HISTORY: THE LEGACY OF THE BALFOUR DECLARATION

Published November 12, 2023
A Palestinian protest meeting against Jewish settlement of then-British Mandate Palestine
A Palestinian protest meeting against Jewish settlement of then-British Mandate Palestine

The roots of the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict can be traced to the early 20th century, when the British arrived in the region. At that time, Palestine was home to a diverse population, consisting of around 700,000 Arabs, 85,000 Jews, and a smaller percentage of Christians, whose ancestors had lived in the area for centuries.

The Jewish population was primarily concentrated in Jerusalem and Safed, focusing on urban economic activities, while the Arabs were more prevalent in the agrarian sector.

The Birth of Political Zionism

Theodor Herzl, a Jewish journalist from Vienna, played a pivotal role in the formation of political Zionism. Herzl believed that Jews constituted a distinct nation and the only way to escape centuries of persecution was to establish their own homeland.

Early Zionist leaders explored various territories, including Uganda and Yemen’s Socotra Island, as potential Jewish homelands. However, these options were eventually rejected in favour of Palestine, due to its historical and religious significance.

November 2 marked the anniversary of the colonial British diktat. It remains the root cause of the conflict in Palestine, which rages to this day with increasing devastation, more than 100 years later

The Balfour Declaration

In 1917, during World War I, the British government made a pivotal decision. They promised the Jewish community a homeland in Palestine, in exchange for its support in the war. Simultaneously, to gain the military and political support of the Arabs, Britain pledged to back their struggle for independence in lands previously ruled by the Ottoman Turks, which notably included Palestine.

On November 2, 1917, the British government publicly declared its intention with the Balfour Declaration — named after its author, conservative British politician Lord Arthur Balfour — stating that it favourably viewed the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. The declaration also emphasised the importance of safeguarding the civil, religious and political rights of the non-Jewish communities in the region.

The Balfour Declaration, which publicly pledged support for a Jewish settlement in Palestine, marked the beginning of a complex historical legacy. While it was a moment of hope for Jews on their path to statehood, it marked a new era of struggle and displacement for Palestinians.

Edwin Montagu, a Jewish member of the British cabinet, even labelled Zionism a mischievous political creed that could promote anti-Semitism.

The Balfour Declaration faced immediate opposition from the Arabs, and some within the British War Cabinet were sceptical of its validity. Nevertheless, the British government chose to issue the Declaration, setting the stage for later conflicts.

The Division of Palestine

After World War I, in the Treaty of Versailles, Palestine was divided between British and French rule. British forces subsequently invaded and occupied Palestine, initially welcomed as liberators from Ottoman rule. The British fulfilled their promise by supporting Zionist efforts with the necessary governance and infrastructure.

This support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland became official with the appointment of Herbert Samuel, an ardent Zionist, as the first High Commissioner for Palestine, responsible for administering the territory.

The British-backed Zionist project led to significant changes on the ground. Landowners who had been living in exile in other regions, such as Beirut and Damascus, started selling large portions of their land, displacing many Palestinian workers, and creating landless refugees. Urban centres like Tel Aviv developed, attracting Jewish refugees from Eastern European countries.

As the Nazi regime rose to power in the 1930s, the influx of Jewish refugees into Palestine increased. In response, the Arab population began developing their own national aspirations and fighting for independence.

The Arab Revolt was harshly suppressed by the British through measures such as arrests, curfews, the destruction of homes, torture, extrajudicial killings and aerial bombardments, resulting in significant Palestinian casualties.

Following World War II, the British empire’s presence in the region waned and they faced financial constraints. The situation in Palestine remained turbulent, leading to the eventual decision to end the British mandate and transfer the issue to the United Nations.

Regarding the British role in the Israel-Palestine conflict, some argue that it favoured the Arab side, while others contend that it leaned towards the Jewish perspective. In reality, the British administration’s primary allegiance was consistently and exclusively to British interests, which led to the clutter.

The United Nations’ Partition Plan

In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states: one for Jews and one for Arabs. However, this decision did not lead to peace. Instead, it triggered a war between Israel and neighbouring Arab countries, further complicating the situation.

Despite presenting a united front, each Arab party was primarily focused on advancing its own individual interests, and a pervasive sense of mutual distrust prevailed. Lebanese and Egyptian troops harboured suspicions toward one another, while Transjordan actively pursued an arrangement to claim what would later be recognised as the West Bank, driven by its own self-interest.

This intricate situation resulted in a state of chaos, with ordinary Palestinians finding themselves trapped in the midst of it all.

The Nakba and Its Consequences

The war resulted in the ‘Nakba’, a ‘catastrophe’ for Palestinians, with at least 750,000 forced to flee their homes and lands during the establishment of the state of Israel.

David Ben-Gurion, considered the founder of Israel and its first prime minister, took deliberate measures to avoid the occupation of the West Bank, encompassing Jerusalem, the Old City and Gaza. This decision was influenced by the presence of Arab refugees who had been forcibly expelled and denied the opportunity to return to their native land, which we now recognise as Palestine.

The British Were Responsible

November 2 marks the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, an exceedingly contentious and ill-considered proclamation, made with limited understanding of the region and a lack of concern for its inhabitants.

The British must be held responsible and reflect on their actions because, when they assumed control in 1917, Palestinians constituted 90 percent of the population. However, when they departed, the majority of Palestinians found themselves displaced and living in refugee camps.

The commitment to safeguarding the rights of the non-Jewish population was left unfulfilled, and fundamental human rights were consistently disregarded, both during the British mandate and in the state of Israel.

The writer is an academic specialising in politics and international relations

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 12th, 2023

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