The Balfour Declaration Century
The centenary should be used as “an opportunity to help establish an equitable settlement for all parties"
London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 2 Nov 2017 - Ghassan Matar
The infamous declaration made by Britain’s Foreign Secretary in 1917, Lord Arthur Balfour, began what is now known as the Israel-Palestine conflict which has spread regional instability and given rise to Islamic terrorism.
A hundred years ago, Balfour declared that His Majesty’s government supported the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The Declaration was made despite the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence just two years prior that promised independence to the Palestinians following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
By the time the British acquired the Mandate for Palestine from the newly formed League of Nations, the facilitation by Britain of mass immigration of Jewish people from Europe to Palestine was well underway.
Despite the declaration being made in contravention of the commitments Britain had already made to the Palestinians and without having the right to do so, Balfour did add that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. Britain did try to uphold their promise by limiting the legal Jewish migration to Palestine. However, it soon became apparent that this safeguard in the declaration was not a priority.
What is ironic is that the U.S. and British governments turned down numerous proposals to accept European Jews citing nativism, anti-Semitism and an unwillingness to act on any proposal not of direct strategic value. In many cases the US and British authorities turned down offers by Nazis to exchange Jews for resources, often with documentation on how the Allies appeared to fear that there would be so many Jews that it could strain the Allies' war effort.
A century has elapsed since the Balfour Declaration, or as it is often described as “the single most destructive political document of the 20th century on the Middle East”. Britain sponsored the Zionist project through the Balfour Declaration to transform Arab Palestine into a ‘Jewish state’ in November 1917.
The Declaration was actually simply a letter written on November 2nd 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. The substance of the letter made no reference or commitment to an apartheid state that simply transfers the suffering from one set of people to another.
The Hungarian-born Jewish writer Arthur Koestler witheringly summarised this Declaration as a document in which ‘one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third’.
It is no wonder thus that Palestinians casted aside the Mandate as the illegitimate exercise of British imperialism. Although it did not offer partition, it sowed the seeds for it, which eventually allowed the Zionist movement to occupy Palestine. The British motives in the penultimate year of the first world war, following the February revolution in Russia and America’s entry into the conflict, were mixed and had little to do with their love for the Zionist or the rights of Jews.
Even the American government did not want them and turned them away citing that accepting refugees would put citizens at risk, and they don't see the refugee crisis as their problem to fix, just like they are turning away the victims of the very wars they are starting or supporting in the 21st century.
The decisive considerations were the wish to outsmart the French in the post-war Levant, and to use Palestine’s strategic location to protect Egypt, guarantee access to the Suez canal and the route to India by creating “a loyal Jewish Ulster”, in the words of Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem.
In 1919, the King-Crane Commission found that '"a national home for the Jewish people” is not equivalent to making Palestine into a Jewish State; nor can the erection of such a Jewish State be accomplished without the gravest trespass upon the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”' and warned Woodrow Wilson, the US President at the time, that “if the American government decided to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, they are committing the American people to the use of force in that area, since only by force can a Jewish state in Palestine be established or maintained.”
How right they were. During the First Arab-Israeli War between 1947 and 1949, almost 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled and over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed. Today, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza continue to live under an illegal and brutal military occupation - the latter under a devastating siege for the last 10 years - with the full support of the US and UK. Palestinians continue to live under a system of apartheid, arbitrary detention and constant violence.
Ever since then, and consequent to the creation of the Zionist State of Israel in 1948, and after a few bloody wars and mass-scale massacres, the Zionist project has virtually succeeded in illegally occupying Palestinian lands and establishing settlements.
Some 5 million Palestinians of varying descent live as displaced refugees living by and large in poverty across the Middle East. 2.5million 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, with US backing.
