Balfour Declaration at 100; Some Pertinent Reflections

For centuries long our land enslaved- by Turkish kings with sharpened blade.
We prayed to end the Sultan’s curse, the British came and spoke a verse.

“It’s World War One, if you agree- to fight with us we’ll set you free.”

The war we fought at Britain’s side,-our blood was shed for Arab pride.

At war’s end Turks were smitten,-our only gain, the lies of Britain.

This Stephen Ostrander’s simple verse manages to cut through a mountain of rhetoric to the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The question of giving Palestinians their own  homeland has commanded the attention of the UN since the organization was founded. Since resolutions 242 and 338, the Security Council has taken no significant steps to end the Israel-Palestine conflict, in the light of continued Israeli arrogance and US hegemony. As we reflect on origins of this conflict, we cannot overlook “the single most destructive political document of the 20th century on the Middle East” (as  the leading Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi described it), – the Balfour Declaration, the centenary of which falls in November this year.

Incidentally, Britain sponsored the Zionist project through the Balfour Declaration to transform Arab Palestine into a ‘Jewish state’ in November 1917.  The Declaration was actually a letter written on November 2, 1917, by the then foreign secretary of Britain, Arthur James Balfour, to Baron Walter Rothschild. a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. Although it did not offer partition, it sowed the seeds for it, which eventually allowed the Zionist movement to occupy Palestine.

The letter promised the Jews a “national home” in Palestine, which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire but was soon to be ruled under a British mandate, without prejudicing the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. It was later incorporated into a peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate for Palestine, despite contradicting other agreements. This Declaration was a prime example of colonial arrogance shown by Britain; which Arthur Koestler witheringly summarised as a document in which ‘one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third’. No wonder Palestinians casted aside the Mandate as the illegitimate exercise of British imperialism. It is worth our while to re-read Edward Said’s wise words about the Balfour Declaration.

“What is important about the Declaration is, first, that it has long formed the juridical basis of Zionist claims to Palestine, and second, more crucial for our purposes here, that it was a statement whose positional force can only be appreciated when the demographic, or human realities of Palestine are clearly understood. For the Declaration was made (a) by a European power (b) about a non-European territory (c) in a flat disregard of both the presences and the wishes of the native majority resident in that territory, and (d) it took the form of a promise about this same territory to another foreign group, that this foreign group might, quite literally, make this territory a national home for the Jewish people.”.In fact, it was more than that: It allowed a settler colonial movement, appearing very late in history, to envisage a triumphant project even before it set proper foot in the land or had a meaningful geographical and demographic presence there”.

In fact, Balfour’s inherent racism was clear. Far from being interested in the welfare of Jews, he introduced severe immigration controls to prevent a Jewish influx from Eastern Europe. He preferred that the Jews find a home outside of Britain. He was even more contemptuous of Arabs. In 1919, Balfour stated that “in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.” Ever since, Lord Palmerston in 1840, there were British politicians who hoped to encourage Jews to settle in Palestine and leave Britain. The one Jewish member of the Cabinet in 1917, Edward Montague, wrote that: “I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty’s Government is anti-Semitic and in result will prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country in the world.”. Lord Sydenham warned: “The harm done by dumping down an alien population upon an Arab country may never be remedied. What we have done, by concessions not to the Jewish people but to a Zionist extreme section, is to start a running sore in the East, and no-one can tell how far that sore will extend.”

Ever since then, and consequent to the creation of  the Zionist State of Israel in 1948,some 5 Mn. Palestinians of varying descent live as displaced refugees living by and large in poverty across the Middle East. 2.5m live in torturous conditions within the occupied West Bank and 1.7m people live in the largest open prison camp on the planet in Gaza with no basic rights, no citizenship and no hope of a lasting future. Anti-Semitism is the convenient smokescreen behind which the Zionist gangster-state hides its crimes against humanity. In its’ attempts to burnish the 1917 document which promised Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Britain thus ultimately ignored the aspirations of the Palestinians to have their own homeland , creating a very huge refugee population in the process.

In November 2017, Israel quite justifiably and its supporters worldwide are planning to  celebrate the 100th anniversary of this landmark document in modern Zionist history. What was disgusting however is what British PM Theresa May said: that she will celebrate the centenary of the Balfour declaration, which paved the way for the creation of Israel, with “pride”. She also asked the British public to be proud of this Declaration, despite being one of their most terrible colonial disgraces. For PM May to express pride over this ‘historic declaration’ is little short of iniquitous to say the least, when the Declaration was basically a lie when it stated that while Britain supported a Jewish homeland, nothing would be done “which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Besides, Israel was not established on empty land; it has been built on the homeland of the Palestinian people. How then can it be logical for the British government not to consult the Palestinians, either in Palestine or in the UK, about the Balfour centenary?

