The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration will be observed in Barbados by a week-long Palestinian Film and Arts Festival. Running from November 13 to 18, the showcase of Palestinian arts and films will take place at the Venezuelan Cultural Institute. It is organized by the group ‘Caribbean Against Apartheid in Palestine’ (CAAP).
As I mentioned in my last column, the Balfour Declaration was a public statement issued by the British government during World War I announcing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The declaration was contained in a letter dated November 2, 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfourto Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.
The letter read: “His Majesty’s government views 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.”
Experts have recorded several disturbing aspects of the Balfour Declaration. Among them: “The opening words of the declaration represented the first expression of public support for Zionism by a major political power. The term “national home” had no precedent in international law, and was intentionally vague as to whether a Jewish state was contemplated. The intended boundaries of Palestine were not specified, and the British government later confirmed that the words “in Palestine” meant that the Jewish national home was not intended to cover all of Palestine.
“The declaration had many long-lasting consequences. It greatly increased popular support for Zionism, and led to the creation of Mandatory Palestine, which later became Israel and the Palestinian territories. As a result, it is considered to have caused the on going Israeli-Palestinian conflict, often described as the world’s most intractable conflict.”
Robert Fisk is a multi-award winning Middle East correspondent of The Independent, based in Beirut. He has lived in the Arab world for more than 40 years. He dissected the 100 year old Balfour Declaration in March this year.
“The Balfour Declaration’s intrinsic lie – 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” – is matched today by the equally dishonest response of Balfour’s lamentable successor at the Foreign Office. Boris Johnson wrote quite accurately two years ago that the Balfour Declaration was “bizarre”, a “tragicomically incoherent” document,“an exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama”. But in a subsequent visit to Israel, the profit-hunting Mayor of London suddenly discovered that the Balfour Declaration was “a great thing” that “reflected a great tide of history”.
Although the Declaration itself has been parsed, de-semanticized, romanticized, decrypted, decried, cursed and adored for 100 years, its fraud is easy to detect: it made two promises which were fundamentally opposed to each other– and thus one of them, to the Arabs (aka “the existing non-Jewish communities”), would be broken.
Balfour’s 1917 declaration, of course, was an attempt to avoid disaster in the First World War by encouraging the Jews of Russia and America to support the Allies against Germany. Balfour wanted to avoid defeat just as Chamberlain later wanted to avoid war. But – and this is the point – Munich was resolved by the destruction of Hitler. Balfour initiated a policy of British support for Israel which continues to this very day, to the detriment of the occupied Palestinians of the West Bank and the five million Palestinian refugees living largely in warrens of poverty around the Middle East, including Israeli-besieged Gaza.
This is the theme of perhaps the most dramatic centenary account of the Balfour Declaration, to be published this summer by David Cronin (in his book Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel), an Irish journalist and author living in Brussels whose previous investigation of the European Union’s craven support for Israel’s military distinguished him from the work of more emotional (and thus more inaccurate) writers.
Israel’s post-war creation as a nation state, as one Israeli historian observed, may not have been just – but it was legal. And Israel does legally exist within the borders acknowledged by the rest of the world. There lies the present crisis for us all: for the outrageous right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is speeding on with the mass colonisation of Arab land in territory which is not part of Israel, and on property which has been stolen from its Arab owners.
These owners are the descendants of the “non-Jewish communities” whose rights, according to Balfour, should not be “prejudiced” by “the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. But Balfour’s own prejudice was perfectly clear. The Jewish people would have a “national home” – ie, a nation – in Palestine, while the Arabs, according to his declaration, were mere “communities”. And as Balfour wrote to his successor Curzon two years later, “Zionism … is … of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices [sic] of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”.
Cronin’s short book, however, shows just how we have connived in this racism ever since. He outlines the mass British repression of Arabs in the 1930s – including extrajudicial executions and torture by the British army – when the Arabs feared, with good reason, that they would ultimately be dispossessed of their lands by Jewish immigrants. As Arthur Wauchope, the Palestine High Commissioner, would write, “the subject that fills the minds of all Arabs today is … the dread that in time to come they will be a subject race living on sufferance in Palestine, with the Jews dominant in every sphere, land, trade and political life”. How right they were.
Even before Britain’s retreat from Palestine, Attlee and his Cabinet colleagues were discussing a plan which would mean the “ethnic cleansing” of tens of thousands of Palestinians from their land. In 1944, a Labour Party statement had talked thus of Jewish immigration: “Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in.”
The massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians at Deir Yassin was committed while thousands of British troops were still in the country. Cronin’s investigation of Colonial Office files show that the British military lied about the “cleansing” of Haifa, offering no protection to the Arabs, a policy largely followed across Palestine save for the courage of Major Derek Cooper and his soldiers, whose defence of Arab civilians in Jaffa won him the Military Cross.
In opposition in 1972, Harold Wilson claimed it was“utterly unreal” to call for an Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in the 1967 war, adding that “Israel’s reaction is natural and proper in refusing to accept the Palestinians as a nation”. Margaret Thatcher, according to a note by Douglas Hurd, included “armed action against military targets of the occupying power” as a definition of “terrorism”. So the Palestinians could not even resist their direct occupiers without being criminals.
From the day that Herbert Samuel, deputy leader of the Liberal Party and former (Jewish) High Commissioner for Palestine, said in the House of Commons in 1930 that Arabs “do migrate easily”, it seems that Britain has faithfully followed Balfour’s policies. More than 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted in their catastrophe, Cronin writes. Generations of dispossessed would grow up in the camps. Today, there are around five million registered Palestinian refugees. Britain was the midwife of that expulsion.”