Israel quite justifiably and its supporters worldwide are planning to celebrate a significant landmark document in modern Zionist history, this November 2nd. However, it is the height of audacity for British PM Theresa May to talk with pride about this landmark Declaration and also ask the British public to follow suit, despite being one of Britain’s most terrible historic disgraces. Besides, her statement is little short of iniquitous to say the least, as Robert Fisk says, 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.”
For Israelis this week, this is something to celebrate, while this Declaration signifies Britain’s betrayal for the Palestinians who have been unjustly expelled from their own homeland. In this context, not just the Declaration itself, but even the mere official position to mark this centenary event with pride, will be prime examples of colonial arrogance shown by Britain. After all the UK is partly in breach of the declaration itself.
May frequently preaches and moralises about supposed “British values”, but casts these aside every time she deals with “Israel”. She constantly condemns any acts of terrorism, but neither her or her predecessors ever utter a condemnation over Israeli acts of terrorism even though terrorism is commonly understood to mean deliberate attacks on innocent civilians anywhere in the world and not just against Western targets.
This is in light of the acts of terrorism committed against British targets by the Irgun gang (such as the King David Hotel in 1946), whose activities were classified by MI5 as terrorism. The 60th commemoration of the attack was lauded by the very same person celebrating with May the centenary of the Balfour declaration, Benjamin Netanyahu, the then chairman of Likud and Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset who opined that the bombing, a act of terrorism, was legitimate. So much for not negotiating with terrorists.
Rather than any meaningful policy, the May government found the time and effort to formally adopt a definition of what constitutes antisemitism, which includes over-sweeping condemnation of Israel, even though a Palestinian is also a Semite. All the While, Israeli lobbyist are trying to pass laws quashing free speech by preventing the criticism of Israel in any shape or form.
It is also important not to forget that May is celebrating the centenary of the Balfour declaration with the leader of the right wing of Israeli politics, the same group that was blamed for the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, simply because he signed the Oslo accords.
As Ben Macintyre wrote in 2016, “Between the Palestinian lawsuit and the Israel celebration, Britain is left dangling, embarrassed, uncertain how to approach and remember her own history.”
Britain, he argues, should approach the centenary of the Balfour Declaration like William Hague dealt with the demand for reparations over the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion when he was Foreign Secretary, “as an occasion to be neither eulogised nor bemoaned but dispassionately explored, analysed and understood, a fraught moment in history whose consequences could not have been foreseen at the time.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas 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. Britain refused to apologise, 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.
More than 13,500 people signed a petition calling for the Government to “openly apologise to the Palestinian people” over the letter, saying the UK’s colonial policy caused “mass displacement” and injustice. The number of signatures failed to pass the benchmark for a parliamentary debate but the Government issued a formal response.
However, 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. International opinion is nearly unanimous that a two-state solution, including a sovereign Palestinian state, is the best if not only way forward in the century-old conflict over historical Palestine.
Yet there is no visible movement toward achieving this outcome. The Arab states in particular and the Muslim Ummah which represents a quarter of humanity are fragmented and should bear the blame and shame for their inability over this long period to bring pressure upon the international community both to hold Israel accountable and/or to bring about an acceptable peace accord acceptable to both Israelis and the Palestinians.
It is well known that the question of giving Palestinians their own homeland has commanded the attention of the UN since the organisation 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.
Mahmoud Abbas, in his capacity as chairman of the PLO, has twice petitioned the UN to accept Palestine as a member state with no success. It enjoys only a non-member status at the UN and 136 of the 193 member states of the United Nations and two non-member states have recognised the State of Palestine as of 2015.
It is time for political courage and vigorous intervention to hold Israel accountable and to realise that there is no conflict but an illegal occupation that must end. Further, there is the dire need to help the Palestinians to realise their due rights to their own homeland. Perhaps the Arab peace initiative, presented in 2002 by the late Saudi King Abdullah, which called for a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and all Arab states in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories to the June 4, 1967 lines can form the basis for a fresh global initiative to be coordinated by the OIC. This is the same Crown Prince who told Margaret Thatcher in private that the Balfour Declaration was shameful for the United Kingdom, as he handed the British economy a multi-billion pound Al-Yamama defence contract.
