Balfour: a 100 Years Since Britain’s Declaration Changed History in the Middle East

To understand the present, one must be conscious of the past. The Israel-Palestine conflict is arguably the most intense and complicated conflicts of modern time. So, to begin to make sense of the ongoing situation in the region, it is unavoidable to make reference to the Balfour Declaration.
This 67-word document not only holds huge historical significance, but has led to far reaching consequences impacting the lives of thousands of Palestinians, both those living in Palestine and in exile, and continues to do so to this day.

On November the 2nd 1917, during World War I, the British foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour sent a letter addressing Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild, leader of the Zionist movement, expressing British support and commitment in facilitating the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine where the natives made up more than 90% of the population.

To understand the series of events that gave rise to this document, it is important to consider the historical context

Fearing the prospect of defeat during World War I, Britain searched for allies and support in an attempt to turn the direction of the war. This led the British into making a series of conflicting promises regarding Palestine, which they believed would satisfy and preserve their imperial and colonial interests.
When the Ottoman Empire, which included Palestine at the time, became Germany’s ally in 1914, the British realized how valuable support from the Arabs would be. Consequently, they promised the ruler of Mecca, Sharif Hussain, that they would support his quest for an independent Arab state. In return, he would lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans and thereby debilitate Germany’s position in the war. As per this agreement, Palestine would become part of the new Arabs state as it was under Ottoman rule at the time. However, this did not stop the British from making a secret pact in 1916 with the French to divide the Arab territories, formally known as the Sykes-Picot agreement. In the event of an allied victory, Palestine would then fall under British rule. These two agreements on their own proved incompatible, as Palestine had already been promised to the Arab leaders.

At the same time, Europe witnessed a surge in nationalistic ideologies. Inspired by these ideas was a Jewish journalist named Theodor Herzl, who held a similar ideology for the Jewish people: a homeland in Palestine, exclusively for Jewish people. His aspiration was the foundation of the Zionist movement in the form of the World Zionist Organisation established by Herzl himself, earning him the title of the father of Zionism. The Zionist movement quickly gained popularity in response to the increased violence towards Jews that stemmed from anti-Semitic sentiments that were highly present in Europe during that time. After his death in July 1904, his successor Chaim Weizmann, held close relations with UK Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour that proved pivotal for Britain’s attitude towards the Zionist movement.

As Britain’s concern regarding the direction of World War I was growing, they were aiming to gain support from the Jewish communities by promising to support Zionist imperialism. More importantly, Britain believed that by siding with the Zionists, American and Russian Jews would persuade their governments to remain in the war. Furthermore, the general attitude was that the West was responsible for the injustices suffered by the Jews and therefore had to compensate for this by facilitating the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The final promise then followed in 1917, when the British issued the Balfour Declaration in which they promised Palestine to the Jewish people in support of Zionist imperialism, thereby providing self-determination to a minority at the expense of a majority that had already been living in Palestine for centuries but were now merely described as the ‘’non-Jewish communities’’. The letter read as follows:

“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.”

The first direct consequence that resulted from the Balfour Declaration, was the establishment of a British colony in Palestine after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The British successfully achieved legitimacy to administer Palestine by obtaining a mandate acting through the League of Nations in 1922.

The reasons for this were two-fold: not only did the mandate satisfy colonial interests, due to its strategic location encompassing the Suez Canal, but as the Balfour declaration by itself had no legal basis of authority, incorporating it into the Mandate for Palestine essentially meant that the declaration was raised to the level of an international treaty. This allowed the British to implement their own declaration in Palestine as Palestine was now a British colony. Consequently, the Mandate was successfully managed to provide the legal cover for the enforcement of the declaration and enabled a small minority to start the systematic take-over of the entire country.

