November 2 marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which began the still-ongoing colonisation of Palestine and sowed the seeds of an endless nightmare for the Palestinian people, both those who were forced to flee at gunpoint and those who have managed to remain in the shredded remains of their homeland under Israel’s brutal military occupation.
A movement called the Balfour Declaration Centenary Campaign is urging action and wants an apology.
“We call on the international community and all peace and justice loving people to join the campaign to call on the Government and Parliament of the United Kingdom to:
- Reject the Balfour Declaration including its role as an instrument of displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people;
- Issue an official apology to the Arab Palestinian people for their role in issuing the Balfour Declaration and making possible the displacement and dispossession of the Palestinian people;
- Acknowledge their historic, legal and moral responsibility for damages sustained as a result of the implementation of the Balfour Declaration; and,
- Institute reparations to the Palestinian people in accordance with the provisions and principles of international law, justice and equity, which guarantee the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to their homeland and the right of self-determination.”
A Century of Ethnic Cleansing and Denial of Palestinian Rights
A seventeen-year-old girl trembling with grief and rage told me how she witnessed her teenage cousin being shot through the head by Israeli soldiers. They had been walking to school together and the soldiers were taunting him. In response he had picked up a rock. She accused me and all Americans of knowing about these daily abuses against Palestinians but not caring. I tried to tell her that most Americans do not know about these tragedies, and that we would never support those who perpetrate them. But her belief that the average American is savvy about international politics was as strong as it was naive. “Of course Americans know we’re suffering over here,” she retorted.“You’re the most powerful nation on earth. And everyone has a television. I know you know.”
These words are from David Hazard’s excellent book Blood Brothers, which charts the life of Father Elias Chacour, a remarkable Christian Palestinian who grew up on the shores of Galilee and saw his beautiful world shattered by the Israeli occupation. Like countless others he was made a refugee in his own country.
Americans aren’t alone in ignorance of their complicity. British people too seem largely unaware of how tragedy was allowed to overtake the Palestinians, and how this once-peaceful province of the Ottoman Empire, renowned for its antiquities and culture, became a land scarred by conflict, where every day the humiliation of illegal occupation stokes the fires of hatred. You cannot get in or out, or move around, without running the gauntlet of Israeli customs, baggage searches, roadblocks and checkpoints under the sneer of contemptuous, sunglassed troops. Even in remote countryside you’ll run into one of six or seven hundred armed checkpoints. And that’s what visitors have to put up with. Imagine what it’s like for residents.
The Israeli Defence Force is largely made up of National Servicemen and women – teenagers drafted in and trained to use lethal force. They have a reputation for being trigger-happy. Of course, they don’t all wish to play the thug or necessarily agree with their orders.
The truth about Palestine doesn’t sit well with Britain’s now crumbling reputation for fair play. Its name has been airbrushed from maps and purged, like a dirty word, from the diplomatic lexicon. Even today the subject is only haphazardly taught in our schools. For older generations like mine it was never on the curriculum. To understand why, one must at least dip a toe into the complicated history of the last 100 years. To help readers over this hurdle, I offer this ‘potted’ version. At least it will explain why, ten years ago, I went to see Palestine for myself.
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.
Stephen Ostrander’s simple verse manages to cut through a mountain of rhetoric to the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
There was a Jewish state in the Holy Land some 3,000 years ago, but the Canaanites and Philistines were there first. The Jews, one of several invading groups, left and returned several times, and were expelled by the Roman occupation in 70AD and again in 135AD. Since the 7th century Palestine has been mainly Arabic. During the First World War the country was ‘liberated’ from Turkish Ottoman rule after the Allied Powers, in correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon and Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of Mecca in 1915, promised independence to Arab leaders in return for their help in defeating Germany’s ally.
At the same time, however, a new Jewish political movement called Zionism was finding favour among the ruling élite in London, and the British Government was persuaded by the Zionists’ chief spokesman, Chaim Weizman, to surrender Palestine for their new Jewish homeland. Hardly a thought, it seems, was given to the earlier pledge to the Arabs, who had occupied and owned the land for 1,500 years – longer, say some scholars, than the Jews ever did.
