Politics, World, Middle East

100 years on, Balfour Declaration still divides

While Israel, UK celebrate fateful declaration's 100th anniversary, Palestinians say 1917 document has left painful legacy

02.11.2017 - Update : 03.11.2017
100 years on, Balfour Declaration still divides

By Kaamil Ahmed and Anees Barghouti


At almost every public appearance over the past week, Palestinian politicians have reiterated their demand that Britain apologize for the 1917 Balfour Declaration -- a document that laid the groundwork for Israel's creation -- while Israelis have prepared to celebrate the declaration's centennial.

Israel says the document paved the way for the country's creation at a time when Jews were discriminated against in Europe, while British Prime Minister Theresa May said her country should be "proud" of the declaration -- but Palestinians view it in an altogether different light.

They are marking the centennial on Thursday with protests in the West Bank and Gaza because of the role they say the declaration played in leading to the 1948 Nakba, or “Catastrophe”, when more than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced upon Israel's establishment.

"The Balfour declaration in 1917 can only be seen as a historical crime against the Palestinian people and a disgrace in the face of Britain that will not be erased by time," Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian National Initiative and a former presidential candidate, told Anadolu Agency.

"It created the most racist apartheid regime in the history of mankind -- a nightmare Palestine has been living for 100 years now," he said.

Yara Hawari, Palestine Policy Fellow at the Al-Shabaka think-tank, told Anadolu Agency that the Balfour Declaration was not merely a historical document.

"Balfour’s legacy continues today through British foreign policy,” she said.

“British support for Zionism and Israel, more generally, has been sort of uncaring and continuous -- and that’s been to the detriment of Palestinian sovereignty and human rights,” Hawari added.

“Its legacy does not belong to the past," she said, asserting that Britain's decision to celebrate the centennial -- despite Palestinian objections -- should come as little surprise.

"Britain generally speaking hasn’t apologized for its imperial crimes in the past. We weren’t expecting something different," she said.

According to Hawari, it is important to note the declaration’s 100-year anniversary because discussions about Palestinian rights often center around the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, when Israel occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

"The Palestinian struggle for their rights has been going on for a lot longer than that [the 1967 war], even before Balfour," she said.

"The important thing about the centennial is remembering that it's not something that just goes back to '67," she added.

Celebrating with pride

Britain is marking the centennial with an event at its embassy in Tel Aviv and a private dinner attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his U.K. counterpart.

When leaving for London on Wednesday, Netanyahu responded to Palestinian criticisms of the anniversary celebrations, saying the declaration "recognized the right of the Jewish people to their national home in this land”.

"The Palestinians say the Balfour Declaration was a ‘tragedy’. It wasn’t a tragedy. What has been tragic is their refusal to accept this 100 years later,” Netanyahu said.

“I hope they change their mind, because if they do they can move forward finally to making peace between our two peoples," he added.

British officials have recently sought to emphasize another part of the 1917 letter written by then British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a prominent British Jew and supporter of the Zionist movement: namely, its assertion that the rights of "non-Jewish communities in Palestine" must not be infringed upon.

Last month, Jonathan Allen, the U.K.'s deputy permanent representative to the UN, told the UN Security Council that there was "unfinished business" because the failure thus far to establish a Palestinian state meant the Balfour Declaration had not been fulfilled -- a sentiment echoed this week by U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

"It is Israelis and Palestinians who must negotiate the details and write their own chapter in history," Johnson wrote in a column published jointly by the British Daily Telegraph, Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth and Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds.

“A century on, Britain will give whatever support we can in order to close the ring and complete the unfinished business of the Balfour Declaration,” he added.

The Palestinians, for their part, have been vocal about their opposition to the British celebrations, with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) running a social media campaign aimed at highlighting the declaration’s negative impact on the Palestinian people.

Writing in British newspaper The Guardian on Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the declaration’s negative consequences "can be made right”.

"This will require humility and courage,” Abbas wrote. “It will require coming to terms with the past, recognizing mistakes, and taking concrete steps to correct those mistakes.”

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