Balfour’s ‘calamitous promise’ brought a century of conflict

The wording of the declaration was vague, leaving the terms of London’s commitment to an independent Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world open to interpretation.

100 years of dispossession. Palestinians protest in front of the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process in Gaza City, on November 2. (AP)


2017/11/05 Issue: 130 Page: 12


The Arab Weekly
Ed Blanche



Beirut- The Balfour Declaration, which set in motion a century of conflict that has in one guise or an­other engulfed the entire Middle East, marked its centenary on November 2 with the prospect of many more years of bloodlet­ting.

In the declaration, Britain basi­cally pledged a Jewish homeland in Palestine that effectively dispos­sessed the Arab inhabitants.

“For Palestinians, the Balfour Declaration is the root cause of our destitution, dispossession and the ongoing occupation,” said the Palestinian mission to Britain in a statement to the Foreign Affairs Committee of Britain’s House of Commons in April as part of evi­dence gathered for an inquiry into British policy on the largely stalled Middle East peace process.

“The centenary… allows us to take the long view. Our present reality is a consequence of a Brit­ish policy that created Israel at the expense of the Palestinian people,” the mission’s submission stated.

The British government’s pledge clearly violated the promises of in­dependence made to the Arabs by T.E. Lawrence, one of the primary figures behind the Arab revolt, in return for helping them defeat the Ottoman Empire, imperial Germa­ny’s ally, in the first world war.

The Balfour Declaration, how­ever, had a more strategic purpose.

The war in Europe was going badly for Britain in 1917 and the declaration was intended to secure Jewish support for the allied cause in neutral countries, particularly in Russia, where the tsar had just been toppled, and in the United States. Although the United States had just entered the war on the side of the Allies, American forces would not reach Europe in signifi­cant numbers until the following year.

The Balfour Declaration as well as the various international agree­ments on the Middle East that fol­lowed is a classic case of British self-interest taking precedence over its repeated promises to the Arabs. In the words of Jewish writer Arthur Koestler, this was an instance in which “one nation sol­emnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.”

The British promise to the Arabs was shown to be the fiction it was with the 67-word, one-sentence declaration on November 2, 1917, by Arthur Balfour, a former Con­servative prime minister and then foreign secretary in Lloyd George’s wartime cabinet, to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community.

It reads: “His Majesty’s Govern­ment views 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, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and reli­gious rights or existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

“Has any short letter ever been so fateful?” mused Geof­frey Wheatcroft in Britain’s New Statesman about the origins of the world’s most intractable conflict and a British pledge the Arabs have branded as Balfour’s “calamitous promise.”

The wording of the declaration was vague, some say deliberately so, leaving the terms of London’s commitment to an independent Jewish state in the heart of the Arab world open to interpretation.

At that time, the Muslims and other non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine made up almost 90% of the population but Balfour’s dec­laration and Britain’s evident sup­port for a Jewish state triggered widespread immigration by Jews from all over the world.

When David Ben Gurion pro­claimed the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, the post-1917 Jewish population of the infant state had swelled to 600,000.

During the 1948 war for control of Israel, with the heavily outnum­bered Jews defeating the combined forces of Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, Arab emigration reached its zenith with the enforced re­moval of tens of thousands of Arabs, who called it the Nakba — the catastrophe.

One of the consequences of the Balfour Declaration and the events that followed was Jewish terrorism, which would lead the Palestinians, using a region-wide network, to retaliate with assassi­nations, atrocities and an unprec­edented plague of airliner hijack­ings.

The prototype of the myriad ex­tremist organisations that sprang into being in the years following the declaration’s unveiling was the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, an extreme rightist and a future Israe­li prime minister, during the Brit­ish Mandate. Irgun was one of the few groups that achieved its objec­tives through attacks on the British and Palestinian Arabs and became a template for terror groups, even among Palestinians.

Begin understood that headline-grabbing attacks on institutions Britain controlled demoralised the British public and eventu­ally pushed their government into handing over control of Palestine to the infant United Nations in 1948.

One of Irgun’s bloodiest atroci­ties took place that year — the at­tack on the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin. Irgun members sys­tematically moved through the hamlet lobbing grenades through windows and shooting down any­one they came across.

Over the following weeks, some 350,000 Palestinians fled to neigh­bouring Arab countries. All told, at least 750,000 abandoned their homeland.

Another 750,000 joined them when Israel captured — and swiftly colonised — the West Bank from Jordan along with the Gaza Strip from Egypt and the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six-Day War of June 1967.

Begin would become Israel’s first right-wing prime minister and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for signing the Camp David peace treaty with Egypt in 1978.

The flood of dispossessed Ar­abs burning for revenge spawned Palestinian terror groups that two generations later are still battling for a homeland.

The West Bank, which Palestin­ians see as part of their truncated homeland under the 1993 Oslo Ac­cords, remains largely under Israeli occupation.

The Arab terror groups initially were composed of Palestinians led by Yasser Arafat but their op­eration morphed into a global war by Islamist jihadists seeking to avenge centuries of Western inter­vention, from the Crusades of the Middle Ages to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

These interlocked and increas­ingly generational conflicts ex­panded into ideological and re­ligious wars that took terror to new depths of barbarism — most notably Hezbollah’s game-chang­ing suicide bombings and system­atic hostage-taking to al-Qaeda crashing hijacked US airliners filled with passengers (and full fuel tanks) into the Pentagon and the signature skyscrapers of New York’s World Trade Centre on Sep­tember 11, 2001.

The timing of the Balfour Dec­laration during the convulsions of the first world war was probably because two days earlier, on Octo­ber 31, 1917, the 4th Brigade of the Australian Light Horse, a cavalry regiment that played a crucial role in Britain’s ultimate victory in the desert, overran the Turkish strong­hold of Beersheba in the Negev De­sert.

That opened the way to Gaza, Jericho, the Plains of Megiddo — biblical Armageddon — Jerusalem and Syria: Most of the land pledged to the Jews by Balfour and to the Arabs by Lawrence and others.

All would fall to the British Ex­peditionary Forces within a year, forcibly incorporated into Britain’s last desperate scramble for strate­gic gain in Africa and Asia.

British imperial power, then at its zenith, launched Zionism on a global scale and established a geopolitical legacy that hardened anti-Western sentiment in the Arab world and led to the Israeli-Pal­estinian conflict that in turn trig­gered nine wars between Israel and Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

The decision to support the Zion­ists’ claim of a Jewish homeland in Palestine had already been decid­ed in a secret agreement between Britain and France on May 16, 1916, to carve up the Middle East with its vast oil reserves between these competing colonial powers once world war one ended.

Its official title was the Asia Mi­nor Agreement, but it is universal­ly known as the Sykes-Picot Agree­ment after the two diplomats who negotiated it over many months, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Fran­çois Georges-Picot of France.

When US President Woodrow Wilson’s administration was in­formed of Sykes-Picot, his for­eign policy adviser Edward House wrote: “It is all bad and I told Bal­four so. They are making it a breed­ing place for future war.”


Ed Blanche has covered Middle East affairs since 1967. He is the Arab Weekly analyses section editor.


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