The Balfour Declaration was the first official public political statement to recognise a Jewish claim to a state in Palestine. It is named after UK Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, who wrote it in November 1917 during World War I.
Balfour originally wrote it in a letter sent on 2 November to the leader of the British Jewish community. Its contents stated that the British government agreed to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish community in Palestine.
The British endorsement of the Jews, which to date is celebrated by Israel, was the fruit of several factors.
During the war, Britain invaded Palestine, which had been under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The latter was fighting alongside the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungry, Bulgaria) against the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Belgium, US).
Although Britain had no interest in Palestine at first, it needed an allied state in the strategic area where Egypt’s Suez Canal connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.
Britain needed the support of Jewish communities in the US and Russia, and preferred to obtain it before the Germans did.
The declaration was also the result of years of Zionist lobbying compiling the sympathy of British politicians. Their campaign used the biblical legacy of the Holy Land and the narrative of Jews’ persecution around the world.
However, when Balfour promised the Jews their national home in Palestine, Britain had no legitimate control over the territory.
It wasn’t until the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, which came into effect by the League of Nations in 1920, that the British mandate for Palestine was issued.
Britain, the main victor of the war, was in control of Arab land division and had promised to grant them independence. Debate later emerged as to whether Palestine was included in those promises or not.
Meanwhile, the Balfour Declaration, which had not been negotiated with Arab parties, had also promised not to compromise the rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. This was often perceived as a source of contradiction within the declaration itself.
In the years that followed, Jewish immigration to Palestine was encouraged, and Britain facilitated the Jews taking over of the land, which had originally 90% of its population made of Arabs.
The British couldn’t keep up in front of mounting Arab anger against Jews, which then turned into violence from both sides and the Jewish revolt against Britain when it tried to limit their immigration to Palestine. The Arabs wouldn’t settle either for the two-state solution.
By 1948, the British soldiers eventually evacuated their barracks from Palestine and went home, leaving Arabs and Jews facing the planted conflict and decades of bitter war.
On 15 May 1948, the Zionist political leader David Ben-Gurion declared the Israeli state, to be effective upon the termination of the British mandate the same day. It received international recognition.
Balfour Declaration, 100 years on: divisions deepened
Palestinians continue to demand British apology
Thousands of Palestinians protested on Thursday in Ramallah, Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, raising black flags. Protests also took place in front of British embassies across the world during and before the anniversary.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wrote an article titled “Lord Balfour’s Burden” in the Cairo Review for Global Affairs published on Thursday.
“Lord Arthur Balfor, a British foreign secretary who decided to change the identity and fate of Palestine, a land that he did not own, by promising it to the Zionist movement, and dramatically altering the history of the Palestinian people,” Abbas wrote.
He pointed out that the declaration referred to “existing non-Jewish communities”, while referring to the majority of the Palestinian population at the time, describing it as “disgraceful” and “a deliberate attempt at setting the foundation and basis of denying them any future political rights.”
Abbas argued that by refusing to apologise for the declaration, the UK evades historic responsibility towards a nation under occupation as a result of British policies.
The Palestinian communities across the world also held several events aimed at spreading the cause, including seminars and petitions demanding apology, but also condemning international silence regarding crimes committed against the people.
On 30 October, the Palestinian Al-Quds website published an article posing the question of whether Palestine could sue the UK over the Balfour Declaration.
However, experts in international law told the website that this wouldn’t be possible amid Palestine’s ineligibility to file a lawsuit before the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court’s not being authorised to look into the issue.
But the experts advised that there could be legal prosecution through diplomatic channels and demands to re-open the Balfour file in international institutions.
Britain takes pride in celebration with Israel
Britain celebrated the declaration’s 100th anniversary together with Israel. British PM Theresa May received Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu at a gala dinner in London, where she said Britain was proud of its pioneering role in establishing the Israeli state.
Israeli officials were also widely given the floor to express their views. Netanyahu said it was time for Palestinians to come to terms with the past. “And when they do, the road to peace will be infinitely closer. In my opinion, peace will be achievable,” he said, international media reported.
Robert Fisk, the renowned British journalist specialised in Middle East affairs, was highly critical of May’s statements in a piece published by The Independent on Thursday.
He described her remarks as “disgraceful to the Balfour Declaration itself,” arguing that May put trade relations with Israel before the suffering of millions of Palestinian refugees and dismissing her implication of the two-state solution.
“When the occupied Arab West Bank is still being concreted over [and] when any sane person realises that the ‘peace process’ has collapsed,” Fisk wrote. “Israel itself was created and the Palestinian tragedy began. And in this, Theresa May takes pride,” he added.
