This year marks one hundred years since the Balfour Declaration was issued and set in motion the process which led to the displacement and dispossession of millions of Palestinians over the course of ten decades.
Theresa May has said that Britain is “proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel” at a gala dinner in London to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration.
The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and a host of dignitaries attended a dinner on Thursday evening to celebrate the Balfour declaration of 1917, a statement that offered Britain’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. It was seen as the first international recognition of the need for a homeland for the Jews and went on to form the basis of Britain’s mandate for Palestine in the 1920s.
In her speech, May said Britain was proud “of the relationship we have built with Israel” and called for “renewed resolve to support a lasting peace that is in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians”.
Thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank city of Ramallah marched from the city centre to the British consulate, with many waving black flags and banners with slogans such as “100 years of dispossession”.
The Balfour declaration – seen as the Magna Carta of Jewish liberation by its supporters – represents a diplomatic minefield. It has tried to adopt a balanced approach, celebrating the role of the former British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour in the establishment of the state of Israel.
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, then an Ottoman region with a minority Jewish population. It read:
“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”.
Immediately following their declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire in November 1914 the British War Cabinet began to consider the future of Palestine. By late 1917, in the lead up to the Balfour Declaration, the wider war had reached a stalemate, with two of Britain’s Allies and Associated Powers not fully engaged: the United States had yet to suffer a casualty, and the Russians were distracted by internal upheaval. A stalemate in southern Palestine was broken by the Battle of Beersheba on 31 October 1917.
The first high level negotiation between the British and the Zionists can be dated to a conference on 7 February 1917 that included Sir Mark Sykes and the Zionist leadership. Subsequent discussions led to Balfour’s request, on 19 June, that Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann submit a draft of a public declaration. Further drafts were discussed by the British Cabinet during September and October, with input from Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews but with no representation from the local population in Palestine. The release of the final declaration was authorised by 31 October; the preceding Cabinet discussion had referenced perceived propaganda benefits amongst the worldwide Jewish community for the Allied war effort.
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 second half of the declaration was added to satisfy opponents of the policy, who had claimed that it would otherwise prejudice the position of the local population of Palestine and encourage antisemitism against Jews worldwide. Whilst the declaration called for political rights in Palestine for Jews, rights for the Palestinian Arabs, who composed the vast majority of the local population, were limited to the civil and religious spheres. The British government acknowledged in 1939 that the local population’s views should have been taken into account, and recognised in 2017 that the declaration should have called for protection of the Palestinian Arabs’ political rights.
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 ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict, often described as the world’s most intractable conflict. Controversy remains over a number of areas, such as whether the declaration contradicted earlier promises the British made to the Sharif of Mecca in the McMahon–Hussein correspondence.
There are now more than 5 million Palestinian refugees facing poverty and insecurity across the occupied Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Jordan, and in Syria. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been under military occupation for 50 years; the West Bank is being colonised by illegal settlers, while the Gaza Strip languishes after a decade of siege.
A century after Balfour, the Palestinians continue to be denied their basic rights to peace and security.
“As the time passes, I think British people are forgetting about the lessons of history,” says Palestinian Education Minister Sabri Saidam.
He points out that Palestinians still seek the creation of a state of their own – which alongside Israel would form the basis of the so-called two-state solution to the conflict, a formula supported by the international community.
“The time has come for Palestine to be independent and for that long-due promise to be fulfilled,” he says.