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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 12    Issue 12   01 - 30 November 2017

Revisiting the Calamitous Legacy of the Balfour Declaration

Professor A. R. MOMIN

European machinations and intrigues played a major role in the disintegration and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. As World War I unfolded, the Ottoman Empire joined hands with the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) against the Allies (France, Great Britain and Russia). The Allies declared war on the Ottoman Empire shortly after the outbreak of the war. In 1915 the British entered into a secret pact with the Sharif of Makkah, Hussein ibn Ali. The pact involved an armed revolt against Ottoman rule under the Sharif’s command, for which Great Britain and France would supply money, weapons and logistic support. In exchange, he was promised an Arab kingdom in the event of Ottoman defeat.

The Sharif organized tribal groups from the Hejaz and Jordan and led them to attack Ottoman troops. By the end of 1916 the French had given 1.25 million gold francs to the Arab tribes who participated in the uprising. The British spent £220,000 a month on the Arab fighters, who were also provided with rifles and machine-guns. By 1918 the Arab troops succeeded in driving the Ottoman forces out of the Hejaz and other parts of the Arab region. Thomas Edward Lawrence, popularly known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” the British secret agent who played an important role in instigating the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, wrote in 1916 that the Arab revolt would be useful to the British Empire because “it matches with our immediate aims, the break-up of the Islamic ‘bloc’ and the defeat and disruption of the Ottoman Empire.”

In 1916, in the middle of the war, Great Britain and France, with the assent of imperial Russia, hatched a conspiracy to dismember the Ottoman Empire and to divide the territories that were under Ottoman rule between themselves. Mark Sykes, a British diplomat, and Francois Georges-Picot, a high-ranking official of the French government, were tasked with working out the modalities of the plot. Sykes and Picot drew a map, according to which the coastal strip between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan, Transjordan and southern Iraq was allocated to Britain, while Syria, Lebanon, northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey would be under French control. Russia, according to the map, would acquire the Ottoman provinces of Erzurum, Trebizon and Bitlis in Asia Minor. The pact was kept hidden for more than a year until the Bolsheviks revealed it after the 1917 Russian Revolution. In addition to geopolitical and strategic factors, religious and sectarian considerations also played a part in the division of the Ottoman territories among the Allies. For example, France favoured the creation of a Christian-dominated state in Lebanon, which was sliced out of Syria. Sykes and Picot’s map suggested that Palestine should be given to Belgium, but on November 2, 1917 the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour promised the Zionist Federation of Great Britain “the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. An American historian David Fromkin, in his book A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (1989), calls Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine the “children of England and France”.

British and French troops seized Palestine in 1917. Amir Abdullah, who later became Jordan’s first king, fought on the side of the British during World War I against the Ottoman Empire. The British rewarded him for his loyalty by giving him a fixed stipend and the control of Jordan. Italy, which had joined the Allies against Germany and the Ottoman Empire, was promised a large part of southwestern Anatolia. Great Britain and France also began encouraging and instigating Christian minorities living in the Ottoman Empire to rise in revolt. In the violent Christian uprisings in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia, thousands of Muslims and Jews were mercilessly killed. By the time the Treaty of Sevres (1920) was signed, the Ottoman Empire had lost the Arab provinces and ceded a large area of Asia Minor to the newly created Armenian state. France and Britain also backed the creation of an independent Kurdish state as part of the Treaty of Sevres, but the idea fizzled out. The withdrawal of Russia from the war and the victory of the Turkish nationalists saved Anatolia from being expropriated by Italy.

Though Britain and France had made a promise to the Arabs at the beginning of the 20th century that if they rose in revolt against the Ottoman Empire and supported the Allies they would be granted independence, they did not keep the promise and the Arab region continued to be under British and French control. In 1920 France invaded Syria and established direct control over the country that lasted until 1946.

European colonial powers, which arbitrarily drew the boundaries of Muslim states, had no concern for the consequences of the division of territories for people, communities, resources and cultural traditions. Many of these national borders divided groups of people and communities that had lived together for centuries. This fuelled inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts.

Zionist Movement

Faced with rising stigmatization and discrimination and the dwindling prospects of integration into European societies, many Jews began migrating to Palestine in the 1880s. This migration formed part of an emerging political and ethnic movement. In 1897 the First Zionist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland called for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, thus spawning the Zionist movement.

The term Zionism is derived from Zion, which refers to Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible. Theodor Herzl (d. 1904) is considered the father of the Zionist movement. The central tenet of Zionism is that Eretz Israel (which is identified with Palestine) is the historical and national homeland of the Jewish people and that they are connected to Palestine by ties of belief, tradition and history. In 1975 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution that designated Zionism as a “form of racism and racial discrimination.”

Many Jewish thinkers draw a distinction between Judaism as a religion and Zionism as a political ideology. The closing decades of the 20th century witnessed the emergence of Post-Zionism, which asserts that Israel should abandon the goal of creating a Jewish state and strive to be a state of all its citizens or a binational state where Jews and Arabs could live together while enjoying some type of autonomy. Independent Jewish Voices, a diverse forum of Jewish academics, journalists and professionals, consider Zionism as a deviation from Jewish ethos and traditions. They challenge the dominant narrative on Israel within the Jewish community.