The Zionists, fuelled by the notion that an ancient Biblical prophecy gave them the title deeds, aimed to push the Arabs out by inserting millions of Eastern European Jews. They had already set up farm communities and founded a new city, Tel Aviv, but by 1914 Jews numbered only 85,000 to the Arabs’ 615,000. The infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917 – actually a letter from the British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, to the most senior Jew in England, Lord Rothschild – pledged assistance for the Zionist cause with apparent disregard for the consequences to the native majority. Calling itself a “declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations”, it said:
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 and non-Jewish communities….
Balfour, a Zionist convert, later wrote:
In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. The four powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now occupy that land.
There was opposition. 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.
The American King-Crane Commission of 1919 thought it a gross violation of principle.
No British officers consulted by the Commissioners believed that the Zionist programme could be carried out except by force of arms. That, of itself, is evidence of a strong sense of the injustice of the Zionist programme.
There were other reasons why the British were courting disaster. A secret deal, called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, had been concluded in 1916 between France and Britain, in consultation with Russia, to re-draw the map of the Middle Eastern territories won from Turkey. Britain was to take Jordan, Iraq and Haifa. The area now referred to as Palestine was declared an international zone. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration and the promises made earlier in the McMahon-Hussein letters all cut across each other. It seems to have been a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right was doing in the confusion of war.
Some distinguished Jews opposed a ‘national home’ in Palestine
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 Lenin released a copy of the confidential Sykes-Picot Agreement into the public domain, sowing distrust among the Arabs. Thus the unfolding story had all the makings of a major tragedy. Subsequent crimes – on both sides – flow from this triple-cross. The Zionist organization asked permission to submit its proposal for Palestine to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, hitching a ride on the British request to be granted a mandate over Palestine in order to implement the Balfour Declaration. The Zionist case included the statement that “the land itself needs redemption. Much of it is left desolate. Its present condition is a standing reproach. Two things are necessary for that redemption – a stable and enlightened government, and an addition to the present population which shall be energetic, intelligent, devoted to the country, and backed by the large financial resources that are indispensable for development. Such a population the Jews alone can supply.”
Prominent US Jews opposed to this move handed President Woodrow Wilson a counter-statement objecting to the Zionists’ plan, and asked him to present it to the peace conference. It said the scheme to reorganise the Jews as a national unit with territorial sovereignty in Palestine:
… not only misrepresents the trend of the history of the Jews, who ceased to be a nation 2000 years ago, but involves the limitation and possible annulment of the larger claims of Jews for full citizenship and human rights in all lands in which those rights are not yet secure. For the very reason that the new era upon which the world is entering aims to establish government everywhere on principles of true democracy, we reject the Zionistic project of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.
Foreseeing the future with uncanny accuracy, it went on to say:
We rejoice in the avowed proposal of the Peace Congress to put into practical application the fundamental principles of democracy. That principle, which asserts equal rights for all citizens of a state, irrespective of creed or ethnic descent, should be applied in such a manner as to exclude segregation of any kind, be it nationalistic or other. Such segregation must inevitably create differences among the sections of the population of a country. Any such plan of segregation is necessarily reactionary in its tendency, undemocratic in spirit and totally contrary to the practices of free government, especially as these are exemplified by our own country.
The counter-statement quoted Sir George Adam Smith, a noted biblical scholar and the acknowledged expert on the region, who had said:
It is not true that Palestine is the national home of the Jewish people and of no other people… It is not correct to call its non-Jewish inhabitants ‘Arabs’, or to say that they have left no image of their spirit and made no history except in the great Mosque… Nor can we evade the fact that Christian communities have been [there] as long as ever the Jews were… These are legitimate questions stirred up by the claims of Zionism, but the Zionists have not yet fully faced them.
America, England, France, Italy, Switzerland and all the most advanced nations of the world, it said, are composed of representatives of many races and religions.