”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”

Under British rule, they honored the promise in the Declaration to ‘facilitate Jewish immigration’ into Palestine, and as a consequence the Jewish population grew significantly from 55,000 in 1918 to 646,000 in 1948. This led to increased tensions in the region, due to the ascent of two major nationalist movements who were competing for the same land. Ultimately, this resulted in violent uprisings where the Palestinians revolted in what is known as the Arab Revolt (1936-1939) against the British. Although the British managed to suppress this revolt, they issued a White Paper limiting Jewish immigration into Palestine and promising a joint Arab-Jewish state within ten years, thereby proving incapable of upholding the promise made to the Jews and the one to the Arabs. Logically, this imperial double standard provoked dissatisfaction on both sides and Jewish violent resistance against the British Mandate was unavoidable.

This led to a growing desire of the British to terminate the Mandate, and to hand it over to The United Nations which implemented a resolution to partition Palestine into independent Arab and Jewish states, whilst placing Jerusalem under international administration. Despite the fact that Jews only made up 33% of the population in that time, it allocated approximately 55% of the land to them. Where the Jewish leaders accepted the proposal, it was mostly rejected by the Arab leaders. What followed was a period of increased tensions ultimately resulting in series of wars in Palestine from 1947-1949.

On May 14th 1948, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel to come into force at midnight of that day. The Israeli Defense Forces began to invade territories with the intention to clear Palestinian Arab communities in what would then become the State of Israel.
What resulted was a war, in Israel known as the ‘War of Independence’ as the British Mandate was terminated, and is therefore celebrated every year on May 15th.

‘’…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…’’

For Palestinian Arabs, the war ended in a tragedy and is therefore referred to as ‘Al Nakba’ (The Catastrophe), describing the tragedy suffered by Palestinians as mass expulsion, which took place as a direct result of Israeli military assault and massacre. As Israeli forces forcibly confiscated more than 75% of historic Palestine and destroyed more than 530 Palestinian villages, at least 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and became stateless refugees as the British Mandatory passports ceased to provide British protection. Approximately 13,000 Palestinians were killed as Israeli forces systematically destroyed their villages. Even after the establishment of the state of Israel, Palestinian citizens who managed to obtain IDs live as second-class citizens in their own homeland due to the violations of rights carried out by the Israeli occupation forces. They are subject to more than 50 discriminatory laws and policies that affect their basic human rights as they are not Jewish. As the last sentence of the declaration reads, the civil and religious rights of the Palestinian Arabs were promised not to be harmed, but it is clear that Britain failed to protect the Palestinians and instead created conditions in which the Jewish people gained superiority. Furthermore, it explicitly states ‘’civil and religious’’, deliberately leaving out their political rights as Britain succeeded in granting self-determination to the Jewish people by withholding it from the Palestinians. As military victories were celebrated by Zionists, military forces continued to occupy more and more parts of Palestine, build illegal settlements in the occupied territories and construct border walls such as the Apartheid Wall in Bethlehem, which separates thousands of Palestinians from their land

The State of Israel

One could argue that the state of Israel has become a successful democracy. This young state managed to develop itself into a powerful state with one of the most booming and stable economies. It succeeded in its aspiration to create a Jewish state: it managed to increase its Jewish population. It was able to do so by restricting immigration into Israel for people that do not hold the Jewish faith and create policies that forbids Jews from marrying non-Jews. However, this democracy distinguishes itself from others in the sense that citizens in Israel are subject to two separate and unequal systems of law, which are based on their religion. Israel’s democracy is therefore severely flawed, as it fails to provide every citizen with equal rights, legal protection and benefits. Palestinians, and other non-Jews, who live in the same territory are instead subjected to Israeli military law which violates their basic human rights, their freedom of movement and much more simply because they are not Jewish. Despite violating numerous International Laws, Israel continues to subject non-Jewish people to discriminatory laws and practices and continues to build illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Calling Israel an ‘’ethnocracy’’ would be more fitting, as it has transformed a religion into a nationality, creating a state where only Jewish people have gained the right to self-determination and are now living in a prosperous and successful state.

The fact that Israel has achieved this at the expense of other people, by becoming their oppressors, people who were the indigenous majority in Palestine living there for centuries, only makes it more tragic. It is without question that this one document, consisting of a mere sixty-seven words, has set in motion a series of events that led to the establishment of the State of Israel. It became the diplomatic foundation stone of the state of Israel that Britain granted permission for.

This article is written by Ihaab Souissi

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