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The ‘ominous’ Balfour Declaration

Oct 31,2017 - Last updated at Oct 31,2017

While the Israelis, and perhaps the world Jewry as well, commemorate the 1948 war with the Palestinians as their independence day, the Palestinians, on the other hand, see that era in their history as a sad moment for remembering their “Nakba”(the Arabic word for catastrophe).

Currently this is being replicated with respect to the so-called Balfour Declaration, which reached its first centennial anniversary this week.

The Israelis, along with many of their Western supporters, are celebrating the British foreign minister’s  “promise” of a Jewish national home in Palestine as a document that amounts to the birth certificate of the state of Israel, already 70 years old.

The Palestinians remember it as an illegal ominous “promise” by a colonial power to the Jewish people to establish for themselves a national home in a land that belonged neither to them nor to those who offered them the land as a free gift.

On November 2, 1917, Arthur James Balfour did not issue a promise. He issued a declaration: the Balfour Declaration. Since then, the Arabs have referred to it as a promise. They regularly refer to it as the “ominous” Balfour Promise.

Semantics aside, the declaration could not have been considered, and in fact it was not, as a valid legal document. 

Even some Jewish groups opposed it at the time, out of concern that it could shake their foundations as prosperous and comfortable communities in the countries to which they belonged.

This is why it included language assuring those Jewish communities that nothing in the text would prejudice their rights where they were. It also included a reservation against prejudicing the civil or religious rights of non-Jewish inhabitants in Palestine.

No amount of explanation that a national home did not mean statehood was adequate enough to allay the fears of the Arabs, who were unanimous in their view that the “ominous promise” meant the delivery of Palestine to the Jews at the very expense of its rightful indigenous owners.

They were proven right.

The striking reality that history has persistently been teaching us is that it is not the validity of documents’ texts, however authentic, that determine the course of events or define rights. What does, is the way a document is perceived by those who have the power to adopt it, defend it and work hard to turn its content into reality.

It may be difficult to count the just cases that are being ignored by the international system embodied by the United Nations, simply as a result of pressure from influential powers that hold unfavourable positions. The “Question of Palestine” stands out as a prominent example.

On its own, the Balfour Declaration could not have precipitated the outcomes that prevail in the region now.

Israel was not created by the declaration alone. But the Balfour Declaration was the perfect precursor for initiating a devastating process.

The British government openly adopted the declaration as a programme for action. The League of Nations Mandate Instrument for Palestine was part of the British plan to facilitate the creation in Palestine of a Jewish national home.

Ostensibly, and as was claimed, a Jewish national home was not meant to be a state, but then what was it meant to be?

When people gain control over land as if it were their own, they must establish some kind of a governing administration that would eventually transform into a state even if it does not start off as one.

The next significant step on the way to granting additional validity to the Balfour document was the reference made to it in the preamble of the League of Nations mandate document, which says: “Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

This clearly amounts to an endorsement.

There is no question that the Balfour Declaration was the initial prescription for the calamity that befell the Palestinians, the direct victims of that tragic lethal practice of power politics, and in due course plunged the region into perpetual conflict and strife that continues to reverberate and constantly worsen.

There are voices calling for a British apology. I find it difficult to comprehend such calls.

Would an apology reverse a century-long tragic record of misery, aggression, conspiracy, eradication, occupation, persecution and severe suffering, not only of the Palestinians, but of many others in the region as a result of compounded complications and massive consequences over the years, feeding on that initial gross injustice?

Apologies make sense when the committed wrong is corrected, not while arduously in progress.

 

Or is the apology meant to clear the conscience of the perpetrators of such a historic miscalculated, disastrous and costly blunder?

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