The Balfour Declaration: The UK Government Must Apologize to the Palestinians!

On the eve of the 100th anniversary of Balfour Declaration, Palestinians under occupation and in the diaspora are due an unequivocal apology from the British government. However, on October 29, 2017, the current Tory Government Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson struck in The Telegraph a celebratory note calling the Balfour Declaration an “incontestable moral goal: to provide a persecuted people with a safe and secure homeland”. This “moral goal” did not include the Palestinians then, and the British policies since the issuing of the Balfour Declaration have been lacking the principles of equality, dignity and self-determination. Likewise, Prime Minister Theresa May described the Balfour Declaration in the following terms: “It is one of the most important letters in history. It demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people. And it is an anniversary we will be marking with pride”.  The “pride” must be understood to be celebrating and affirming the Ethnic cleansing and dispossession of Palestine and the Palestinians.

The British issuing of the Balfour Declaration on November 2nd, 1917 was a dagger thrust deeply into Palestine and the Palestinian society, and the wounds it created continue to bleed profusely to this very day. Certainly, a hundred years separate us from the actual moment of the issuing of the Declaration, but the meaning and consequences of the 67 words written in 1917 are felt across the globe and continue to cause Palestinian dispossession. Why the UK owes an apology to the Palestinians is a very important question.

Before Lord Balfour’s pen was put to paper to issue the Declaration, the British had already agreed to recognize in 1915 the Arab independence and sovereignty over Ottoman Arab provinces in what is known as the Hussein-McMahon correspondence. The Hussein-McMahon correspondence committed the British government to declare Hussein an Arab Caliph but on the condition that he leads a revolt against the Ottomans. On June 10th, 1916, Sharif Hussein launched the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans with the expectation that he will be named the new Caliph once the war is over. In this context, the Great Arab Revolt was not Arab, nor was it great, but only a part of the British intelligence operation directed at the Southern Ottoman Provinces which, if successful, would allow for British troops movement out of Egypt into Jordan and Palestine without having to face stiff resistance.

The British machination against the Ottomans had been in the making for quite some time and the Great Arab Revolt was another chapter in this long running campaign. Despite the Great Arab Revolt being part of the British strategy against the Ottomans, the commitment to independence and sovereignty made to Sharif Hussein is subverted by the issuing of the Balfour Declaration. Whether such an Arab Caliphate would have come about or not is not the issue, but the explicit recognition that the region as a whole constituted a foundation for an independent state governed by the Arabs themselves. Here, the British colonial duplicity is clear and the double crossing of the Arabs while using a divide and conquer strategy to take over Ottoman territories has not changed much since those days.

Concurrently and exactly at the same time that territorial promises were being made to Sharif Hussein, the Sykes-Picot secret agreement was being finalized between France and England to divide the Ottoman territories between both colonial powers. The Arabs struck a deal with the colonial devil for a piece of land but ended up having neither sovereignty or dignity in return.  Indeed, the British and French had no interest in giving Sharif Hussein sovereignty over these vast territories and were only interested in using the Arab bodies and arms to fight the Ottomans on the front lines.

More critically, the British issuing of the Balfour Declaration ran contrary to the emerging international norm that the era of colonialism had come to an end and self-determination and freedom was the ethical and moral path forward. The calls for self-determination ushered an important period and colonial powers, whether willingly or forcefully, consented to this new formulation. In many parts of the world, it took colonized population some 50-60 years to gain their independence after putting forth monumental struggles against the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Italians. The Balfour Declaration extended the era of direct colonization at the birth moment of the self-determination. The fact that France, the U.S. and other European powers supported the Balfour Declaration is a case in point on the application of a double standard to the meaning and understandings of the concept of self-determination.  Lord Balfour in 1919 expressed clearly the total disregard of Palestinian rights: “In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country… Zionism be it right or wrong is more important than the wishes of 700,000 Arabs,” who constituted some 94 per cent of the population of Palestine at the time.

