By Mohamed Mohamed
November 2, 1917 marks an infamous chapter of Palestinian history, when the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued a statement declaring British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Coming from the most powerful empire of the time, the Balfour Declaration provided a major endorsement and propaganda victory for the Zionist movement. But for the hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinians and their millions of descendants, the declaration was a disaster that helped seal their fate with just three sentences:
Perhaps the most significant claim in this statement is the one that is most blatantly false, even after 100 years have passed by:
“…nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”
At best, this was a naïve expectation, resulting from ignorance about Zionism’s inherent racism and colonizing ambitions. At worst, Balfour and the British government were aware of Zionism’s intentions in Palestine, but they simply did not care (or even worse, they supported it). Considering that the British Empire itself thrived on the colonization and exploitation of foreign lands under the pretext of racial superiority, the best-case scenario is unlikely.
Despite the falsehood that lies in the above claim, it also contains an inadvertent truth that Zionists have long sought to deny or undermine: that Palestine was indeed inhabited by an existing native population, and that it was not a barren wasteland for them to simply take.
The slogan “a land without people for a people without a land” is well-known as a key Zionist justification for the colonization of Palestine. While they deny that the phrase was coined by leaders of the Zionist movement, the theme is nonetheless pervasive in their propaganda to influence world opinion.
In 1969 Golda Meir, one of the founders and prime-ministers of Israel, said that “There were no such thing as Palestinians…It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.” Unfortunately, this callous attitude of superiority persists among Israelis today and is not simply a remnant of the early days of Zionism.
But the bottom line is that Palestinians were thrown out and their country was indeed taken away from them. The argument that there was never an official Palestinian state or explicit national identity before Israel is irrelevant and hollow, and does not justify Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians, the theft of their land, or the continued denial of their basic civil and religious rights.
If the Balfour Declaration is Britain’s “original sin” of the Middle East, its current sin is the unchecked political, economic, and military support of Israel that continues to this day. Unfortunately, Britain does not seem remorseful for these sins. On the contrary, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has outshined his predecessor 100 years ago with his own proud declaration:
“The Balfour Declaration, whatever its defects, whatever its unfulfilled nature, paved the way for one of the greatest political triumphs of the 20th century, the creation of the State of Israel, which, after all, is a democracy, a liberal society, a beacon of hope and which shares the values in which I passionately believe. This is an amazing achievement by humanity.”
He manages to acknowledge Israel’s failure to fulfill the civil and religious rights of Palestinians, but then proceeds to admire Israel for its democracy and liberal values. The contradiction and hypocrisy in such a statement is beyond comprehension, and it represents a major obstacle standing in the way of justice for Palestinians: as long as liable world powers such as the UK and the U.S. continue to reward Israel in spite of its obvious human rights violations and total disregard for international law and UN resolutions, it will have no incentive to change.
Mohamed Mohamed is the Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center.
The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.