BRITAIN’S BITTER LEGACY
AS THE CENTENARY OF THE BALFOUR DECLARATION ARRIVES, THE CONTROVERSY OVER THE UK’S PART IN THE CREATION OF THE STATE OF ISRAEL AND SUBSEQUENT SUBJUGATION OF THE PALESTINIANS REVERBERATES LOUDER THAN EVER. FOREIGN EDITOR DAVID PRATT TAKES STOCK OF BOTH SID
THERESA May says it is a centenary she will celebrate with “pride”. For many others, however, it marks 100 years of controversy and contention.
This Tuesday evening the British Prime Minister, along with her Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu and some 150 other VIP guests, will sit down to a lavish dinner at a central London venue.
All of them will be there to celebrate a document that although only 67 words long, changed the course of history. That document, written in 1917, was a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, leader of the British Jewish community at the time.
Its words marked a historic promise that the British Government would use its “best endeavours” to facilitate the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Today most of us know that letter by its more commonly used title: the Balfour Declaration.
To say that the celebrations planned around the anniversary of the declaration this week have sparked controversy would be a huge understatement.
Since it was first issued a century ago, the Balfour Declaration has always invoked as much anger as it has cause for celebration.
As the Jewish historian Avi Shlaim has said, it was a moment when Britain chose to recognise the right to national self-determination for the Jewish people but to deny it to the Arab people.
At that time, Jews constituted 10 per cent of the population of Palestine, some 60,000 or so in total alongside just over 600,000 Arabs.
It was another Jewish writer, Arthur Koestler, who perhaps most memorably summed up Britain’s controversial decision, by pointing out that here was one nation sol- emnly promising another nation the land of a third nation.
Given this, it’s hardly surprising that while some on Tuesday will laud and honour the declaration, others will protest and point to what they see as its continuing role today in the subjugation of the Palestinian people by the State of Israel.
“UK Government plans for the centenary of the Balfour Declaration sum up perfectly its one-sided approach,” said Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) ambassador to London.
“The declaration led to the creation of Israel but at the same time signed away the Palestinian people’s inheritance and created generations of refugees,” Hassassian added.
One point often repeated in the heated debate surrounding the centenary is that the declaration’s undertaking to the Jewish side was not matched by fulfilment of its promise to the Palestinians.
For Balfour’s memo, as well as declaring that the British Government viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, also stated that this was on the clear understanding “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious right of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
This pledge to the Palestinians has not been honoured, and, if anything, today the opposite is true, say critics of the declaration. “The true legacy of Balfour is five million Palestinians living in refugee camps. The second part of the Balfour Declaration hasn’t been fulfilled,” pointed out SNP MP Joanna Cherry during a debate last week on the declaration at Westminster.
ONE hundred years on, even some British diplomats still harbour a sense of frustration over the interpretation and implementation of the Balfour memo. That much was evident in a Tweet last week by Jonathan Allen, the UK’s deputy permanent representative at the United Nations. “Let us remember, there are 2 halves of #Balfour, 2nd of which has not been fulfilled. There is unfinished business,” Allen messaged.
Those critical of Tuesday’s celebration, however, say it’s unlikely that the plight of millions of Palestinians will remotely cross the minds of Theresa May and her guests as they sit down to their celebratory dinner this week.
How many of those dining, ask the same critics, will know that at times some 80 per cent of Gaza’s Palestinian population has depended on humanitarian aid for their basic daily food?
They point also to the disturbing figures compiled by the United Nations (UN) and other humanitarian organisations that show some one million Palestinian children in Gaza are suffering from “unlivable” conditions, many so traumatised they are unable “to sleep, study or play”.
According to the humanitarian agency Save the Children, more than 740 schools in Gaza are struggling to function without electricity, and most families receive only two to four hours of electricity each day.
The UN estimates that, currently, more than 300,000 such children are in need of psycho-social support after years of living
The truly legacy of Balfour is five million Palestinians living in refugee camps. The second half of the Balfour Declaration – the pledge to the Palestinian people – has not been fulfilled
under an Israeli military and economic blockade, a volatile situation compounded too by often bitter political wrangling between Palestinian groups like Hamas and Fatah.
The plight of those Palestinians in Gaza has always been especially dire, with aid agencies highlighting how “60 per cent of the sea around the coastal strip is contaminated with untreated sewage and over 90 per cent of water sources are too contaminated for human consumption”.
According to a recent UN report, the living conditions for those two million people in the Palestinian enclave are deteriorating “further and faster” than the prediction made in 2012 that the enclave would be- come “unlivable” by 2020. It’s against this backdrop that the Balfour memo and centenary will be seen in such different ways.
To begin with, not everyone within UK Government and diplomatic circles shares Theresa May’s “pride” over the centenary.
