A Century after Balfour: A Look Back On Its Impact Today

Published November 2nd, 2017 - 02:43 GMT
Today marks one hundred years since Britain signed a declaration that ultimately led to calamitous effects. Although the original motives behind the Balfour Declaration were to some extent understandable, its impact went far beyond the original scope of the letter.
Today marks one hundred years since Britain signed a declaration that ultimately led to calamitous effects. Although the original motives behind the Balfour Declaration were to some extent understandable, its impact went far beyond the original scope of the letter.

by Salim Essaid

A hundred and forty characters can hold a lot of power in a tweet, yet a century ago today, 67 words eventually decided the fate of millions. In 1917, a written letter from a British government official on behalf of his King was used to give European Jews a long awaited state of their own years later in Palestine - but it also robbed over 11 million Palestinians of their home and self determination.

Many deem the Balfour Declaration as the most powerful letter in the world, and its deliberately vague message provided the future legal framework to have massive effects in the years to follow.   


One critical characteristic of the Balfour Declaration is that it’s deliberately vague. Vague in conveying British Parliamentary support for “a national home for the Jewish People” but not defining a state,  but also vague in describing how and to what extent Palestinian rights should be protected.

“Crucially of course the Balfour Declaration only makes reference to civil and religious not political rights of Palestine’s indigenous Arab population,” said Ben White, author of ‘Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide.’

At the time Palestine’s Arabs who were Muslim, Christian, and Jewish composed 90% of the lands population, yet through the declaration they had no defined ownership over it.

“So the further significance of the Balfour Declaration is that it flew in the face of the principles of self-determination (for Palestinians),” said White.

The closest that Palestinians have reached to statehood is achieving Non-Member Observer State status at the U.N. in 2012, but 100 years later after Balfour, Palestinian independence remains a distant dream.


The 100 Year Old Lie

The Balfour declaration was one of a series of empty promises made to Arabs in the region that set the tone for dismissing Palestinians’ right of return for the next hundred years.   

From the 1916 McMahon–Hussein Correspondence where Britain promised Arab leaders independence in return for helping to topple the Ottoman Empire, to the Oslo accords in 1993 that promised Palestinian self determination but instead resulted in tight Israeli control over Palestinian territories.



Yet more recently Israeli Knesset member Miki Zohar called out this propagation.

“When we say to the Palestinians, ‘we are giving you a state, let’s make peace’ - it’s deceiving them,” he said in an interview with Haaretz newspaper.

“No one is going to give them a state [...] let’s cut this problem off before it begins and stop with the lies.”

So too when British PM Theresa May stated that Britain is proud of the Balfour Declaration yet remains committed to a two state solution. One hundred years does not just memorialize the centennial of the letter but also the fact that Palestinians have been hearing the same empty promises for a century.


Israel’s Justification for Illegal Settlements

The Balfour Declaration paved the way for European Jews to create a state in 1948, and for Israelis to continue expanding their settlements into Palestinian territories.

The impact of the declaration can be seen Israel’s continued strategy of settler colonialism today, a strategy of moving Zionist populations to land to then claim it as their own.

Enshrined under British Mandate control from 1922-48, this remains the policy of the Israeli state in the present.

The 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits countries from moving populations into territories occupied by war. Israel argues they are in line with international law since they consider land acquired during the 1967 war is sovereign territory.

The United Nations Security Council, the International Court of Justice, and other international bodies have affirmed that the Fourth Geneva Convention does still apply to the 67’ borders.


The Permanent Refugee: The 1948 Nakba

A direct result of the Balfour Declaration when it became a legal document by its inclusion in the British Mandate of Palestine was that it led to the 1948 mass exodus of Arabs from Palestine in what is known as the Nakba. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee their homes as Jewish forces destroyed entire villages in their wake.  

"In a matter of seven months, five hundred and thirty one villages were destroyed and eleven urban neighborhoods emptied […] The mass expulsion was accompanied by massacres, rape and [the] imprisonment of men […] in labor camps for periods [of] over a year,” wrote Ilan Pappé, a scholar on Palestine and professor at Exeter University.”

Today, these refugees have increased in number to 11.6 million as of 2012 according to the Palestinian
Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS).

Of them, five million refugees receive aid from UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees. UNRWA is the only refugee agency solely created for a specific population.

With no end in sight and no real action taken to creating a Palestinian state in the near future, Palestinians are set to remain eternal refugees living in camps or with no right to return.


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