided. There is value in examining this material, in part because elements of the infrastructure under discussion (such as mandate-era police forts) are still features of the Holy Land's landscape and because some of the issues discussed (the titular "high iron railing") are still central to Israeli-Palestinian relations today.

This article is not an exhaustive catalog of implementation plans, but an exploration of their role in imperial policy. It focuses on plans that merited debate at the top levels of British government. I do not mean to imply that the concept of partition was solely the product of British thinking--far from it. In both Palestine and India, ideas about partition emerged from a complex colonial environment in which many players interacted.

I focus on British discussions for several reasons. The first is practicality; such a sprawling topic, with such a vast literature, requires clear boundaries of its own. Second, British planning has contemporary policy relevance, because it illuminates evolving discussions of partition carried out by a party that anticipated being responsible for that partition; it therefore made plans from the point of view of potentially having to carry them out itself. Third, British discussions highlight the role of the imperial context. Part of my argument is that imperial patterns of thought about categorization, territory, economy, and defense played a central role in the development (or lack thereof) of partition plans for both India and Palestine.

This article analyzes three major British considerations of partition in the Palestine Mandate: the 1937 Peel Plan, the 1938 Woodhead Report, and wartime discussions in the Cabinet Committee for Palestine. It then examines to the extremely limited British planning for partition in India and the impact of that planning failure. Finally, it draws conclusions about imperial priorities, the larger context of individual partition cases, calls for speed, and the quest for clarity.

The Peel Commission (1936-1937)

In the earliest discussions of dividing Palestine, British officials repeatedly cited the "impracticability" of such plans as a reason for declining to explore them further. (10) The 1936-1937 Royal Commission marked the first time the highest levels of British government considered partition for Palestine. Headed by Lord Robert Peel (a former Secretary of State for India), it became known as the Peel Commission. It proposed dividing the mandate into a Jewish state and an Arab state, with some territory remaining under British control. But it was more of a rough sketch than a detailed proposal.

The Peel report focused on the political benefits of partition and did not include a detailed examination of the practical aspects of a territorial division. It offered its partition plan primarily as an indication that the principle of partition offered a foundation on which "an actual plan can be devised which meets the main requirements of the case." (11) Details of the division took up only 14 pages of the 396-page report. The commission admitted that partition involved immense practical difficulties, which seemed almost to grow as they were analyzed: "The closer the question is examined, the clearer they stand out." (12)


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