Hazrat Sir Zafrulla Khan’s critique of the partition of Palestine

Amjad Mahmood Khan, National Secretary for External Affairs, USA
Hazrat Sir Ch Zafrulla Khan
Hazrat Sir Chaudhry Muhammad Zafrulla Khanra

As we witness incalculable human loss in Palestine, we must reflect not only on our present circumstances but also on important historic markers that drove us to this point.

For the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, one historic marker bears special significance because it involves one of the Community’s distinguished and righteous personalities, Hazrat Sir Chaudhry Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, may Allah be pleased with him. Sir Zafrulla Khanra was among the early Muslims to accept the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim  Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as the Promised Messiah, peace be upon him. He was a distinguished statesman who was Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister and later became President of the United Nations General Assembly and Judge at the International Court of Justice. 

On 18 February 1947, the British Government referred the issue of Palestine and the Israeli-Arab debate to the United Nations. On 15 May of that same year, the  UN created a special committee on Palestine, which was referred to as UNSCOP. On  22 October of that same year, the UNSCOP appointed two subcommittees: the first to draw up a detailed plan for the partition of Palestine, and the second to discuss an alternative plan. This second subcommittee was headed by Sir Zafrulla Khanra and  Fares Bey Al-Khoury of Syria, both of whom prepared a rigorous and detailed report and critique of the UN plan to partition Palestine. Ultimately, on 29 November,  1947, the UN General Assembly adopted the partition plan presented by UNSCOP Subcommittee 1, but not without a spirited critique and opposition from Sir Zafrulla Khanra.

I wish to spend just a few minutes summarising the heart of Sir Zafrulla Khan’s critique of the partition of Palestine. This critique provides a historic snapshot of one of the most consequential decisions ever made by the United Nations, which has since engendered deep divisions between Israel and Palestine. 

Sir Zafrulla Khan’sra speech was delivered almost 76 years ago, on 28 November 1947. It can be said that his remarks arguably comprised the single most spirited defence of the rights of Palestinians ever officially recorded. He was the chief spokesperson and architect of the Muslim point of view at the time. 

To set the stage, the UN Special Committee on Palestine was tasked with making recommendations concerning the future government of Palestine. A majority on that committee adopted a special plan to partition Palestine, rejecting other approaches by which Jews and Arabs could peacefully co-exist in Palestine. Sir  Zafrulla Khanra strongly questioned the ultimate resolution that was passed to partition Palestine and plainly foretold the dire consequences of the ill-fated decision not to consider the resolution of the Palestinian question with justice and moral clarity.

For the sake of brevity, I will only touch on five important lessons from Sir Zafrulla  Khan’sra speech.

First, Sir Zafrulla Khanra stressed the importance of the inherent disparity in land allocation and boundaries. Specifically, he pointed out how the proposed partition plan that was ultimately approved resulted in nearly 435,000 Arabs living in Israel  (with 498,000 Jews), while only 10,000 Jews living in Palestine (with almost one million Arabs). I quote a portion of his remarks:

“Let us now consider the boundaries for a moment. How about the area? Jews constitute 33 per cent of the population and Arabs 67 per cent, but 60 per cent of the area of Palestine is to go to the Jewish State. Moreover, what is the character of the area, excluding for the moment the desert waste to which I shall refer later?  Of the cultivable area of Palestine, the plains, by and large, go to the Jewish State,  the hills to the Arabs. There was a document circulated to members of the  Committees by the United Kingdom representative showing that, of the irrigated,  cultivable areas, 84 per cent would be in the Jewish State and 16 per cent in the  Arab State. A very fair division for one-third of the population to receive 84 per  cent while two-thirds receive 16 per cent.” (“Future government of Palestine – GA debate – Verbatim record, HUNDRED AND TWENTY-SIXTH PLENARY MEETING”, www.un.org)

The brazen disparity highlighted by Sir Zafrulla Khanra was designed to engender conflict in the region. 

Second, Sir Zafrulla Khanra stressed the importance of the fundamental universal right of self-determination of the Palestinian people. I quote a portion of his  remarks:

“How is Palestine to be independent? What sort of independence? What is the solution that we are invited to endorse and to attempt to carry through? In effect,  the proposal before the United Nations General Assembly says that we shall decide—not the people of Palestine, with no provision for self-determination, no provision for the consent of the governed […] We shall call Palestine independent  and sovereign, but Palestine shall belong to us and shall be, not the apple of our  many and in different-direction-looking eyes but shall become the apple of discord between East and West.” (Ibid.)

