Theresa May is wrong to host Benjamin Netanyahu at a celebration of the Balfour Declaration, says HUGH LANNING
YOU bump into remnants of the British presence everywhere in Palestine and Israel. I remember being surprised by the British post box in Nablus. In an unrecognised village near Nazareth — with houses about to be demolished — it is British certificates of ownership you are shown.
But British knowledge of Britain’s role in the region is little known or understood. It is not taught in schools and rarely featured even in our own rose-tinted histories of our colonial past.
Maybe because there was no major emigration or immigration, the story is not told. Unlike India, Australia, West Indies and the US, where versions of the truth exist in our history, the Palestinian story is untold.
Probably the best known tale of the time concerns the lies, myths and legends of TE Lawrence as Lawrence of Arabia, a title to which many people’s reaction would be “what was he doing there?”
Unknown would be Britain’s role in Egypt before the first world war, the fight with the Ottoman empire, and the secret carve-up of the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916.
The Balfour Declaration wasn’t an isolated act; it didn’t come out of the blue. It was part of an ongoing colonial project — a fight for land, political control and oil.
It led to the British protectorate role in Palestine under the League of Nations from 1922 to 1948, and directly to the “Nakba,” or catastrophe, and the creation of the state of Israel.
Roderick Balfour, the great-grandson of then British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour’s brother, Gerald William Balfour, labelled the declaration “first and foremost a humanitarian act trying to repatriate a talented but much-persecuted people to the land of the original Judaic roots.”
It was no such thing. Not only was the Balfour declaration part of a colonial project — it was also established within an anti-semitic framework.
The Aliens Act 1905, just 12 years earlier, was the first British Act of Parliament to introduce immigration controls. While the Act was ostensibly designed to prevent “paupers or criminals” from entering the country and set up a mechanism to deport those who slipped through, one of its main objectives was to control Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe.
About this time the British Brothers League, a forerunner of Ukip, was formed with the support of prominent politicians, organising marches and petitions. At rallies, its speakers said that Britain should not become “the dumping ground for the scum of Europe.”
In 1905, an editorial in the Manchester Evening Chronicle wrote “that the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil and rates simultaneously, shall be forbidden to land.”
Lloyd George and Balfour subscribed to the anti-semitic tropes of the time. For them, the Balfour declaration was a win, win, win — they thought it might help get more US support in the war, it would help with their colonial project in the region and undermine the French, and it might well divert Jews from coming to Britain.
The main victims of the Balfour Declaration, however, were not the French. It was formulated in total disregard for the political rights of the majority of the indigenous population of Palestine.
Foreign secretary Arthur Balfour made no effort to disguise his contempt for the Arabs living in Palestine.
“Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad,” he wrote in 1922, was “rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs and future hopes of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
Theresa May has said that Britain will celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration with “pride,” and this week Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit Britain as a guest of the government, during which time he will enjoy a celebratory dinner with the Prime Minister and many members of her Cabinet.
So, it is good to hear a different approach from Labour. At the recent Labour Party conference, Emily Thornberry relaunched Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy and has followed it up by calling for the recognition of Palestine as an appropriate action 100 years after Balfour.
The next step must be for Labour and British foreign policy to recognise that there is a basic asymmetry in this conflict: Israel is an occupying power, failing to meet many of its obligations as an occupying power under international law, and Palestine is an occupied country.
It is not for nothing that Palestinians in Palestine and the diaspora will be looking to London in November. It was with the Balfour Declaration that the colonisation of Palestine was legitimised.
The fact is that it continues apace with the building of settlements, home demolitions, the separation Wall, and the creation of Israel as an apartheid state — a state built on injustice.
Israel is being allowed to trample over the rights of Palestinians — and the world stands idly by as Palestinians continue to be ethnically cleansed from their own land in contravention of international law.
The military occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem, now 50 years old, and continuing to imprison Palestinians, denies them of their livelihoods, health, and security.
The siege of Gaza, which is now 10 years old, has left Gaza almost uninhabitable.
Palestine is the litmus test for any British foreign policy. It will be Palestinians that will hold Britain to account. To resolve the many injustices that are daily committed against the Palestinian people, Britain needs to do more than have good intentions, it needs a change in attitude towards Palestine and Israel.
It needs to acknowledge and recognise the many injustices that have been committed since Balfour and that are still going on and getting worse.
An apology for what Balfour did would be a good start: “His Majesty’s government view with favour 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.”
A hundred years is too long for any people to wait for justice. It is our crimes for which the Palestinians are being punished.
On November 4, thousands of people from around Britain will march to Parliament to carry this message, and to tell the government that it’s time to make it right.
Hugh Lanning is chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).
The national demonstration marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration will begin at 12 noon in Grosvenor Square, London, on Saturday November 4. More information can be found on palestinecampaign.org. Follow the demo with #Balfour100