According to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, the British Embassy last Wednesday held a reception at the ambassador’s residence in the Ramat Gan neighbourhood in the city of Tel Aviv to commemorate the declaration.
By all accounts it was a surprisingly lowkey affair, attended mainly by members of the small Anglo-Israeli community and at which the UK ambassador to Israel, David Quarrey, made a short speech, which focused more on the contribution of British immigrants to Israeli society than the letter written 100 years ago by Foreign Secretary Balfour.
What the guests didn’t realise, reported Haaretz, was that the quiet reception in the ambassador’s back yard garden was the only official event organised by the British Government in Israel itself to mark the Balfour centennial.
Clearly some British officials feel that Balfour’s declaration is not something the UK should be crowing about.
As the Haaretz columnist observed, while some British diplomats in Israel have been sticking to May’s line about marking the declaration with “pride”, for many past and present members of the Foreign Office “it has been less pride and a good deal more embarrassment”.
Despite this, May has stuck to her position, perhaps not such a surprise for one of the most pro-Israel leaders in Europe. Last December, in a speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel, which includes over 80 per cent of Tory MPs and the entire Cabinet, she hailed Israel as “a remarkable country” and “a beacon of hope”.
Many in the UK disagree with her cosying up to Israel, arguing that some greater recognition by Britain of the pain, disposses- sion and collective trauma the declaration led to for Palestinians would go part of the way towards helping some reconciliation process begin.
May, however, remains oblivious to such calls and recently she was quick to rebuff those who have demanded that the UK government should issue an apology to Palestinians over the Balfour memo.
“We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. Establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution,” read an official Government response.
The statement was published after 13,637 people in the UK signed a petition calling for just such an apology.
Writing recently, Ian Black, author of a new book entitled Enemies And Neighbours: Arabs And Jews in Palestine And Israel, 1917-2017, warned that the contested centenary remains a dangerous political minefield for Theresa May.
All those involved in Tuesday’s dinner, he says, are keen to emphasise that the event is being hosted not by her, but by the current Lords Rothschild and Balfour.
The latter, the 5th Earl of Balfour, admitted recently that he had to look up in an encyclopaedia exactly how his forebear changed history 100 years ago.
Just as in the past though, today’s positions adopted over the declaration remain as irreconcilable as ever.
“The problem ... with the Balfour Declaration is that whatever explanations we give, none of them justifies doing what was done in a country which was already inhabited,” says Ghada Karmi a British-Palestinian author and lecturer at Exeter University’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.
This, says Karmi, is the fundamental flaw in the declaration and fundamental issue in the narrative of its impact
“You’re dealing with a country with an indigenous population so you cannot go and plant another people in such a country. It’s very simple,” Karmi insisted.
THE perspective taken by many Jews, of course, is very different, as outlined by another academic, Martin Kramer, an Israeli-American historian and founding president of Shalem College in Jerusalem.
“Yes, there were 700,000 Palestinian Arabs ... but there were five-and-a-half million desperate Jews who did not enjoy the citizenship rights of Western Europe,” argues Kramer.
“If you say that Palestine is not their home, then what is their home? They are the eternal wanderers.”
No doubt Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he arrives in London this week, will enjoy a brief respite from the political and personal problems he faces at home that include allegations of graft and corruption.
At home on the political front, Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, has worked with ultranationalist elements to expand and consolidate its settlement programme annexing more and more Palestinian land in the process.
It is a land grab that along with other moves to politically disenfranchise Palestinians, many see as part of the historical consequences of the Balfour memo. But Palestinians are not the only ones in Netanyahu’s sights these days.
At home, too, he is turning his political and legislative guns on Israel’s own human rights organisations like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence, which assist Palestinians in making their case against some of the more punitive measure of the Netanyahu government.
In all, November is a painful month in the Palestinian calendar. It is dotted with commemorative days that have one theme in common: the partitioning of Palestine.
This month – today in fact – Palestinians also commemorate the UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which recommended in 1947 the partition of Palestine giving rise to the State of Israel.
Although the Balfour Declaration did not offer partition, it sowed the seeds for it.
As the great ex-patriot Israeli writer and historian Ilan Pappe has pointed out, “the seeds were sown in 1917, reaped in 1947 and poisoned the country ever since.
“It is time to adopt a fresh moral and political view on this history for the sake of a better future.”
If there is one thing almost certain about the controversy surrounding the Balfour centenary, it’s that Pappe’s words will have little resonance around the celebratory dinner table of Theresa May and her guests when they sit down on Tuesday night.
One million Palestinian children suffer ‘unlivable conditions’ in the Gaza Strip today
British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour in 1917 Photographs: Getty