Their glory lies in the freedom of conscience and worship, in the liberty of thought and custom which binds the followers of many faiths and varied civilizations in the common bonds of political union…. A Jewish State involves fundamental limitations as to race and religion, else the term ‘Jewish’ means nothing. To unite Church and State, in any form, as under the old Jewish hierarchy, would be a leap backward of two thousand years.
We ask that Palestine be constituted as a free and independent state, to be governed under a democratic form of government recognizing no distinctions of creed or race or ethnic descent, and with adequate power to protect the country against oppression of any kind. We do not wish to see Palestine, either now or at any time in the future, organized as a Jewish State.
But Wilson apparently failed to put the document before the Conference.
In 1922 the League of Nations placed Palestine under British mandate, which incorporated the principles of the Balfour Declaration. Jewish immigration would be facilitated “under suitable conditions” and a nationality law would allow Jews taking up permanent residence to acquire Palestinian citizenship (in sharp contrast to the Jews-only law now operated by a dominant Israel). But the high commissioner was soon recommending a halt to Jewish immigration for fear that it would create a class of landless Arabs. That same year the British government, aware of Arab concerns that the Balfour Declaration was being interpreted in an “exaggerated” way by Zionists and their sympathisers, issued a White Paper to clarify the position.
The terms of the Declaration referred to,” it said, “do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded ‘in Palestine’. In this connection it has been observed with satisfaction that at a meeting of the Zionist Congress, the supreme governing body of the Zionist Organization, held at Carlsbad in September, 1921, a resolution was passed expressing as the official statement of Zionist aims the determination of the Jewish people to live with the Arab people on terms of unity and mutual respect, and together with them to make the common home into a flourishing community, the upbuilding of which may assure to each of its peoples an undisturbed national development…
It is also necessary to point out that the Zionist Commission in Palestine, now termed the Palestine Zionist Executive, has not desired to possess, and does not possess, any share in the general administration of the country. Nor does the special position assigned to the Zionist Organization in Article IV of the Draft Mandate for Palestine imply any such functions. That special position relates to the measures to be taken in Palestine affecting the Jewish population, and contemplates that the organization may assist in the general development of the country, but does not entitle it to share in any degree in its government.
Further, it is contemplated that the status of all citizens of Palestine in the eyes of the law shall be Palestinian, and it has never been intended that they, or any section of them, should possess any other juridical status.
“It is necessary,” said the White Paper with masterly ambiguity, “that the Jewish community in Palestine should be able to increase its numbers by immigration. This immigration cannot be so great in volume as to exceed whatever may be the economic capacity of the country at the time to absorb new arrivals. It is essential to ensure that the immigrants should not be a burden upon the people of Palestine as a whole, and that they should not deprive any section of the present population of their employment.”
However, the White Paper flatly denied that a promise had been made to the Arabs ahead of the Balfour Declaration.
It is not the case, as has been represented by the Arab Delegation, that during the war His Majesty’s Government gave an undertaking that an independent national government should be at once established in Palestine. This representation mainly rests upon a letter dated the 24th October, 1915, from Sir Henry McMahon, then His Majesty’s High Commissioner in Egypt, to the Sharif of Mecca, now King Hussein of the Kingdom of the Hejaz. That letter is quoted as conveying the promise to the Sharif of Mecca to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories proposed by him. But this promise was given subject to a reservation made in the same letter, which excluded from its scope, among other territories, the portions of Syria lying to the west of the District of Damascus. This reservation has always been regarded by His Majesty’s Government as covering the vilayet of Beirut and the independent Sanjak of Jerusalem. The whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was thus excluded from Sir Henry McMahon’s pledge.
Nevertheless, it is the intention of His Majesty’s government to foster the establishment of a full measure of self-government in Palestine. But they are of the opinion that, in the special circumstances of that country, this should be accomplished by gradual stages…
From then on, the situation would go from bad to worse.
by Stuart Littlewood | Part 1 of a 2-part Series
This post was originally published on Dissident Voice