Adding more British colonial insult to Palestinian injury, the inclusion of the Balfour Declaration into the League of Nation’s Mandate further affirmed the discrepancy between professed ideals of self-determination and continuation of colonial business as usual. The League of Nation’s Mandate provided a new international legal framework to continue to subvert the rights of self-determination, independence, and sovereignty of indigenous populations inhabiting the Global South. Confusing and obfuscating of what is legal with the ethical, moral or what is right sets the roots of the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nation Mandate over Palestine and other regions of the world. The League was not a representative of the world and reflected the victors of war and powers that held the most colonial territories and kept millions in bondage while donning the garb of civilization and enlightenment.

The Mandate powers granted to the British over Palestine were illegal, as well as being unethical and ran contrary to the principles of self-determination. Palestinians had not been consulted about them and had not given input; rather the powers that constituted the League of Nations made the decision and moved swiftly to the implementation stage. The Mandate included the Balfour Declaration, which contradicted the notion of preparing the population to eventually rule themselves since it allowed for the constituting of a “homeland” for another population that had not yet been present in the country at the time of the declaration, or made for no more than 3% of the population.

No matter what the British say about the Balfour Declaration not being intended to displace the Palestinians by providing protection to their religious and civil rights, the original sin lies in giving life and conception to a settler colonial idea. From the first days of the Mandate, the British governors in Palestine worked diligently to prepare the conditions to give birth to the Zionist dream of a state in Palestine. The British Mandate Authority allowed the Zionist Jewish immigration, facilitated the development of Zionist security/military structures, fostered arming of the settlers, created favorable economic conditions for the implanted movement, and granted Zionism and Zionist political standing equal to the 97% of the indigenous population.

I know that someone will mention that the British House of Lords voted overwhelmingly against the Balfour Declaration in 1922, by 60 to 29, declaring that the Mandate for Palestine was “unacceptable to this House, because it directly violates the pledges made by His Majesty’s Government to the people of Palestine” and was “opposed to the sentiments and wishes of the great majority of the people of Palestine”. The vote is important since it points to a complete understanding among British ruling class of what the Declaration meant once implemented but it did  not change the existing government policy favoring the Zionist settler colonial project in Palestine.

In all spheres, successive British governments incubated Zionism in Palestine while tormenting and terrorizing the Palestinian communities who dared to reject it and insist on self-determination, sovereignty and dignity over their land. Mind you, this terrorizing has not stopped since the first day the British army has set foot on the soil of Palestine and continues to the present day. The British government issued the Balfour Declaration, then worked hard to implement it at the expense of the Palestinians. The Nakba and the dispossession of Palestine started with the Balfour Declaration, was facilitated through the machinations of the Mandate and then was given a final form on the hands of Zionism gangs and death squads that utilized violence, massacres and expulsion to forge the planned state.

More importantly, the British government did not end its incubation of Zionism and support for its illegal settler colonial project in 1948, but rather it continues to this very day. Since 1948, successive British governments have continued to aid and abet Zionism in all its efforts while working diligently to frustrate and divert the Palestinian efforts to redress. Over the years, the British government spied on Palestinian activists in the UK and shared intelligence with Israel that often-caused irreparable harm to the Palestine cause. Selling weapons to Israel has not stopped and joint trainings take place on a regular basis, which means not only that the British government incubated Zionism during the Mandate period, but also that it continues to enable it to have uncontested power over the Palestinians. The British government and decency are ill acquainted with each other conceptually and in all practicality.

On the 100th year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the British government must apologize to the Palestinians for the grave crime of granting a public document that facilitated their dispossession. The fact that this took place 100 years ago should fool no one, since the impact and consequences of the Declaration are still unfolding today with Zionist settler colonialism on the march all over Palestine. More importantly, the British government aiding and abetting Zionism and Israel has not stopped, as evidenced in the continued criminalization of BDS activists and pro-Palestine spokespeople all over the UK and the high level of coordination underway between the two states. Prime Minister May expressed opposition to Palestinian civil society: “I couldn’t be clearer – the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement is wrong, it is unacceptable, and this party and this government will have no truck with those who subscribe to it”. Successive UK governments have been enablers to Zionism and facilitated the curtailment of peaceful Palestinian resistance.

Palestine is still the issue today and the Balfour Declaration created the conditions that permitted the dehumanization and dispossession of the indigenous Palestinian population. The first step towards the British government getting acquainted with decency is a forthright apology for the original sin committed against Palestine and the Palestinians. Without an apology for the Balfour Declaration, the British government will continue to facilitate the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine and Palestinians.