On November 2, 1917, Britain issued a directive robbing the Palestinians of their land. The ‘Balfour Declaration’ became the foundational document of Israel; 100 years on, its impact is still being felt.
The roots of the Balfour Declaration can be traced back to Britain in the mid-1800s, decades before the Zionist movement reached full steam. France’s profile as a “protector” of Catholic communities in the Middle East was growing, and Russia was being seen as the main backer of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the region. Seeking its own sphere of influence in the Middle East, and prodded by politicians like Lord Shaftesbury — whose “Memorandum to Protestant Monarchs of Europe for the Restoration of the Jews to Palestine” was published in the Colonial Times in 1841 — the British government encouraged Jews to emigrate to Palestine.
In 1896, Theodor Herzl, a Jewish journalist living in Austria-Hungary, came up with a paper that became the foundational document for the Zionist movement. Called Der Judenstaat (‘The Jewish State’), it argued that in light of the anti-Semetism in Europe, there was a need for the establishment of a state for the Jewish people. Herzl had, in fact, voiced his support to the “Uganda Proposal”, aimed at giving a portion of British East Africa as a home for Jews. But, after Herzl’s death in 1904, the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905 voted down the proposal.
At the Cabinet level, Zionism was first discussed by Britain a few days after the start of the First World War.
In 1916, David Lloyd George became the Prime Minister, and appointed Arthur Balfour — who had also served as prime minister from 1902 to 1905 — as foreign secretary. Both Lloyd George and Balfour sought the break-up and division of the Ottoman Empire after the war. Interestingly, about a decade earlier, Lloyd George’s law firm, Lloyd George, Roberts and Co., had been hired by the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland to work on the aforesaid Uganda proposal.
In Lloyd George’s government, Sir Mark Sykes, a Conservative MP, was promoted to the War Cabinet Secretariat, and given the Middle East portfolio. On February 7, 1917, Sykes started wide-ranging talks with the Zionist leadership. On June 13, 1917, Ronald Graham, head of the Foreign Office’s Middle Eastern affairs department, said both Lloyd George and Balfour fully backed the Zionist movement. A week later, Balfour met with Zionist leaders Lord Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann.
The final, agreed version of the declaration — essentially a 67-word sentence — was sent on November 2, 1917 in a short letter from Balfour to Lord Rothschild, to be passed on to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.
A view of Jaffa, Palestine, in the 19th century. From El Mundo en la Mano. Published in 1875. Photo: AP
Palestine: A Jewish farmer ploughing a field (circa 1900 to 1922) using a horse-drawn Massey-Harris mowing machine. Photo: Universal History Archive/ Shutterstock
Aerial View Of the Garden Of Gethsemane and the Mount Of Olives, East Jerusalem. Circa 1910. Photo: AP
Photograph dated 1914 shows Ottoman Turkish columns marching in Palestine. Photo: Universal History Archive /Shutterstock
British dugouts supported with sand bags in Palestine during the First World War, circa 1916. Photo: AP
Photograph shows high-ranking German and Ottoman officials outside the Salahiyeh School, Jerusalem, circa 1916. Photo: Shutterstock
Turkish military commander reviews troops in Palestine, 1916.
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The Balfour Declaration was contained in a letter dated November 2, 1917 from then British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leading Zionist and member of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It conveyed the British government’s view that it favoured “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”.
Both Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Balfour were religious Christian Zionists, and believed in the “right” of Jews to “return” to the “promised land”.
The opening words of the declaration, sanctioned by the British government, represented the first public support for Zionism by a major world power. The Balfour Declaration laid the foundations of the state of Israel; it was seen by the native Palestinian population as a grossly unfair action by Imperial Britain.
The document mentioned that the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” were to be respected. The fact is that these “non-Jewish communities” constituted about 90 per cent of the population of Palestine. There was no precedent for the term “national home” in international law, and the intended boundaries of Palestine were not specified.
The beginning of the Zionist movement also marked the beginning of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
In 1899, Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, wrote to the mayor of Jerusalem, Yousuf Dia Al Khalidi, who asked him to find a national home for the Jews “somewhere else”.
To this day, Britain has refused to apologise; in fact, Prime Minister Theresa recently said she was proud of the role Britain played in the foundation of Israel. Palestinian leaders vowed to sue the British Government after it refused to apologise for the 1917 declaration that paved the way for the creation of Israel.
Mahmoud Abbas called for an apology ahead of planned celebrations by British and Israeli officials to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
The Letter Written By British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour To Lord Rothschild On November 2, 1917, Setting Forth British Support For The Establishment Of A National Home For The Jewish People In Palestine.
Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930), hated by millions of Palestinians dispossessed by the document that bears his name, hailed from a wealthy, aristocratic family. He was a nephew of three-time British prime minister, and key empire builder, Robert Cecil. A consummate politician, Balfour held powerful positions in the Conservative party for half a century. He was prime minister from 1902 to 1905, and foreign secretary from 1916 to 1919. Balfour was also the secretary for Scotland, and chief secretary for Ireland. He staunchly opposed Irish ‘Home Rule’, and authorised a heavy-handed suppression of the Irish resistance, earning himself the nickname ‘Bloody Balfour’.
In 1915, Balfour succeeded Winston Churchill as first lord of the Admiralty. He became foreign secretary in Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s new coalition. It was in this post that he secured his place in world history. On November 2, 1917, with the backing of arch-Zionists Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, he wrote a public letter to Baron Rothschild, head of the English branch of the Jewish banking family. This was the letter containing the text that came to be known as the Balfour Declaration, which is seen as the foundational document of the State of Israel.
David Lloyd George (1863-1945) was prime minister of Britain from 1916 to 1922. He became a Member of Parliament in 1890, winning a by-election at Caernarvon Boroughs, the seat he retained for 55 years. His personal life was marked by an unhappy marriage, reportedly due his numerous extra-marital affairs.
In terms of domestic policy, Lloyd George is best remembered for laying the foundations of the UK’s modern welfare state. He was impressed by the system he encountered on a visit to Germany in 1908, and believed Britain had to adopt health and unemployment insurance. He did so through the National Insurance Act of 1911.
The Balfour Declaration happened during the premiership of Lloyd George and, as such, it can be said that he was ultimately responsible for it. This, especially since he was an ardent Christian Zionist, and believed in the “return” of the Jews to “their land”. Lloyd George held many discussions with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who was appointed as a scientific advisor to his Ministry of Munitions in September 1915. In 1932, in his War Memoirs, Lloyd George described these meetings as being the “fount and origin” of the declaration, although this claim has been rejected by historians.
Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) was a Jewish journalist born in Budapest in Austrian Empire (now in Hungary). He is considered the founder of the political form of Zionism, a movement to establish a Jewish homeland. His pamphlet, called Der Judenstaat (‘The Jewish State’), argued that in light of the anti-Semetism in Europe, there was a need for the establishment of a state for the Jewish people. He believed the nations of the world had a responsibility to settle the “Jewish question”. In August 1897, he organised a world congress of Zionism in Basel, Switzerland. The congress established the World Zionist Organisation, and Herzl became its first president. He worked as a journalist for a leading newspaper in Vienna, Neue Freie Presse, and was made the paper’s Paris correspondent. He arrived in Paris with his wife in 1891, and claimed to have encountered the same anti-Semitism that he had seen in Vienna.
He is said to have become convinced that the Jews could only live in peace and security in a state of their own. He negotiated unsuccessfully with the Ottoman Sultan to allow Jewish mass settlement in Palestine. He then turned to Great Britain, which proposed Uganda in East Africa as a home for the Jews. This offer, which Herzl was willing to accept, was violently opposed at the 1903 Zionist congress. Despite his death almost 40 years before the establishment of Israel, he is credited with being the main force behind the Zionist project.
Baron Walter Rothschild (1868-1937) was the eldest son and heir of Nathan Rothschild, the 1st Baron Rothschild, an immensely-wealthy scion of the international Jewish financial dynasty, who was also the first Jewish peer in England. In 1889, leaving Cambridge university after two years, he went into the family banking business to study finance. Walter Rothschild was a Conservative Member of Parliament from 1899 until he retired from politics in 1910. He was an accomplished zoologist, and famously drove a carriage drawn by four zebras to Buckingham Palace to prove that zebras could be tamed.
An ardent Zionist, he was a close friend of Chaim Weizmann, and worked to formulate the draft for the “declaration” of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. On November 2, 1917 he received a letter from the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, addressed to his London home, which contained the Balfour Declaration. Walter inherited the peerage title “Baron Rothschild” from his father in 1915.
