Balfour: Britain’s original sin

Article of 4 NOVEMBER 2014

Britain must atone for the original sin of the Balfour Declaration by helping to end the occupation

Lord Balfour in Jerusalem in 1925 [Getty Images]

Lord Balfour in Jerusalem in 1925

November 2 marked the 97th anniversary of the infamous Balfour Declaration, a letter written in 1917 by Britain’s then-Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the Zionist movement. In the letter, Balfour said the government viewed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, and would use its “best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”.

The effect of this declaration was best summed up by the late British author and journalist Arthur Koestler: “One nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.”

It had no moral or legal right to do so.

The declaration contradicted Britain’s previous promise of “complete and final liberation” for the Arabs if they rose up against their Ottoman rulers. Their subsequent revolt was pivotal to the weakening of the Ottoman empire, and thereby the outcome of World War I.

Balfour reneged on his own pledge in his letter to Rothschild that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Balfour visiting Jewish colonies in 1925

In 1919, he wrote in a memorandum: “In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country… Zionism be it right or wrong is more important than the wishes of 700,000 Arabs,” who constituted some 94 percent of the population of Palestine at the time.

Israel’s creation

The Balfour Declaration, and its implementation by the British mandate in Palestine from 1920, culminated in Israel’s creation in 1948, and the wholesale dispossession of the Palestinian people. As such, every anniversary of the declaration should be used to highlight Britain’s central responsibility for the Palestinians’ plight, and its continued refusal to right a monumental wrong.

Labour MP Grahame Morris, who sponsored the recent legislation urging the government to recognise Palestine as a state, reminded MPs of this responsibility during the parliamentary debate. “A sacred trust … to guide Palestinians to statehood and independence … has been neglected for far too long,” he said.

MPs overwhelmingly agreed, with 274 supporting the motion and only 12 opposing it. Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to this non-binding resolution was shameful, with his spokesman insisting that the government’s position “won’t be changing“.

Cameron is not just defying the clear will of parliament, but also the British public. Opinion polls over the years have shown that far more Brits sympathise with the Palestinians than with Israel – two and half times as many, according to a YouGov poll in August. Sympathy for the Palestinians “can be seen across party lines”, said YouGov. In July, a poll on behalf of the Sunday Times showed twice as many Brits siding with the Palestinians than with Israel.

London’s belligerence is also increasingly out of step with world opinion. It abstained during the UN General Assembly vote that chose overwhelmingly (138-9) to upgrade Palestine’s status from “observer entity” to “non-member observer state”. Almost three-quarters of UN member states voted in favour, including most of the European Union.

The upgraded status allows the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court. This is vehemently opposed by Britain despite being one of the founding members of the ICC, and despite its stated commitment to increasing the Court’s membership to eventual universal jurisdiction. A Foreign Office strategy paper last year said this “will increase accountability and help challenge impunity“, which is “a fundamental element of our foreign policy”.

Learnt from history?

Before rejecting Palestinian accession to the ICC, Foreign Secretary William Hague had said just a few months prior: “We have learnt from history that you cannot have lasting peace without justice, accountability and reconciliation,” and that “institutions of international justice are not foreign policy tools to be switched on and off at will”.


This is a blatant double standard that has global implications. “Such clear inconsistency from one of the ICC’s strongest supporters is a gift to enemies of the court and of international justice around the world,” wrote Clive Baldwin, senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch.

British governments cannot indefinitely swim against the domestic and international tides. Of the three main political parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats support recognition of a Palestinian state. Labour leader Ed Miliband, who said he wants to beBritain’s first Jewish prime minister, supported the parliamentary motion and urged his party’s MPs to do the same.

There is growing dissent even among the traditionally pro-Israel Conservative party. Dozens of its MPs voted in favour of recognising Palestine, and a growing number of important party figures are speaking out against Israel’s policies.

They include former International Development Secretary Alan Duncan, Richard Ottaway (chairman of the powerful Foreign Affairs Select Committee), and former Defence Secretary Nicholas Soames. Baroness Warsi resigned as Foreign Office minister in August over the government’s “morally indefensible” stance vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All this suggests that a future British government could recognise Palestine, and with elections due next year, that possibility might not be far off.

Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood is right to state that “only an end to the occupation will ensure that Palestinian statehood becomes a reality on the ground”. It is high time that Britain atone for the original sin of the Balfour Declaration by contributing seriously to ending that occupation, rather than aiding and abetting the occupier militarily, politically, and economically.

(Source / 05.07.2016)

Tags: #ICC4Israel

Video of the Week New Clashes Erupt Between Israeli Security Forces, Muslim Worshippers

Temple Mount temporarily closed to Jewish visitors after clashes with police

The Temple Mount was temporarily closed to Jewish visitors on Wednesday at the order of Jerusalem District Commander Yoram Halevy after Jews broke visitation rules at the holy site, police said. The Jewish visitors were expelled from the compound for bringing sacred books to the Mount and trying to pray there. After one of the individuals was cautioned, another took out a holy book, and the group was expelled. Meanwhile, renewed clashes erupted between protesters and Israeli security forces near the Lion's Gate in the Old City, where police used stun grenades against the demonstrators. A regular dynamic has developed involving clashes between Palestinians and Israel Police over the past several days near the Lion's Gate. Dozens of Palestinians are present at the site on a regular basis, urging devotion to the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount and condemning Israel. During Muslim prayer times, particularly the midday and nighttime prayers, hundreds and sometimes even thousands have been gathering there.

There have been outbreaks of violence during these periods, including stone-throwing or physical confrontations with the police. In most of these incidents, the police have been using stun grenades and sponge-tipped bullets to disperse the crowds. In a number of cases, journalists in the area have also suffered violence at the hands of the police. On Tuesday, Hassan Shaalan, a reporter for the Ynet news website, was struck by a policeman even after he identified himself as a member of the press. A group of Jerusalem-based journalists released a statement of condemnation over the incident and called on the police to permit reporters to do their jobs. The Jerusalem Police responded: "This involved an incident that took place in the course of violent disturbances of the peace that occurred in Jerusalem while the police were acting to remove the demonstrators from the street after some of them refused to vacate. The forces working on the scene are under constant threat to their lives.

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