PM May frequently preaches and moralizes about supposed British values, but casts these aside every time she deals with Israel. Does the prime minister believe that Britain in 1917 had the moral right to give away another people’s country to solve a problem in another continent? For many Jews this is something to celebrate, yet the sensibilities of the Palestinians have been ignored.

This historic declaration thus should not be a cause for celebration or pride, but should be a symbol of shame for Britain. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas therefore quite rightly  called for an apology in his address to the UN General Assembly in September, ahead of planned celebrations by British and Israeli officials to mark the centenary of the Declaration. His statement continued; ‘And based on this ill-omened promise hundreds of thousands of Jews were moved from Europe and elsewhere to Palestine at the expense of our Palestinian people whose parents and grandparents had lived for thousands of years on the soil of their homeland.” Britain refused to apologize, and Abbas now calls on other states in the alliance to help the Palestinian government launch a lawsuit against Britain over the Declaration and the subsequent creation of Israel in 1948. However, As suggested by independent observers , a more helpful act would be to establish an inquiry into Britain’s role in the creation of Israel and dispossession of the Palestinian people. Its role would be to establish the facts and to assess how justice can be brought to all parties as the Balfour centenary approaches.

Further, the injustice of the lack of a viable Palestinian state and the continuing refugee catastrophe continues to this day. How can Britain therefore celebrate this ‘milestone’? Even if Britain claims that it is not “celebrating” Balfour, but simply “marking” the document’s centenary, that will surely offend Palestinians living under Israel’s military occupation in Palestine, and in the refugee camps of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as the diaspora. As a helpless world watches Israel entrenching its military occupation of Palestine and its’ senior politicians articulating their rejection of a Palestinian state, celebration of any sort will be inflaming the already explosive situation.  Britain should therefore use ‘its best endeavours’ to improve the chances of the pragmatists among them, who recognise that two national homes is the only way to reconcile the demands of two nations, and end a century of conflict.

As Ben Macintyre wrote in ‘Australian’ in 2016, ‘Between the Palestinian lawsuit (which will not happen since there is no legal case to answer) and the Israel celebration, Britain is left dangling, embarrassed, uncertain how to approach and remember her own history.’ Britain should approach the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, as an occasion to be neither eulogised nor bemoaned but dispassionately explored, analysed and understood.. Any “marking” of the centenary needs to acknowledge that while the Jewish homeland envisaged in 1917 has been realised, the promise to protect the rights of the Palestinian people has not been honoured. Britain should use the centenary as an opportunity to help establish an equitable settlement respecting the rights both of Israelis and Palestinians in two states. If the centenary is used as an excuse for political grandstanding, it will only inflame the situation in the Middle East”.

On a pragmatic note, As Alexander H. Joffe says in an article in Middle East Forum( March 2017), ‘ ‘Protests over the Balfour Declaration anniversary are emerging just as the Arab state system finds itself at its lowest ebb. Syria, Yemen, and Libya are effectively no more, Iraq is divided between an Iranian rump, a shrinking ISIS entity, and an independent Kurdistan (in all but name), and Lebanon is a Shiite-dominated shell. The Palestinian Authority is a pseudo-state that exists only thanks to foreign aid and Israeli security assistance’. Quite true! thus, the centenary of Balfour Declaration should not bring a sense of shame to Britain only, but more particularly to the Arab States and also to the Muslim world as well. Time for their reflection too!  

On the other hand, an apology from the British would only achieve a partial restoration of Palestinian national honour. It is difficult to see what direct value an apology would have in helping to establish a Palestinian state. Realities on the ground   should be recognized as the Arab States are too fragmented and disunited to bring an acceptable resolution of this conflict. Only the international community through the UN can still intervene despite their past failures.  There is a widespread perception among Palestinians that the real occupation is not Israel but the rest of the world, without whose support – moral and financial – the occupation could not have been sustained for such a long time.  It is high time for the international community to ensure respect for international law and replace the culture of appeasement, tentative attempts, and complicity with meaningful pressure and an end to impunity. It is time for political courage and vigorous intervention to hold Israel accountable and to realize that there is no conflict but an illegal occupation that must end.

-Lukman Harees