Moreover, Fisk slammed comments of Israeli Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev, who said last Sunday that “people who believe the Balfour Declaration is wrong are exposing themselves for the extremists that they are.”
The UK has repeatedly rejected calls to apologise for the declaration.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn issued a statement calling on the British government to recognise Palestine, pointing to the Balfour promise not to prejudice the rights of the indigenous communities.
“A hundred years on, the second part of Britain’s pledge has still not been fulfilled, and Britain’s historic role means we have a special responsibility to the Palestinian people, who are still denied their basic rights,” Corbyn reportedly stated, demanding international pressure to end 50 years of occupation of the Palestinian territories, illegal expansion of settlements, and the Gaza blockade.
Key players in Balfour Declaration and Middle East during WWI
Arthur Balfour (1848-1940)
Sir Arthur James Balfour was a leading member of the British Conservative Party. He became Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, and then served as the Foreign Secretary from 1916 to 1919.
He is most famous for the declaration he issued on behalf of the cabinet on 2 November 1917 in favour of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. He was tied to Zionist leaders Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow.
Balfour aimed to strengthen ties with the US during WWI.
He headed a delegation that visited Washington in 1917, known as the Balfour mission. His support of Zionism also hoped to obtain the support of the Jewish community in the US. Yet, under his rule as prime minister, Britain passed the Aliens Act of 1905, which restricted Jewish immigration from East Europe into Britain.
The Balfour Declaration was celebrated as the first legitimate recognition of the Jewish community and their right to a state, but is still debated over the contradiction it included as it promised that the rights of the indigenous community in Palestine wouldn’t’ be prejudiced, which to date is still unfulfilled.
Lord Rothschild (1868-1937)
Lionel Walter Rothschild belonged to a German Jewish wealthy financier family—the Rothschild banking tycoons. He was a zoologist and founded the National History Museum at Tring. From 1899 to 1910, he was a Conservative MP.
He was the figurehead of the British Jewish Community. Lord Rothschild too was a close friend of Zionists and Weizmann and was the recipient of Balfour’s letter declaring support for the establishment of the Jewish state, where Balfour asked him to “bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.”
Rothschild participated in drafting the declaration with Zionist leaders. According to the Balfour 100 website, Rothschild’s activism in Zionism is believed to have started around 1916 and became public in 1917 as he worked closely with Weizmann to respond to anti-Zionists by asserting the need to create a Jewish state for those who didn’t want to be citizens of the countries they lived in.
Sir Arthur Henry McMahon was a British army officer who served as the High Commissioner in Egypt from 1915 to 1917. He was in charge of negotiating the future of Arab lands following WWI, namely in the series of letters exchanged with the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali.
Britain sought Arab support against the Ottoman Empire, known as the Arab Revolt, in exchange for promises of independent control of their lands.
In 1915, the letter sent by McMahon to the Sharif defined the borders of the promised area excluding parts of Syria and Lebanon, but supposedly including Palestine.
According to a copy of the letter published by the Balfour Project website, McMahon wrote that portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded.
Sharif Hussein of Mecca (1853-1931)
He was the Emir of Mecca, the last of an unbroken line of succession of Hashemite rule over Medina and Hijaz for almost 700 years.
Appointed by the Ottomans, Hussein launched the Arab Revolt in June 1916 against the Ottoman Empire during WWI, thus siding with the British in exchange for promised independence of Arab land.
Hussein’s aspiration was a unified land expanding from Syria to Yemen. He fought with the involvement of his four sons as field commanders in the war.
Hussein worked closely with British military officer T.E. Lawrence.
Between 1915 and 1916, he exchanged correspondence with McMahon aimed at trading Arab assistance against the Ottomans during the war with British support of Arab independence.
But with the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour Declaration, and the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Hussein only obtained Jordan and Iraq for two of his sons.
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935)
Thomas Eduard Lawrence, nicknamed Lawrence of Arabia, was a British military officer, diplomat, and writer who played a role in the Middle East during WWI.
Lawrence had knowledge of the area, having lived in the Middle East in his youth and formed friendships. He served as an intelligence officer in Cairo when the war erupted.
He particularly worked with the Shariff of Mecca and his son Prince Faisal on the Arab Revolt sought by Britain during the war against the Ottoman Empire. He was involved in the capture of the Aqaba port (now in Jordan), among other military operations he was engaged in. He lobbied for Arab independence in the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
He wrote the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, where he recounts his role in the Arab world.