2017: Palestine’s Three Bleak Anniversaries

The 'promise' made by Balfour brought the demise of Palestine. (Photo: File)

By Richard Falk

Increasingly the Palestinians seem doomed to become subjects, or at best second-class citizens, in their own homeland. Israeli expansionism, US unconditional support, and UN impotence are combining to create dismal prospects for Palestinian self-determination and a negotiated peace that is sensitive to the rights and grievances of both Palestinians and Israelis.

Recalling three notable anniversaries that will be observed in 2017 may help us to understand better how this distressing Palestinian narrative has unfolded over the course of the past 100 years. Perhaps these remembrances might even encourage the rectification of past failures and encourage flagging efforts to find a way forward even at this belated hour. The most promising initiatives are now associated with a growing global solidarity movement dedicated to achieving a just peace for both peoples.

But for now neither the UN nor traditional diplomacy seems to have much leverage over the play of social and political forces that lies at the core of the Palestinian struggle. Only the non-violent resistance of the Palestinians to their prolonged ordeal of occupation and transnational civil society militancy seem to have any capacity to exert positive leverage over the status quo and to sustain hope.

1917: On November 02, 1917 the then British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour was persuaded to send a letter to Baron Lionel Rothschild, a leading Zionist advocate in Britain, expressing support for the aspirations of the movement.

The key language of the letter is as follows: “His Majesty’s Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use its best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

An obvious initial question is why Britain was moved to take such an initiative in the midst of World War I. The most immediate explanation is that the war was not going well for the British, nurturing the belief among British leaders that siding with the Zionist movement would encourage Jews throughout Europe to back the Allied cause, especially in Russia and Germany.

A second motivation was to further British interests in Palestine, which Lloyd George, the then British prime minister, regarded as strategically vital to protect the overland trade route to India as well as safeguard access to the Suez Canal.

The Balfour Declaration was controversial from the day of its issuance, even among some Jews. For one thing, such a commitment by the British foreign office was a purely colonialist undertaking without the slightest effort to consider the sentiments of the predominantly Arab population living in Palestine at the time (Jews were less than 10 per cent of the population in 1917) or to take account of rising international support for the right of self-determination enjoyed by all peoples.

Prominent British Jews led by Edward Montagu, the British secretary of state for India at the time, opposed the Declaration, fearing that it would fan the flames of anti-Semitism, especially in the cities of Europe and North America. Beyond this, the Arabs felt betrayed as Balfour’s initiative was seen both as breaking wartime promises to the Arabs of post-war political independence in exchange for joining the fight against the Ottomans. It also signalled future troubles arising between the Zionist promotion of Jewish immigration to Palestine and the indigenous Arab population.

It should be acknowledged that even the Zionist leaders were not altogether happy with the Balfour Declaration. There were deliberate ambiguities embedded in its language. For instance, the Zionists would have preferred the word “the” rather than “a” to precede “national home”. Also the pledge to protect the status quo of non-Jews was seen as inviting trouble in the future, although as it turned out this assumption of colonialist responsibility was never acted upon.

Finally, the Zionists received support for a national home, not a sovereign state, although backroom British talk agreed that a Jewish state might emerge in the future, but only after Jews became a majority in Palestine.

It is worth this backward glance at the Balfour Declaration in order to realise how colonial ambition morphed into liberal guilt and humanitarian empathy for the plight of the European Jews after World War II, while creating an unending nightmare of disappointment and oppression for the Palestinians.

1947: After World War II with strife in Palestine rising to intense levels and the British Empire in free fall, Britain relinquished its mandatory role in Palestine and gave the fledgling UN the job of deciding what to do.

The UN created a high-level group to shape a proposal, resulting in a set of recommendations that featured the partition of Palestine into two communities, one for Jews and the other for Arabs. Jerusalem was internationalized, with neither community exercising governing authority nor entitled to claim the city as part of its national identity. The UN report was adopted as an official proposal in the form of UN General Assembly Resolution 181.

The Zionist movement accepted UN Resolution 181, while the Arab governments and the representatives of the Palestinian people rejected it, claiming it encroached upon their rights of self-determination and was grossly unfair. At the time, Jews formed less than 35 per cent of the population of Palestine, yet were given more than 55 per cent of the land.

As is widely appreciated, a war ensued, with the armies of the neighboring Arab countries entering Palestine being defeated by well-trained and armed Zionist militias. Israel won the war, ending with control over 78 per cent of Palestine at the time an armistice was reached, dispossessing over 700,000 Palestinians and destroying several hundred Palestinian villages.

This experience is the darkest hour experienced by the Palestinians, known among them as the Nakba, or catastrophe.

1967: The third anniversary of 2017 is that associated with the 1967 War, which led to another military defeat of Israel’s Arab neighbors and the Israeli occupation of the whole of Palestine, including the entire city of Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli victory in 1967 changed the strategic equation dramatically. Israel, previously viewed as a strategic burden for the United States, was suddenly appreciated as a strategic partner entitled to unconditional geopolitical support.

In its famous Resolution 242, the UN Security Council unanimously decided on 22 November 1967 that the withdrawal of Israeli forces should be negotiated, with certain agreed border modifications, in the context of reaching a peace agreement that included a fair resolution of the dispute pertaining to Palestinian refugees living throughout the region.

Over the following 50 years UN Security Council Resolution 242 has not been implemented. On the contrary, Israel has further encroached on the Occupied Palestinian Territories through its extensive settlements and related infrastructure, and the point has been reached where few believe that an independent Palestinian state co-existing with Israel is any longer feasible or even desirable.

These three anniversaries reveal three stages in the steadily worsening Palestinian situation. They also reveal the inability of the UN or international diplomacy to solve the problem of how Palestinians and Jews should share the land.

It is too late to reverse altogether these strong currents of history, but the challenge remains acute to find a humane outcome that somehow allows these two peoples to live together or in separate political communities.

Let us fervently hope that a satisfactory solution is found before another anniversary commands our attention.

– Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies. He was also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. Visit his blog.

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