Balfour’s Legacy Today: The Key to Israel’s Ever Expanding Settlements in Palestine

Published October 31st, 2017 - 03:03 GMT
A map showing illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank in 2007 (Wikimedia/Shutterstock)
A map showing illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank in 2007 (Wikimedia/Shutterstock)
  • A 100 years after Balfour, its impact is still felt in Israel's settler colonial policies
  • The promise of "a national home for the Jewish people" meant a Jewish state in all of Palestine to Zionists
  • The British Mandate period facilitated the implementation of that understanding
  • Illegal settlers and their supporters continue today to use the Balfour declaration as justification


by Rosie Alfatlawi


Thursday marks 100 years since the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour promised Palestine as “a national home for the Jewish people.”

Both sides agree that the “Balfour declaration” was portentous. But does the statement still have any significance in practice today?


For Dr. Aida Essaid, author of “Zionism and Land Tenure in Mandate Palestine,” its impact can be seen in the continued strategy of settler colonialism.

That is to say, the philosophy of gaining:

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

 A vague document that did not specify what was meant by a “national home,” and held no legal power on its own, we have to look to five years after the declaration to begin to see its effect in practice.

In 1922, the vow was included in the text of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, which set out the terms for Britain’s administration of the former Ottoman territory.

Balfour’s Declaration “was considered the backbone of all British policies in Mandate Palestine,” says Essaid, offering legal support to the “Zionist strategy [...] of settler colonialism.”



Settler colonialism differs from other forms of imperialism in that it aims to replace the existing indigenous populations with an incoming society.

For settler colonialists, land - and who lives on that land - is “the most important asset and commodity.”

Even among states founded on settler colonialism - the U.S. and South Africa for instance - Palestine is unique in that, as Essaid explains, “those who were coming to colonize the land were not the same as those who were ruling.”

She says:

It did so through supporting immigration of Jews to Palestine, and the transfer of land away from Palestinians.

Between 1936 and 1939, for instance, an attempt to slow Jewish immigration to British Mandate Palestine was prevented because it was seen to contravene the Balfour Declaration.

It was influential Zionists who essentially wrote British Mandate policy on land ownership, with discrimination against Palestinian landowners in favor of their Jewish counterparts officially sanctioned.

Under the British Mandate, land pockets were purchased and acquired on the edges of Palestinian villages. When the U.N. partitioned Palestine in 1947, those sections of Jewish-owned land were joined together to form the nascent Israeli state.

The approach has a direct parallel today, when Israelis establish settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank, illegal under international law. Even small outposts are then used to justify the establishment of roads to join them, and the building of the apartheid wall to 'protect them'.

The practice has resulted in the gradual erosion of any territorial continuity for Palestinians in the West Bank, who see their freedom of movement and livelihoods threatened as a result.

Despite a December U.N. resolution reiterating that Israeli settlements are a “flagrant violation of international law,” in February Israel’s Parliament voted to retroactively legalize settlements on privately owned Palestinian land.

Writing in the Huffington Post, Dr. Charles G. Cogan argued that the Balfour Declaration had directly given justification for Israeli settlements today.

He wrote:

This “meant that West Bank was included within Palestine as so defined and therefore could be considered justified as an area where Jews could legitimately settle,” he continued.

The associate at Harvard’s Kennedy School said that this was of direct relevance today, as he had himself recently heard the Balfour Declaration cited by Israelis as justification for settlement building.

Balfour's “Jewish national home” may have been an ambiguous term but, under British oversight, Zionists began its interpretation as the establishment of a separate economy that would eventually evolve into a separate state.

In this way, Essaid suggests, the “Balfour declaration set up the mechanism for two states in Palestine.”

In 1948, all the land that had been acquired by Zionists under the British Mandate, and with the legal backing of the Balfour Declaration, came under the control of the newly founded Israeli state.

The two-state solution is failing, however, and it is largely because of the settler colonial strategy adopted by the Israeli state.

The peace process has been in complete stalemate for more than three years, as Israel continues its expansion into Palestinian territory and ongoing violations of Palestinian rights.

In this context, Essaid suggests, the only resolution to the conflict today lies in a reinterpretation of Balfour’s promise.

“The ‘Jewish national home’ does not mean that everyone else should be second class citizens. But [it could] be a democratic, binational single state - a one-state solution.”

“That has to happen anyway if there is ever going to be a solution to this conflict.”

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