The Balfour Declaration: 67 words that changed the history of Palestine

First published by the Arab Weekly on 5/11/2017

The Balfour Declaration crucially omitted reference to the indigenous Palestinian Arabs who at the time made up 90% of the population.

The British and Israeli governments celebrated the Balfour Declaration in London and Is­rael while Palestinians and their supporters marched in many cities across the world demanding an apology from Britain for its role in the creation of Israel and the dispossession and continued suffering of the Palestin­ian people. British Prime Minister Theresa May promised a Conserva­tive Friends of Israel meeting in 2016 that Britain would be “mark­ing it with pride.”

The most notable dissenting po­litical voice was the Labour leader and long-time supporter of the Palestinian people, Jeremy Corbyn, who declined an invitation to a dinner in London with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

The Balfour Declaration is a 1917 letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothschild, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. The critical part of this short letter said: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Pal­estine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communi­ties in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

It is notable for offering the land of one people to another people without consulting the Palestin­ians, all British Jews or the rest of the British public. It crucially omitted reference to the indig­enous Palestinian Arabs who made up 90% of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediter­ranean. It was bizarrely made at a time when Britain was not even in occupation of Palestine.

Current British Foreign Sec­retary Boris Johnson called the declaration “bizarre,” a “tragically incoherent document” and “an exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama,” two years ago before taking office.

However, he still wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph celebrating Israel’s creation. He said: “I see no contradiction in being a friend of Israel — and a believer in that country’s destiny — while also be­ing deeply moved by the suffering of those affected and dislodged by its birth. The vital caveat in the Balfour Declaration — intended to safeguard other communities — has not been fully realised.”

There is much debate about Brit­ain’s motive in offering the declara­tion that revolves around charges of anti-Semitic leanings against Balfour but also its seeing the crea­tion of a state that would be loyal to it at a geographically sensitive location near the Suez Canal.

The only dissenting voice against the idea of Britain assisting the Zionist movement in creating a homeland for Jews in Palestine in the cabinet of David Lloyd George was the only Jewish member — Ed­win Samuel Montagu. He was op­posed to Zionism, which he called “a mischievous political creed,” and considered the declaration anti-Semitic.

He explained his position by saying: “I assume that it means that Mahommedans [Muslims] and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of prefer­ence and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommed­ans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.”

Montagu had some influence on the final wording of the declara­tion but not enough to dissuade the government from issuing it. Britain then ensured it became part of its UN mandate on Palestine and Zion­ists began to implement its promise soon after the mandate started in 1920.

Israel’s creation in 1948 and sub­sequent occupation of a remainder of historic Palestine in 1967 have been catastrophic for the Pales­tinian people who live either as second-class citizens in Israel, as occupied people in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, or as refugees in 70-year-old camps in neighbouring countries or in the wider diaspora. Their total number is estimated at 13 million, almost half of whom live outside their homeland.

Israel’s expansionist policies continue with some 700,000 set­tlers residing illegally in settle­ments across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The international community, including Britain, con­tinues to say there is only one solu­tion to the conflict, which is the two-state solution. They condemn settlement expansion, which they say is an obstacle to peace but exert no pressure on Israel to end it.

As Israel entrenches the occupa­tion and promises to annex the West Bank formally ending the prospect of a two-state solution, Britain celebrated the 100th anni­versary of the Balfour Declaration.

If it were serious about bringing peace to the region, it could instead have apologised to the Palestin­ians for its role in their continued suffering, recognised Palestine as a state and threatened sanctions against Israel if it did not end and reverse its settlement building to comply with UN resolutions and see a Palestinian state emerge. The atonement process for its sin could then have started.

Can the Palestinians sue Britain over Balfour?

First published by the Arab Weekly on 30/4/2017

The Balfour Declara­tion is a letter from Arthur Balfour, then the British foreign secretary, to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, dated November 2, 1917.

The critical part of this short letter said: “His Majesty’s government view[s] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use [its] best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done that may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

For Israel and many Jews around the world, the centennial anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is cause for celebra­tion. After all, the declaration paved the way for the establish­ment of a homeland for Jews in Palestine, which, 100 years on, Israel would claim has been achieved in what it calls “the Jewish state.”

Palestinians, both informally and at the official level, argued that — at the very least — Britain should use the document’s 100th anniversary to acknowledge the role it played in what the Pales­tinians describe as the nakba — “disaster.”

After all, peace has not been achieved; the Palestinians continue to exit either in exile, under occupation or as second-class citizens within Israel’s internationally recognised borders.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas demanded an apology from Britain during his address at the UN General Assembly last September.

“We ask Great Britain, as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to draw the necessary lessons and to bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, misery and injustice this declaration created and to act to rectify these disasters and remedy its conse­quences, including by the recognition of the state of Palestine,” Abbas said. “This is the least Great Britain can do.”

In the Palestinian diaspora, several ideas were considered, including mass demonstrations on or near November 2.

The London-based Palestinian Return Centre secured a petition on the British government’s petitions site calling on London to openly apologise to the Palestinian people for issuing the Balfour Declaration.

“The colonial policy of Britain between 1917-1948 led to mass displacement of the Palestinian nation,” the petition reads, adding that London should recognise its role during the mandate and “must lead attempts to reach a solution that ensures justice for the Palestin­ian people.”

The government’s response was that the Balfour Declaration is a historic statement for which London “does not intend to apologise. We are proud of our role in creating the state of Israel.”

It further stated that “estab­lishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.”

The statement recognised that the declaration “should have called for the protection of political rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine, particularly their right to self-determination. However, the important thing is to look forward and establish security and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians through a lasting peace.” It then reinstated Britain’s position on how peace can be achieved.

Britain plans to celebrate Balfour or “mark it with pride,” as British Prime Minister Theresa May announced. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will attend and a royal visit to Israel is planned.

In response, Palestinian envoy to Britain Manuel Hassassian said celebrating Balfour “rubs salt in the wounds of the Palestinian people.” He made no reference to the threat made at the Arab summit last July by Abbas to sue Britain in an international court for the Balfour Declaration.

The Times of Israel recently reported that the British govern­ment, which has been delaying the issue of a visa to the new Palestinian head of mission announced by Abbas, might be planning to “downgrade” the status of the diplomatic mission in London.

The prospect of the British government responding to the call from its own Parliament in 2014 to recognise the state of Palestine seems as distant as ever.