The Balfour Declaration

Arthur Balfour (1848-1930) first served as prime minister of the United Kingdom and later as foreign secretary in the government of then prime minister David Lloyd George. The controversial Balfour Declaration was included in a letter Balfour wrote to Lord Lionel Walter Rothchild, a figurehead of the Jewish community in Britain. The letter stated that the British government supported the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and added that the British government would pursue its “best endeavour to facilitate the achievement of this object.”

It is interesting to note that earlier drafts of the Balfour Declaration used the phrase “the reconstitution of Palestine as a Jewish State” but that was later changed. However, Balfour and then British prime minister David Lloyd George said the Balfour Declaration “always meant an eventual Jewish State.” It is also significant to note that the Balfour Declaration used the phrase “a national home for the Jewish people,” which is unprecedented in international law.

The Balfour Declaration was the outcome of a carefully planned and orchestrated strategy, in which several prominent European politicians, diplomats and Zionist leaders were closely involved. Walter Rothchild (1868-1937) was an ardent Zionist and a close friend of Chaim Weizmann. Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), who later became the first president of Israel, was a Russian Zionist and chemist who played a crucial role in procuring the Balfour Declaration. David Lloyd George (1863-1945) was the British prime minister between 1916 and 1922. The Balfour Declaration was issued during his tenure. Mark Sykes (1879-1919) served in the British government’s War Cabinet and acted as a key channel of communication and negotiation between British Zionists and government ministers. He was closely involved in the negotiations that led to the drafting of the Balfour Declaration. Herbert Samuel (1870-1963) was an ardent Zionist and the first Jewish cabinet minister in the UK in 1909. He introduced the idea of a Jewish state to the British government as early as 1914. Nahum Sokolow (1859-1936) was a Polish writer and diplomat who travelled widely to mobilise support from world powers for approving the Balfour Declaration. He met with influential French officials in 1917 and managed to convince them that Palestine should come under British control.

The Balfour Declaration had the approval of other Allied Powers during World War I, including France and USA. A letter from Jules Cambon, a French diplomat, to Nahun Sokolow, a Polish Zionist, written in May 1917, expressed the sympathetic view of the French government towards “Jewish colonisation in Palestine.”

Following the end of World War I, the British government acquired mandatory power in Palestine in 1920. The so-called mandate system, created in the wake of the end of World War I, was in reality a euphemism for occupation and colonisation. According to the mandate system, the control over territories that were previously held by countries that were defeated in World War I (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire) came to rest in the hands of the Allied Powers. The ostensible objective of the mandate system was to allow the Allied Powers to administer these territories until they became independent.

The Balfour Declaration was formally incorporated in the British Mandate for Palestine, which was endorsed by the League of Nations. Soon after acquiring control over Palestine, Britain began to facilitate the immigration of European Jews to Palestine. Spurred by the British promise of the creation of a ‘national homeland’ for the Jewish people in Palestine and the rise of Nazism in Germany in 1933, the Jewish population in Palestine swelled to 368,845 between 1921 and 1945. In Jerusalem alone, the population of Jews rose from 53,000 in 1931 to 70,000 in 1935.

Balfour had no regrets about his role in sowing the seeds of discord and conflict in Palestine. In 1919 he told his cabinet colleague, Lord Curzon, who had apprehensions that the declaration might cause trouble for Britain, that “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-old traditions, in present needs, in future hopes of far profounder importance than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”.

The Balfour Declaration and the British support for the creation of an independent Jewish state in Palestine engendered a great deal of resentment and anger among the Palestinians, who formed more than 90% of the population at that time and who had lived in Palestine for centuries. In 1920 the Third Palestine Congress held in Haifa condemned the British government’s support to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine and rejected the Balfour Declaration, calling it a blatant violation of international law and the rights of the native Palestinian population.

In 1936 the Palestinians rose in revolt against the British policy towards Palestine, which was led by Haji Amin al-Husayni, the mufti of Jerusalem. There were violent clashes between Palestinians and Jewish immigrants and settlers. Sensing the growing resentment and anger among the Palestinians and alarmed by the rise of German military power in the 1930s, the British government sought to soften its policy towards the Palestinians. It issued a White Paper on 17 May 1939, which conceded the Palestinian demand for independence and for restrictions on the sale of Palestinian lands to Jewish immigrants and settlers. The Jews, who were frenziedly building a formidable military force, were angered by the British gesture to the Palestinians.

On 29 November 1947, the United Nations recommended the partition of Palestine into two independent states – one for Palestinian Arabs and the other for Jews. David Ben-Gurion, one of the founders of Israel and the first prime minister of the Jewish state, and other Zionist leaders accepted the UN resolution while the Palestinians rejected it. Meanwhile, violent clashes between Palestinians and Jewish immigrants and settlers intensified. On 14 May 1948 David Ben-Gurion announced the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in Palestine. Approximately, 20,000 out of 27,000 square kilometres of the Palestinian land came under the control of the new state. Only the West Bank and the Gaza Strip remained under the control of, respectively, Jordan and Egypt.

