By Nasim Ahmed
The Balfour declaration symbolises all that is wrong and unjust about British policy in Palestine. It represents the attitudes and polices of Britain over three decades.
This is the framing of a five-year international campaign by the Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) in London, to mark the declaration's centenary on November 2nd 2017. It is joined by many solidarity groups in the UK and around the world with the aim of seeking an apology from the British government for its policies in Palestine.
Some may make the unthinking observation that such a campaign is unhelpful, stuck in the past and is an obstacle to peace now. These sagacious words have their merits but lack appreciation of the unique significance of the past in Palestine.
In Palestine, history towers over the present and ultimately over the region's future; after all, is it not said that the Jewish rights to Palestine is based on claims that go back over two millenniums.
In Palestine, Britain was driven primarily by considerations other than that of the rights and prosperity of the people of Palestine.
In the case of the Balfour declaration, given that it was made five years prior to British mandate of Palestine in 1922, it is clear that Britain was driven by concerns almost entirely external to Palestine, which included combating the pacifism of Bolshevik Russia that emerged victorious in 1917, mobilising the US to join the allies and pre-empt similar German declaration for the support of a Jewish homeland.
Rightly or wrongly, the British Cabinet greatly estimated Jewish influence and believed that by backing Zionism, Britain could obtain in both countries, and around the world, the support of a powerful agent of influence – the Jews, in their war efforts.
There was also the convergence of other strategic and domestic political considerations that included maintaining British control of a crucial piece of territory and keeping it in friendly hands. It also believed there were considerable financial advantages to be obtained from supporting Zionism as well as the naive immersion of many British politicians in the Bible and more specifically Adventism and dispensationalism that form the theological underpinnings of Christian Zionism.
In Palestine, Britain did not even propose to go through the formality of consulting the inhabitants of the country about the future of their land. Instead, it committed itself to an unenforceable and contradictory dual obligation that on the one hand, supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine and on the other, promised to guarantee and safeguard the rights of its non-Jewish community.
These dual obligations were politically polarised and irreconcilable carrying within them the seeds of violence and communal strife. By the very admission of its dual obligation, Britain was tacitly acknowledging that there would be inter-communal disputes and violence over key political issues in enforcing its policy in Palestine.
"The non-Jewish community" which the declaration referred to, comprising over 90 per cent of the population of Palestine saw this as an attempt to prize away their country, deny their rights and a surreptitious move to usurp their land. Their calls for democracy, representative government and self determination, which were all consistent with the highest aspiration during this period of decolonisation and an end to empire, were snubbed and failed to curb Britain’s imperial design.
In retrospect, what appeared to Palestinians as British duplicity and favouritism is incontestable; Britain by supporting European Zionism was not just favouring the ten per cent Jewish minority at the expense of the indigenous community, but a minority movement within Judaism itself at the expense of the vast majority of Palestinians.
Such a reversal of history and the natural flow of time and people could not be achieved without violence and repression as was clearly evident throughout the period of British mandate. Increasing Palestinian revolt was met with increasing levels of repression and brutality; during the 1936-1939 revolt alone, more than ten per cent of the Palestinian population was either killed, imprisoned or exiled.
We get a sense of the level of violence and repression that was used by comparing it to other areas of British control. In the last moments of its mandate, Britain had 100,000 troops in Palestine. This is astronomical for a country no bigger than Wales and with a population of only two million.
Compare that to India under British rule, a country that was immeasurably vaster and had a population of 300 million. Britain in India controlled its vast empire with only 20,000 British soldiers.
Consider also that up to 35% of British expenditure in Palestine was on security, which really is a euphemism for the forcible suppression of the aspirations of the Arab majority in the interest of the Jewish minority.
By the end of British mandate, Palestine was left a broken and rudderless society. Even before its mandate ended in May 1948, 400,000 Palestinian Arabs had been expelled, directly or indirectly from the country. Two hundred and twenty-five villages, many towns had more or less been ethnically cleansed of their indigenous inhabitants. Most of the villages were reduced to rubble by the Zionist forces, in order to prevent the Palestinians from ever returning.
Now, over 11 million Palestinians continue to suffer from Britain’s colonial legacy in Palestine. Not only is it time for Britain to apologise for the human rights abuse suffered by Palestinians while under British mandate administration, but there needs to be an admission of this original sin which bought untold misery through nearly a century of conflict, ethnic cleansing, human rights abuse and an ongoing brutal occupation.
The moral imperative, 'if you break it you fix it' has great merit. Britain has a responsibility to redress the pain and suffering of individual Palestinians that endured its brutality during the mandate. It also, more than other country, has a moral duty to ensure that there is a just and fair resolution to this conflict.
Nasim Ahmed is a senior researcher at the Palestinian Return Centre. He is the author of Understanding the Nakba which is a commentary on the plight of Palestinians and editor of the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. He also comments on Islam and Middle Eastern Politics.
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