Palestinian leaders have vowed to sue the British Government after it refused to apologise for a 1917 declaration that paved the way for the creation of Israel. However the response from the UK is as bad if not worse than the declaration itself.
“The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG does not intend to apologise,” it said. “We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”
A spokesperson said the Declaration was written in a world of “competing imperial powers” as the First World War raged and Ottoman Empire diminished, adding: “In that context, 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.
“Of course, a full assessment of the Declaration and what followed from it can only be made by historians.”
The Government’s statement accepted 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” but said that lasting peace must now be established through a two-state solution.
A spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it recognises “sensitivities” over the declaration and subsequent events in the Middle East, but that “the UK Government will be marking the centenary in an appropriate and balanced manner”.
“We continue to support the principle of a Jewish homeland and the modern state of Israel, just as we support the critical objective of a viable and sovereign Palestinian State.” “Our focus remains on encouraging the Israelis and Palestinians to take steps which bring them closer to peace,” he added.
Theresa May has claimed that Britain should commemorate the Balfour Declaration Centenary “with pride” and has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to join in with the celebrations. Netanyahu responded by saying the invite “speaks volumes” about UK-Israel relations, and on this rare occasion I agree with him.
The UK’s relationship with Israel is founded on settler colonialism, mutual violation of human rights and airbrushing history. For a hundred years, the UK has always been ready and willing to support Zionism at the expense of the Palestinians, from the Balfour Declaration itself to the continued military and diplomatic assistance - even when civilians are being massacred during one of Israel’s routine offensives in Gaza.
The declaration, didn’t create the state of Israel, but it set in motion a process by which Zionism was adopted internationally. It is an outcome of a colonial era and it belongs to that era in many ways – the European white man’s burden of trying to reorganise the world as they saw fit, to distribute land, to create states. They defined as the Palestinians as the ‘non-Jewish communities’. It’s so patronising and so racist.”
Amid the wave of jihadist terrorism in France, Germany, the United States, Somalia, Egypt, Afghanistan, iraq, Syria, Sinai, Lebanon and Mali, it is worth remembering the clear warning by the Arab League secretary-general Nabil al-Arabi.
“The continued Israeli occupation of Arab and Palestinian territory is the main challenge before the international community to achieve peace and stability in the region and the world,” . “This occupation represents the main cause for the spread of terrorism and extremist ideology in the region,” he said. “Failure to find a just solution to the Palestinian cause – as the core issue in the Middle East – has started fueling conflicts in the region, threatening to affect international peace and security,”
As a result, there are now millions of not only Palestinian refugees living mainly in Lebanon and Jordan but also millions of Syrian refugees, still unable or not allowed to return to their homes.
So What Now?
The United Kingdom has benefited greatly from the misery of the Palestinians and the Arab World. Trillions of dollars of Arab inward investments have bolstered the British economy including the real estate, energy, defence, service, retail and financial sector. While the United Kingdom is too broke to compensate the millions of Palestinians or too militarily weak to impose a solution, they can show the courage shown by Sweden and recognize a Palestinian state and the cleanse the hundred year old stain on the conscience and morality of the United kingdom.
The centenary should be used 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”.
Whichever sitting British government that has the courage to do the right thing stands to win the hearts and mind of the entire Arab and Muslim world and reap the immense investments that will accompany such a bold step, not to mention ending Terrorism.
It may be worth recalling the words of Edwin Samuel Montagu who was the third British Jew to enter the Cabinet or the inner circle of government. He was strongly opposed to Zionism, which he called "a mischievous political creed", and opposed the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which he considered anti-semitic and whose terms he managed to modify.
The 67 words of the Balfour Declaration created millions of victims, a few words by the current British government recognizing the State of Palestine can heal the wounds of a billion people.