Following the creation of Israel, more than one million Palestinian Arabs were driven out of their ancestral lands and more than 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of them fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Gulf countries. In 1953, the Israeli parliament retroactively declared about 120,000 hectares of captured Palestinian territories to be state property, to be used later for either new Jewish settlements or security purposes. The six-day war in June 1967 forced some 250,000 Palestinians to migrate and brought the remaining 22% of Palestinian territories under Israeli control. A group of Israel’s ‘new historians,’ who have accessed archives in Israeli, British and the United Nations archives, have revealed that Israel had systematically expelled one million Palestinians in 1948, which was nearly half of the Palestinian population.

The Balfour Declaration was a shameful and extremely deplorable act that resulted in the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and their dispossession and disenfranchisement. Britain had no legal or moral right to promise Palestine to the Jews as their national home. Edward Said has pithily remarked that the promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine 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.” Arthur Koestler, a well-known writer of Jewish origin, wrote, “One nation, Britain, promised the country of another people, the Palestinians, to a third people, the Jews.” Avi Shlaim, emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford and a leading expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict, has described Balfour as “a millstone round Britain’s neck” because it prompted the wrath of both dissatisfied or impatient Zionists and angry Arabs and Muslims.

The Balfour Declaration stated that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Unfortunately, Britain failed to honour this commitment. The record of the British government in respect of Palestine is utterly shameful. To rub salt into the wounds of the Palestinian people, the British government celebrated the centenary of the Balfour Declaration by holding a gala dinner in London on 2 November. Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and 150 other VIP guests were invited to participate in the celebrations. Speaking on the occasion, Netanyahu described the Balfour Declaration as “a central milestone in the process of establishment of Israel.” British prime minister Theresa May said, “Britain is proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel.”

In response to an online petition signed by 13,000 people demanding that the UK government apologise for the Balfour Declaration, the British Foreign Office said that Britain has nothing to apologise for and, on the contrary, it is proud of the part it played in enabling the Jews to establish their own state in Palestine.

Palestinians: Victims of Betrayal and Deceit

The Palestinian population is estimated to be around 10 million, more than half of them being refugees and their descendants. About five million Palestinians live in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, who continue to bear the brunt of oppression and humiliation. Nearly one-fourth of Palestinians have lost their ancestral homes. In the West Bank about a third of the Palestinian population lives in camps. According to the constitution of Israel, Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli women are not eligible for Israeli citizenship, residency or work permits. Two human rights groups in Israel filed a petition in the country's Supreme Court for overturning this law, which was rejected in May 2006. There are more than 250,000 Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in 1967. Though they have Israeli residence permits, they risk being denied permission to live in the city if they move to the West Bank or travel abroad to work. The expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continues unabated. There are more than 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, who have taken over vast agricultural lands, with the backing of the Israeli government, which belonged to the Palestinians. Thousands of Palestinians have been expelled from wide areas of their agricultural land in the West Bank. Avraham Shalom, a former chief of the Israeli internal security force, described the Israeli settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories as a “brutal occupation force.”

A sinister aspect of the dispossession and demonization of Palestinians is the denial of their identity. Golda Meir, a former prime minister of Israel, stirred up a controversy in 1968 by saying that "there is no such thing as the Palestinian people". Right-wing Israeli politicians often accuse the Palestinians of being fifth columnists. In a recent poll, 62% of Palestinians expressed the fear that they would be driven out of their homes one day.

The second Palestinian uprising (intifada) against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, which began in October 2000, was an expression of the deep sense of frustration and anger felt by the Palestinians. Israeli forces responded to the uprising in an extremely brutal manner. Thousands of Palestinians, including women and young children, were mercilessly killed by Israeli soldiers. Since 2000, thousands of Palestinians, including women and children, have been killed by the Israeli forces while hundreds of them have been imprisoned. Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza on July 8, 2014 killed more than 2,000 Palestinians and caused the displacement of 660,000. Israel has placed the Palestinian territories under virtual siege, with walls, fortifications, fences and checkpoints. Some radical rabbis have issued rulings forbidding Jews from renting apartments to Palestinians or employing them. The number of people living below the poverty line in Israel is three times more among the Palestinians than in the general population. Though the Palestinians constitute 20.7 per cent of Israel’s population, Israel’s 2012 budget allocates less than 7 per cent for them. Former US president Jimmy Carter described the Israeli treatment of Palestinians as "one of the greatest human rights crimes on earth". In his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2007), Carter says that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its inhuman treatment of the Palestinians betray all the characteristic of an apartheid regime. Max Haller says that Israel’s inhuman treatment of its Palestinian citizens represents a form of settler colonialism. In settler colonialism, unlike in the dominant pattern of colonialism, the settlers or outsiders seek to drive out the indigenous population after conquering their territories. Unfortunately, the UN and the international community have taken little or no cognizance of Israel’s gross violation of human rights. It has stubbornly and brazenly defied, with the consistent support of the US, all UN resolutions and international laws and conventions with impunity.

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