Mohammad Ameen Al Hussaini (1897-1974), also known as Haj Ameen, was a Palestinian Arab nationalist and Muslim leader during the Mandate period. He hailed from a family of Jerusalemite notables. He served in the Ottoman army in the First World War, and was a strong opponent of Zionism. In 1921, he was appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem by the British High Commissioner. But he took an anti-British stance during the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. During the Second World War, he met Adolf Hitler, and sought his help for Arab independence and to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
In the lead-up to the 1948 war, Al Hussaini opposed the 1947 UN Partition Plan. Following the exodus of Palestinians after the war, he was sidelined by the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Al Hussaini is remembered by his admirers for his fierce nationalism and opposition to Zionism, while his detractors point to his alleged “anti-Semitism”.
Yasser Arafat (1929-2004), popularly known as Abu Ammar, was the most recognisable face of the Palestinian liberation struggle and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). A staunch Arab nationalist, Arafat was a founding member of Fatah. He was also the president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) from 1994 to 2004.
Arafat was born to Palestinian parents in Cairo and spent most of his youth there. He took a vehement stance against Zionism, and opposed the creation of the State of Israel, and saw action during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. After his Fatah organisation’s growing military clashes in Jordan against the Jordanian government, Fatah relocated to Lebanon. There, Arafat backed the Lebanese National Movement during the Lebanese Civil War and continued attacks on Israel, which used this as a pretext for its 1978 and 1982 invasions of Lebanon.
In 1988, he acknowledged Israel’s right to exist and sought a two-state solution. In 1994 he returned to Palestine, settling in Gaza. He engaged in a series of talks with Israelis - the Madrid Conference of 1991, the 1993 Oslo Accords and the 2000 Camp David Summit. In 1994 Arafat received the Nobel Peace Prize, together with Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, for the negotiations at Oslo. In late 2004, after effectively being confined within his Ramallah compound for over two years by the Israeli army, Arafat fell into a coma and died.
Balfour visiting Jewish colonies, Palestine, 1925. As Foreign Secretary, he was responsible for the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
Entry of Field Marshal Allenby, Jerusalem, December 11 , 1917. Allenby was the British Commander of Egyptian Expeditionary Force.
Turkish troops defeated by the British army under Sir Edmund Allenby retreat through Jerusalem by the Jaffa Gate, circa 1917
Balfour visits the Hebrew University to lay the foundation stone, 1918.
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The Balfour Declaration had an immense impact, not only on the Palestinians but also the broader Arab and Muslim world. The immediate result was the emergence of the Jewish state of Israel, and chronic conflict between Israel and the Arab world, which continues to this day. The Balfour Declaration also cemented the mistrust Arabs continue to feel towards the former colonial powers, especially Britain and France. The document strengthened the Zionist movement, and led to the movement adopting an even more hardline stance against the Arabs.
The British reneged on their promises to the Arabs and Palestinians, leaving behind a legacy of betrayal. By the time the British surrendered the Mandate in 1948, it had become clear to them that the monster they had created had acquired a life of its own. They were simply either unwilling or unable – or both – to carry out their Mandate obligations.
In terms of actual battles and wars, the Arab-Israeli conflict can be said to have gone on from 1948 to 1973. But, in reality, it continues to this day – in the form of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, the invasions and incursions against sovereign Arab states, and assassinations and other hostile acts carried out by the Israelis against their Arab and other Muslim foes in the region.
On November 3, 1918, a day after the one-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a delegation of the Muslim-Christian Association handed a petition signed by more than 100 notables to Ronald Storrs, the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration military governor: It read: “We have noticed yesterday a large crowd of Jews carrying banners and over-running the streets shouting words which hurt the feeling and wound the soul. They pretend with open voice that Palestine, which is the Holy Land of our fathers and the graveyard of our ancestors, which has been inhabited by the Arabs for long ages, who loved it and died in defending it, is now a national home for them ... We Arabs, Muslim and Christian, have always sympathised profoundly with the persecuted Jews and their misfortunes in other countries ... but there is wide difference between such sympathy and the acceptance of such a nation ... ruling over us and disposing of our affairs.”
A 2010 study by Dr. Jonathan Schneer, specialist in modern British history at Georgia Tech, concluded that the Balfour declaration was marked by “contradictions, deceptions, misinterpretations, and wishful thinking”. As a result, it “produced a murderous harvest, and we go on harvesting even today”.
Iconic UNRWA photo of Palestinian refugee exodus. Photo: UNRWA
Palmach, an elite fighting force of the Haganah, the underground Jewish army, 1948.
1948 - Arab women and a child: They are typical of nearly half a million refugees rendered homeless by the fighting in the Holy Land. The tide of panic that seized one third of Palestine's Arab population forced them to flee their homes. Even today, there are several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East. Photo: AP