Third, Sir Zafrulla Khanra stressed the importance of fairness in the allocation of genuine refugees in need of a home. Again, I quote from his speech:

“There have been few periods in history when members of the Jewish race have not been persecuted in one part or another of Europe. Today, it is said: only the poor persecuted European Jew is without a home. This is true. And it is further said: let Arab Palestine provide him, as Arab Spain did, not only with a shelter, a refuge, but also with a State so that he shall rule over the Arab. How generous!  How humanitarian!

“The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine urged that the General  Assembly take up this question of refugees and displaced persons immediately,  apart from the problem of Palestine, to afford relief to the persecuted Jews so that there should be an alleviation of this humanitarian problem and an alleviation of the Palestinian problem.

“What has this great and august body done in that respect? Sub-Committee 2  made a recommendation and drew up a draft resolution on that basis. […] First, let  those Jewish refugees and displaced persons who can be repatriated to their own  countries be repatriated; secondly, those who cannot be repatriated should be  allotted to Member States in accordance with then-capacity to receive such refugees; and, thirdly, a committee should be set up to determine quotas for that  purpose.” (Ibid.)

Indeed, none of what Sir Zafrulla Khanra suggested ever happened. He points out that none of the Western countries took a fair number of Jewish refugees – be it  America, Canada, or Australia. Sir Zafrulla Khanra wondered how the United Nations could ever support the hypocrisy of morally mandating Palestine to accept Jewish refugees while disallowing any such refugees to come to Western countries. Even today, we see reverberations of this very problem, but in a reverse manner: with some Israeli officials now demanding that Western and Muslim nations accept refugees from Gaza even as they forcibly displace them.

Fourth, Sir Zafrulla Khanra stressed the vital significance of forging a middle path between two extremes in facilitating the right to self-determination. I again quote from his speech:

“Has the United Nations made any effort to bring the Arab and the Jew together,  to find a middle way which might provide a solution on which both peoples might combine to work— the only solution that could have any possible chance of being successfully worked out?

“There was the minority report. There were other suggestions—and there can still be other suggestions if statesmanship is not entirely bankrupt—which could have been committed to the consideration of a third body. A large number of delegations did not support either the unitary idea or the partition idea. Why was  their talent not utilised to find some solution, some middle way?” (Ibid.)

Fifth and finally, Sir Zafrulla Khanra stressed the importance of peaceful co-existence and minority rights and safeguards while also respecting majority populations. Again, I quote:

“The United Nations should seek and strive to unite and bring together rather  than to divide and put asunder.” (Ibid.)

Sir Zafrulla Khanra predicted the outcome that all of us are presently witnessing. He  said these words after the resolution for Palestine’s partition passed at the UN:

“A fateful decision has been taken. The die has been cast […] We did succeed in persuading a sufficient number of our fellow representatives to see the right as we saw it, but they were not permitted to stand by the right as they saw it. Our hearts are sad, but our conscience is easy. We would not have it the other way round […]

“We very much fear that the benefit, if any, to which partition may lead will be small in comparison to the mischief which it might inaugurate […] We entertain no sense of grievance against those of our friends and fellow representatives who have been compelled, under heavy pressures, to change sides and to cast their votes in support of a proposal the justice and fairness of which do not commend themselves to them. Our feeling for them is one of sympathy that they should  have been placed in a position of such embarrassment between their judgement  and conscience, on the one side, and the pressure to which they and their  Governments were being subjected on the other.” (“Palestine question – GA debate – Verbatim record, United Nations 2290th GENERAL PLENARY MEETING”, www.un.org)

In the decades since Sir Zafrulla Khan’sra speech, many have attested to his prescience. As early as 1974, the President of Algeria reminded the UN General Assembly of the “almost prophetic words” of Sir Zafrulla Khan, lamenting that his  “prophecy” had “come true.” Matters have only worsened since then, and today we are yet again witnessing the precise outcome he predicted. (Ibid.)

In sum, the grand words of Sir Zafrulla Khanra provide a valuable blueprint for how the world must seek to resolve the present conflict. Indeed, the past is prologue,  and there is still an opportunity for nations and world leaders to heed and implement the five lessons from his historic address.

I close with the same prayer Sir Zafrulla Khanra closed within his 1947 speech:

“May God, who controls all hearts and knows their innermost thoughts and  designs, who alone can appraise the true value and foresees the consequences of  all human action, in His Grace and Mercy so guide our judgment that what we  decide here today shall promote and foster the peace, prosperity and welfare of  all His creatures, Jews, Arabs, and Gentiles alike, and shall redound to His Glory  forever.” Amin. (“Future government of Palestine – GA debate – Verbatim record, HUNDRED AND TWENTY-SIXTH PLENARY MEETING”, www.un.org)

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