Arthur Balfour’s infamous “Declaration” was written 94 years ago this week. Palestinians, of course, don’t need reminding.
And to mark the anniversary Israel ordered its warships to carry out yet another act of piracy on peaceful, innocent shipping carrying humanitarian relief to the imprisoned people of Gaza.
Let’s cast out minds back…. Stephen Ostrander’s simple verse cuts through all the rhetoric to the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
For centuries long
our land enslaved
by Turkish kings
with sharpened blade.
We prayed to end
the Sultan’s curse,
the British came
and spoke a verse.
“It’s World War One,
if you agree
to fight with us
we’ll set you free.”
The war we fought
at Britain’s side,
our blood was shed
for Arab pride.
At war’s end
Turks were smitten,
our only gain,
the lies of Britain.
The country called Palestine was “liberated” from Turkish Ottoman rule after the Allied Powers, in correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon and Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of Mecca in 1915, promised Arab leaders independence in return for their help in defeating Germany’s ally.
However a Jewish political movement, Zionism, was finding favour among the ruling élite in London, and the British Government was persuaded by the Zionists’ chief spokesman, Chaim Weizmann, to surrender Palestine for their new Jewish homeland. Hardly a thought, it seems, was given to the earlier pledge to the Arabs, who had occupied and owned the land for 1,500 years – longer than the ancient Jews ever did.
The Zionists, inflated by the notion that an ancient Biblical prophecy gave them the title deeds, planned to push the Arabs out by bringing in millions of Eastern European Jews. They had already set up farm communities and founded a new city, Tel Aviv, but by 1914 Jews numbered only 85,000 to the Arabs’ 615,000.
The Balfour Declaration of 1917 – actually a letter from the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, to the most senior Jew in England, Lord Rothschild – pledged assistance for the Zionist cause ignoring the consequences to the native majority.
Calling itself a “declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations”, it said:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours 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 and non-Jewish communities….”
Balfour, an ardent Zionist, wrote: “In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. The four powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now occupy that land.”
He later wrote the introduction to a book published in 1919, ‘History of Zionism 1600-1919’ by Nahum Sokolow, in which he said: “Conversations I held with Mr Weizmann in January, 1906, convinced me that history could not thus be ignored, and that if a home was to be found for the Jewish people, homeless now for nearly nineteen hundred years, it was vain to seek it anywhere but in Palestine.”
Some opposed the idea. Lord Sydenham warned: “The harm done by dumping down an alien population upon an Arab country may never be remedied. What we have done, by concessions not to the Jewish people but to a Zionist extreme section, is to start a running sore in the East, and no-one can tell how far that sore will extend.”
The American King-Crane Commission of 1919 thought it a gross violation of principle. “No British officers consulted by the Commissioners believed that the Zionist programme could be carried out except by force of arms. That, of itself, is evidence of a strong sense of the injustice of the Zionist programme.”
And the scheme was heading for serious trouble for another reason. A secret deal, called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, had been concluded in 1916 between France and Britain, in consultation with Russia, to re-draw the map of the Middle Eastern territories won from Turkey. Britain was to take Jordan, Iraq and Haifa. The area now referred to as Palestine was declared an international zone.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration and the promises made earlier in the McMahon-Hussein letters all cut across each other. Was it really a case of the left hand not knowing what the right was doing in the confusion of war?
After the Russian Revolution of 1917 Lenin released a copy of the confidential Sykes-Picot Agreement into the public domain, sowing seeds of distrust among the Arabs. The unfolding story, from the start, had all the makings of a major tragedy. Subsequent crimes – on both sides – flow from this triple-cross.
Apartheid and occupation: “in practice there is little difference”
At Cambridge Arthur Balfour read moral sciences, but much good it did the poor Palestinian Arabs he helped dispossess.
Described as born lazy, aloof and having an attitude problem, he was convinced of his personal superiority and wished to keep the vulgar world at arm’s length. Balfour famously said: “Nothing matters very much, and few things matter at all.”
He was said to be a man who would make almost any sacrifice to remain in office. In this case, he sacrificed the Arab homeland. In 1922 the League of Nations put Palestine under British mandate, which incorporated the principles of the Balfour’s Declaration.
How have things turned out?
John Dugard, a professor of international law and former Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, explains on Aljazeera the differences and similarities between apartheid South Africa and apartheid Israel.
Of course, the regimes of apartheid and occupation are different. Apartheid South Africa was a state that practiced discrimination against its own people. It sought to fragment the country into white South Africa and black Bantustans. Its security laws were used to brutally suppress opposition to apartheid. Israel, on the other hand, is an occupying power that controls a foreign territory and its people under a regime recognised by international law – belligerent occupation.
However, in practice, there is little difference. Both regimes were/are characterised by discrimination, repression and territorial fragmentation (that is, land seizures).
Israel discriminates against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in favour of half a million Israeli settlers. Its restrictions on freedom of movement, manifested in countless humiliating checkpoints, resemble the “pass laws” of apartheid. Its destruction of Palestinian homes resembles the destruction of homes belonging to blacks under apartheid’s Group Areas Act. The confiscation of Palestinian farms under the pretext of building a security wall brings back similar memories. And so on. Indeed, Israel has gone beyond apartheid South Africa in constructing separate (and unequal) roads for Palestinians and settlers.
Apartheid’s security police practiced torture on a large scale. So do the Israeli security forces. There were many political prisoners on Robben Island but there are more Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails.
Apartheid South Africa seized the land of blacks for whites. Israel has seized the land of Palestinians for half a million settlers and for the purposes of constructing a security wall within Palestinian territory – both of which are contrary to international law.
The “running sore” Sydenham warned of has been festering for 94 years, crippling the Middle East and turning the Holy Land into an abomination. Balfour and his clueless pals in the corridors of British power clearly had no idea of the true purpose and base methods of Zionism.
4 November 2011
Stuart Littlewood’s book Radio Free Palestine can now be read on the internet by visiting www.radiofreepalestine.org.uk