Hasan Afif El-Hasan: Balfour Declaration

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan
Special to PalestineChronicle.com

The Palestinians today are dispossessed and oppressed. The vast majority is either living under occupation or in refugee camps across the Middle East or living as second class citizens inside Israel deprived of their human rights. The British owe the Palestinians an apology for planting the seed of the disasters that have befallen them beginning ninety years ago. Britain never apologized for giving itself the right to grant a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine against the will of its Arab population who constituted 93 percent of its inhabitants. Just in case somebody forgot, let us review the story of the British colonialists in Palestine.

Eighteen months after British-French Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 that divided the eastern Mediterranean Arab lands between the two countries, the president of the Zionist Federation, Baron Lionel Rothschild was able to extract the ground-breaking Balfour Declaration. On November 2nd, 1917, the British foreign secretary, Balfour, presented a letter that has been called the “Balfour Declaration” to Lord Rothschild, committing the British Government support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Although the declaration carried the name of Balfour, it was actually framed and authored by Jewish Zionists. It was a one sentence statement drafted by Zionist linguistic and legal experts to lay the grounds for a future Jewish statehood and limit the rights of “the non-Jewish” [Arab] population to religious and civil rights without even referring to them as Arabs.

Two years after the Declaration, Weizmann said in a speech to a Jewish audience in London: “[The Balfour Declaration] is the golden key which unlocks the doors of Palestine and gives you the possibility to put all your efforts into the country”. The declaration was the outcome of several months of negotiations between the British government of Lloyd George and the Zionists in Britain led by Chaim Weizmann. The explanations for the reasons behind the Balfour Declaration by British policy makers at the time range from idealism to utilitarianism. The motives have been seen by some as a result of the pressure exerted by Zionists led by Chaim Weizmann, a scientist who contributed important services to the British war effort in the World War I.

Weizmann established relationships with the future Prime Minister Lloyd George, the Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill and undersecretary of foreign affairs Lord Robert Cecil. He earned more recognition at the highest level of government during the war for inventing a special fermentation process to be used by the British navy guns. He was promoting the idea of creating a Jewish homeland under British protection in Palestine, thus linking the success of the Zionist program with the victory of the Allies in Palestine.

When Lloyd George became the prime minister in 1916, there was consensus within his cabinet regarding the benefits that can be realized by Britain in having a partnership with the Zionists where Britain can rule over a Jewish Palestine. Undersecretary Mark Sykes, a good friend of Weizmann and a strong believer in the Zionist project, suggested that a Jewish presence in Palestine might serve the British interests in defending “the Suez Canal against attack from the north and as a station in the future air routes to the east”.

General Allenby was preparing for the invasion of Palestine in 1917 when Balfour asked Weizmann to propose a written draft of a declaration to commit Britain to a Jewish national home in Palestine that he might present to the cabinet for possible approval. Some of Weizmann associates submitted a draft, and after some deliberation by the cabinet members, it was slightly revised and written in the form of a letter to Lord Rothschild, President of the British Zionist Federation.

Yitzhak Shamir wrote in 1994 that the Balfour Declaration was “the first political success of the Zionist Organization”. It can be argued that the Declaration by itself was not binding because it was not a treaty between two states. But it became binding when the League of Nations which was dominated by Britain and France, incorporated it almost verbatim in Article 2 of the Mandate for Palestine: “The Mandate shall be responsible for placing the country under such political administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home….”. The Mandate was even more specific by referring to “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine” to secure the implementation of the Zionist’s program.

Lloyd George stated in 1936 that what induced Britain to issue the declaration was to enlist the support of the Jewish people, including the American Jewish community, during the war when Britain lost the confidence in its allies. Other motives for the declaration had to do with the ideologies and the attitudes of the British leadership. It was suggested that Lord Balfour, the main architect of the declaration that carries his name, and Prime Minister Lloyd George were ardent supporter of the Zionist movement due to their religious belief in the Bible and the Jews right of return. They were “deeply religious men and knew the Bible” according to Chaim Weizmann. Arthur Balfour closed a memorandum he wrote on August 11, 1919 by stating that whether Zionism is right or wrong, “good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions,…, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

Majority of British politicians believed that a Jewish state allied with Britain would serve the British interests in the Middle East and help protect the lines of communications with the Indian subcontinent, the Jewel of the British Crown. The support for Zionism and disregard for the Palestinians’ grievances became the basis for the policies of the British governments that succeeded Lloyd George administration. Some analysts suggest that British policy makers might have co-operated with the Zionists in order to divert East European Jewish immigrants to Palestine rather than to Britain.

The British colonialists gave themselves the right to grant a national home for the Jewish people, in a territory the British conquered by force, without consulting with its Arab Palestinians who constituted 93 percent of its inhabitants. It was the cruelest act of colonialism. Lord Curzon wrote to Colonel French on August 4, 1919 that the terms of the Mandate for Palestine included the enforcement of the Balfour Declaration and “This should be emphasized to Arab leaders at every opportunity and should be impressed on them that the matter is a ‘chose jugèe’ and continued agitation would be useless and detrimental”.

No apology can make up for the suffering of the three generations of Palestinians who were driven out of their homes or treated as second class citizens and deprived of their human rights and dignity. But Britain should apologize to the victims of its colonialism for the injustice that it had inflicted upon them by erecting a racist colonialist state on the ruins of their society. Britain should acknowledge its major roll in making it possible for the Zionists to deprive the Palestinians of their land property and their human rights. Britain can prove its sincerity by making the necessary changes in its policy in the Middle East by supporting a just peace.

-Born in Nablus, Palestine, Hasan Afif El-Hasan,Ph.D, is a political analyst and an author. He worked for 30-years in Avionics Engineering.

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