Balfour Declaration at 100: What it means for the Middle East today

Balfour Declaration at 100: What it means for the Middle East today

On 2 November, people in the Territories and diaspora Palestinians around the world will mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, a British statement of support for the creation of a Jewish home in the Middle East that many blame for the decades of conflict in the holy land since. 

The 1917 letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild, head of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, promised support for the idea of a Jewish homeland in historical Palestine as long as the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities were not “prejudiced”.

It is widely seen as laying the groundwork for the founding of Israel, the creation of which in 1948 Palestinians call the Nakba – or catastrophe. The ensuing fighting forced at least 750,000 to flee their homes.  

Today there are an estimated 5.3 million Palestinian refugees outside the Territories, most of whom reside in countries in the region which refuse to grant them citizenship.

One hundred years later, the Palestinian belief in their right to return home is no closer to becoming a reality.  Since the election of US President Donald Trump, an emboldened Israel has announced the creation of thousands of new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

And despite a new reconciliation deal between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the coastal enclave’s two million residents endure a worsening humanitarian situation, after a decade of the Israeli blockade.  

One million Palestinian children in ‘unlivable’ conditions amid power shortages

The Balfour Declaration’s effects still affect the lives of all Palestinians today. As a result, many Palestinians and other activists have frequently said the UK should formally apologise for it. Such calls have ramped up as the 100-year anniversary approaches. 

“It’s so divisive even today because Zionists think that the Balfour Declaration laid the foundation stone for modern Israel – and they’re right to think that – and by the same token non-Jewish Palestinians and Arabs see it as the foundation stone of their dispossession and misery,” Jonathan Schneer, a historian who authored a book on the document, told the Associated Press. 

“Everything stems from the Balfour Declaration,” he said. 

During a speech at the United Nations in New York last year, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said it was time the UK accepted its “moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration”.

“We ask Great Britain, as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to draw the necessary lessons and to bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, misery and injustice this declaration created and to act to rectify these disasters and remedy its consequences, including by the recognition of the state of Palestine,” Mr Abbas said. “This is the least Great Britain can do.”

The Government said at the time it will not apologise for a “historic statement” – but recognised that for many, it is a sensitive subject and the anniversary will be marked “accordingly”. 

Prime Minister Theresa May, however, has reaffirmed that the centenary of “one of the most important letters in history will be marked with pride”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in London on Wednesday, and will be a guest of honour at a Balfour centennial dinner in Westminster on 2 November as part of his five-day trip to the UK. The event is expected to met with protests. 

It emerged last week that Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn had declined an invitation to the dinner.

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