Palestine, 100 years after Balfour
Signed on 2 November 1917 – a hundred years ago today – by Lord Balfour, then foreign secretary, the Balfour Declaration committed the British government to the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
The declaration has led to one of the most protracted and bitter conflicts in the world. Why did the British government take this step?
The declaration promised a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ but with the proviso that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’.
As Ilan Pape notes in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, it led just over three decades later to the formation of the Israel and to the destruction of Palestinian society, with the expulsion and flight of two-thirds of its population.
From the British Government’s point of view, a European settlement dependent on British protection could be counted upon to act, in the words of a colonial official, Sir Ronald Storrs, as ‘a little loyal Ulster’.
Palestine’s strategic significance for Britain was to protect the eastern approach to the Suez Canal, a vital route for British trade with many of its colonies, as well as oil supplies from Mesopotamia (now Iraq) which had become a vital military asset during the first World War.
Or as Winston Churchill explained in February 1920, a Jewish state under the protection of the British Crown... would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.’
The British government’s support for the formation of a Jewish state also drew on a deep vein of ruling class anti-Semitism. Balfour had been the architect of the 1905 Aliens Act, devised to block Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms from entering Britain. He much preferred to see Jewish immigrants go to Palestine. This suited the Zionist movement, of which the central aim was the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Its leaders imitated the ethnic nationalism of eastern Europe from where most of them came, conceiving national belonging on the basis of ‘blood and soil’. In contrast to civic nationalism, which is open to newcomers, subject to certain conditions, ethnic nationalism restricts inclusion to people who are considered to have evolved from a common ancestry, with an ancient connection to the land.
Until the rise of Nazism in Europe in the early 1930s, Zionism – the movement advocating the establishment of a Jewish state in the Palestine region – held little attraction to most Jews. Until 1924, when the US brought in strict restrictions on Jewish immigration, many more Jews immigrated to the US than to Palestine. As Baruch Kimmerling writes in Zionism and Economy, in the period 1905-1914, when the embryo of the future state was established in the form of land settlement and institution building, one million Jews from eastern Europe immigrated to the US, whereas only 30,000 immigrated to Palestine.
Zionism gained wider support among Jews only when those fleeing fascism found that the US and the non-fascist countries of Europe severely restricted the number of Jewish refugees they were prepared to give sanctuary.
But from the founding of the Zionist movement by Theodor Herzl in 1897, through to David Ben Gurion, its leader when the Israeli state was established by force of arms in 1948, Zionist leaders wanted more than a place of refuge for Jews. They aimed to build a Jewish state in an Arab country, and ‘deepening’ the ‘Jewish’ character of the state remains their aim to this day, despite the fact that over 20 per cent of Israel’s population is Palestinian.
In The Roots of Separatism in Palestine: British Economic Policy 1920-29, Barbara Smoth explains that during the period of British rule in Palestine, 1917 to 1948, the Zionist movement set about building a separate economy with European Jewish immigrants: institutions such as the kibbutzim (agricultural cooperatives) and the Histadrut (the Zionist trade union) excluded Palestinians. Jewish consumers were encouraged to boycott Palestinian traders.
Unlike settler movements in South Africa and Algeria, rather than use the indigenous people as labourers, the Zionist movement, through its trade-union wing, wanted to remove them from the land and replace them with Jewish workers.
According to University of California Professor of Sociology, Gershon Shafir, ‘By following a strategy of exclusive Jewish employment, the labour movement steered the emerging Israeli society towards the territorial separation of Jews from Palestinians, and thus was able to bring about a small Jewish state’.
In line with the Balfour Declaration, the British administration in Palestine facilitated Zionist settlement activity and helped to train their armed militias.
After the Second World War, following the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were murdered, the great powers sought redemption for Western civilization by endorsing the setting up of a Jewish state on the land of a people who bore no responsibility for the Holocaust.
In 1947, under US pressure, the UN voted for the partition of Palestine. Resolution 1881 called for ‘ Independent Arab and Jewish States... [and a] Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem’. Only the establishment of a Jewish state was realized.
The 1.2 million Palestinians were accorded 44 per cent of the land; the 600,000 Jews got 56 per cent. In 1948, when the British withdrew, the military forces of the newly established Israeli state fought the armed opposition of the poorly armed and fragmented Palestinian and Arab armed forces, and seized 78 per cent of historic Palestine.
Palestine was destroyed. It was at this stage that most of its people were ethnically cleansed, through expulsion or being forced to flee, but yet more expulsions followed after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.
In the 1967 War, Israel captured the remaining 22 per cent of historic Palestine, placing the inhabitants of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan heights under military rule.
Israel has refused to address the consequence of its formation, which has dispossessed Palestinians of their land, turning the majority of them into refugees. Rather than build a multi-ethnic, secular state, the election of ever more right wing governments in Israel have led to an increasing number of discriminatory laws, prioritising the country’s Jewish population at the expense of the Palestinians.
In defiance of international law, but with US and EU economic and military support, Israel has relentlessly expanded its territory through settling its citizens on Palestinian land, forcing the Palestinian population into an ever smaller area with access to decreasing resources.
There is mounting evidence that Israel’s control over the Palestinians is entrenching a system of apartheid. In March, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) accused Israel of establishing ‘an apartheid regime that oppresses and dominates the Palestinian people as a whole.’
‘This fragmentation operates to stabilize the Israeli regime of racial domination over the Palestinians… This is the core means by which Israel enforces apartheid…’
ESCWA was forced to remove the report after intensive lobbying of the UN by the US and Israel.
Exactly 100 years after the Balfour declaration, Palestinian rights continue to be trampled on, while Israeli leaders cynically fuel Islamophobia – portraying their policies, aimed at the Palestinians including political forces that are primarily nationalist, as defending Western civilization against militant Islam.
Thumbnail image: immigration to Israel. Photo: The Palmach Archive