Road, Map: Partition in Palestine from the Local to the Transnational

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The study of partitions—the division of territory along demarcated borders that aspires to create ethnically cohesive nation-states—has recently shifted from isolated and enclosed national histories to transnational studies of the concrete connections that shaped the interwar partitions of Ireland, India, and Palestine. However, unlike this literature that defines partition as an idea and tracks its dissemination with only the tools of intellectual and diplomatic history, this essay argues that to understand partition we need to consider it also as a material process that was first and foremost spatial. The essay traces the evolution of partition in mandate Palestine to the 1930s segregation of Palestinian space by a network of roads that separated Jewish and Arab traffic. It argues that diverging road-paving schemes for Arabs and Jews culminated in the 1937 completion of a network of roads that created, for the first time, a separate Jewish space along Palestine’s coastal plain in which Jews could travel without passing through a single Arab locality. This was the main area allocated for the future Jewish state in the Peel Commission report (1937)—Britain’s first official endorsement of partition in Palestine, published that same year. The paper argues that partition, therefore, became public policy as a result of a spatial process of division, and not merely as a consequence of policymakers’ ideas. Further, it shows that partition in Palestine was de facto established in the 1930s, preceding the events that led to partition in India more than a decade later. The essay thus reverses common wisdom that usually charts unilinear Indian influences on partition in Palestine.