Balfour Declaration Centenary – An Apology Is Due

November 2nd marked 100 years since the Balfour Declaration was issued. The declaration turned the Zionist aim of creating a Jewish state in Palestine into reality. This was achieved through a public statement made by Arthur Balfour U.K. Foreign Secretary, which expresses Balfour’s support for the creation of a national home for Jewish people in Palestine. The declaration was addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, the leader of Britain’s Jewish community and explicitly states that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The Jewish minority undertook ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs in 1948 in which the Arab states Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq entered what was previously the British mandate, causing the outbreak of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Egypt and Jordan annexed Gaza and the West Bank respectively; however Israel has captured both territories in subsequent wars. The current Israeli occupation of the Gaza strip and the West Bank is viewed as illegal by the UN. Al Jazeera has called the Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land war crimes but also as violating fundamental principles of international law which prompts additional responsibilities of other states. According to Al Jazeera the declaration is generally viewed as one of the main catalysts of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.

In the words of Edward Said, a Palestinian-American academic, the Balfour Declaration was “made by a European power … about a non-European territory … in a flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory.” A foreign country promised Jewish people a land in which they were a minority and the majority group made up 90% of the total population. This completely overrode the autonomy of Arab-Palestinians and ignored the wartime promise the British had made to the Arabs in the 1915 Hussein-McMahon correspondence in which they agreed to grant independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Another issue with the declaration is the use of the vague term “national home,” a notion which was unprecedented in international law at the time. The vagueness of the term meant it has been subject to interpretation and is more passive than the term “Jewish state,” which Arthur Balfour later admitted is what the declaration always meant. The Balfour declaration has been widely seen as a precursor to the expulsion of more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 by British-trained Zionist forces. There is no doubt that the British created the conditions that enabled a Jewish minority to gain superiority and create their own state at the expense of the Palestinian Arabs, despite the declaration stating otherwise.

The Balfour declaration is yet another example of the destructive nature of colonialism, of imposing values and political systems over a distant other, and of ‘divide and rule’ tactics used by the British. The British allowed the Jewish people to establish self-governing institutions, such as the Jewish Agency, while the Palestinians were barred from doing so. It is unacceptable that a foreign state would promise land that was already occupied by people and most today would agree. However, the U.K. is yet to acknowledge their mistake that was the Balfour declaration. While the commitment appears noble in that it’s providing the Jewish people with a national home, it ignores the violence that was used to create it. It is important to understand that just doing something is not necessarily helpful, it is important to ensure that first no harm is done. This sort of mind-set is still seen today in actions like humanitarian intervention. Western states see suffering people and want to help, to impose their political system and societal values upon these suffering people because they think this will help end the suffering. Society needs to understand the implications of its actions in foreign states. Acknowledgement of the damage the Balfour declaration has done to Palestinian Arabs and the subsequent Israel-Palestine conflict by the U.K. government may help move us forward to a resolution of the current conflict. In the very least acknowledge what was done was not acceptable on any level in the hope that these actions are not repeated in the future. If we do not acknowledge our mistakes we are bound to repeat them.