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Should Britain apologise for the Balfour declaration?

By Christina Okello

Celebrated by supporters, contested by its detractors,100 years on the Balfour declaration continues to divide opinion. The 67-word letter written by Lord Arthur Balfour, Britain’s then foreign minister, paved the way for the creation of Israel. Palestinians say it also dispossessed them of their land.

A century after Britain first declared its support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, its motives at the time continue to divide opinion.

The 67 words penned by Arthur Balfour paved the way for the creation of Israel and is celebrated by most Jews.

But Palestinians see it as a crime.

"Britain which was the custodian at the time with the French. They had no right to give something that did not belong to them to European Jews," says Soliman Ismail.

Thousands demonstrate in London

He was one of thousands of protesters who marched through the streets of London to Parliament on the Balfour Declaration's centenary, 2 November, to demand that Britain apologise.

"We need to correct that wrong that was done 100 years ago, that continues to happen," Ismail insists. "The Palestinians have suffered for 100 years and they continue to suffer. "

Protesters came from all over Britain, waving banners that read: “100 years of injustice”, “Free Palestine” or “Israel is a terrorist state”.

"This protest, it was basically about spreading awareness of what the British have done in the plight of the Palestinians," Abdeeq, a member of Stop the War coalition, told RFI.

"They still haven't apologised for it. Israel is a terrorist state, Israel is an apartheid state and history will remember the people who supported it."

Fate of Israel

But pro-Israel campaigners claim that the Palestinians' supporters want to abolish the Jewish state.

“The people who are asking for that apology are known to sing at their demonstrations and it was heard at this demonstration, 'From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free'," Arieh Miller, Executive Director of the Zionist Federation in the UK, said after the protest.

"Those who are chanting 'From the river to the sea' are talking about the river Jordan to the Mediterranean sea; they’re talking about wiping Israel off the map. I wouldn’t take anything from people who are looking to wipe a country off the map as serious or gospel or really anything to be taken as anything at all.”

Britain and the Zionists

Each side is marking the Balfour Declaration centenary in starkly different ways.

One piece of paper, two very different views.

So is Britain wto blame for today's division between Israelis and Palestinians?

“It might never have happened," Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University of London, told RFI. "It was the result of some very targeted lobbying on the part of promoters of the Zionist movement."

Some argue that it was to help bring in support from the United States and keep Russia in World War I, in the hope that Jews in both places would encourage their countries to stay engaged in the war effort, which in the end never happened.

“There was an element of anti-Semitism in the reasoning of Balfour and others," says Hollis. "But it wasn’t so much to promote Zionism as to promote the British cause in Washington with what were perceived to be influential Jews.”

Many Jews, howver, praise the letter's "humanitarian aspect".

"Jews were living in the land of Palestine in the Holy Land and were under severe pressure by the Turks who were expelling them," says former Israeli diplomat Lenny ben David.

"Six thousand were expelled from Jaffa, another 9,000 were expelled from Tel Aviv-Jaffa area. And under such a situation, the idea that there was a support for a Jewish homeland came as almost a humanitarian affair.”

Britain's mandate

“I think it’s important to also clarify that the letter written by Lord Balfour was contradicted by other promises made by the British, not least to the Arabs and to the French," reckons Hollis, for her part.

"The British were promising things right left and centre, all of which was designed to improve Britain’s own fortunes in the war. The letter was issued even before Britain had actually captured Palestine. And the only thing that gave the letter legal substance was the league of nations."

It was in 1919 in virtue of the Versailles Treaty that Britain was entrusted with the temporary administration of Palestine, two years after the Balfour Declaration.

As well as promising to create a homeland for the Jewish people, the letter also pledged to guarantee the rights and freedoms of the Arab population already living there.

Ben David acknowledges that this aspect was never achieved.

"It did not solve the problem for Arab countries and the Arabs of Palestine because it was rejected by them," he says, mentioning the Peel Commission that was brought in by England "with the desire and intention of creating an Arab state and a Jewish state".

"In walks the Mufti of Palestine and rejects it. They could have had their state had they accepted the partition of Palestine in 1947, Arab states rejected it. They could have had their state all along the way. But there could be no Jewish sovereignty in the land, and unfortunately we still hear that today.”

Palestinian leaders

Ben David and other Israeli officials blame Palestine's absence of statehood not on the Balfour declaration but on the failure of its leaders.

But back at the demonstration in London, Soliman Ismail disagrees.

"Palestinians have never been given sovereignty. A country cannot have sovereignty if their land, air and sea borders are controlled by another state. Secondly, Israel is in violation of over 70 UN resolutions and nothing’s been done about that!"

In the crowds, protesters chanted "Shame on her!" addressing their anger at British Prime minister Theresa May, who had welcomed her Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, to London to mark the Balfour declaration's 100-year anniversary, saying she was proud of its achievement.

"Does she not have any shame?" Rajab Shamlakh, Director of the Palestinian Community in the UK, bellowed into a microphone in front of the audience gathered outside the British parliament.

"This government should feel shame not pride. This government should feel shame that the Palestinian people have been subjected decade after decade to occupation and oppression."

For Palestinian politician, Mustafa Barghouti, the demonstration proved the British public did not share the views of their government.

"This is a great moment of solidarity with the Palestinian people," he told RFI. "And it’s really a response to Theresa May, it’s a response coming from the voices of the British people that they demand an apology to Palestinians and they are supporting the rights of the Palestinians to be free."

In a video message screened at the rally in Parliament Square, Britain's Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time supporter of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, pledged his support for recognition of the state of Palestine.

“We must increase international pressure for an end to the 50-year occupation of Palestinian territories," he told the crowds. "There can only be a lasting peace for the Middle East on the basis of a negotiated settlement that delivers justice and security for both peoples and states."

Balfour's legacy

As the centenary winds to a close, what remains of Balfour's legacy?

Hollis says the British failed to live up to their mandate: "They were supposed to set up a representative assembly inclusive of the whole population there." That never happened.

"It was never their intention to create a Jewish state and they were going to bar more than a few Jews from migrating to Palestine. That’s the irony about the whole idea that it’s thanks to Balfour that Israel exists. It was a massive piece of subterfuge and cock-up by the British, it was not what they intended, they just messed up. Royally!"

The Zionist Federation's Millier acknowledges that it's been a rocky road, but commends its achievement: "The Balfour Declaration was the first paving stone along that road," he said. "And, although it wasn’t the only thing that led to the creation of Israel, it was an important statement at the time.”

It saw the world’s biggest superpower stating its support for a Jewish homeland, the right of the self-determination of the Jewish people, and it was an important step and a bold step for a country to have taken, he said.

Barghouti slams Israeli "apartheid" and sees a battle ahead for the Palestinians in their hope of achieving their own state.

"But like the South African apartheid system could not survive, the Israeli apartheid system will not stay," he declared.

One hundred years have passed since Balfour penned his declaration, driven by imperialist motives to secure a foothold in the Middle East. The document still resonates today, in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

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