On November 2, 1917, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, penned a letter that would set off a conflict still being fought more than 100 years later. In this letter, he declared the British government’s support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine and their commitment to facilitating this goal. At the time of this declaration, only 10% of the population in Palestine was Jewish, and the story of the British promise set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the destruction of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel.
The British Empire and Its Promises
The first question that naturally arises is why the British were making such promises about other people’s countries. The answer lies in the complexities of empire, particularly during World War I, when Britain found itself making numerous commitments. Alongside the promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, they also pledged Arab leaders independence if they rose against the Ottoman Empire, Britain’s enemy. As the conflict unfolded, these promises would prove to be pivotal.
The Emergence of Zionism
The idea of creating a Jewish presence in Palestine, known as Zionism, gained traction during this time, primarily thanks to Theodor Herzl, an Austrian thinker who published “The Jewish State” in 1896. Herzl advocated for Jews to have their own country as a solution to Europe’s anti-Semitism. The First Zionist Congress in 1897 marked a significant step forward in this political movement, establishing a program that aimed to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. With this momentum, the Zionist movement became more active, setting up funds for Jewish immigration to Palestine, buying land, and enlisting representatives to promote their cause with various governments.
The British and Their Support for Zionism
The support for Zionism found an unexpected friend in the British government, with several high-ranking officials backing the cause. For instance, Prime Minister Lloyd George believed that gathering the Jewish people in Palestine would bring about the return of Jesus Christ. Others, like Balfour, saw benefits in relocating European Jews to their own country. This alliance between European anti-Semitism, Zionism, and British imperialism laid the foundation for the Balfour Declaration.
British Rule and the Mandate System
As World War I came to an end, the victorious nations established the League of Nations to allocate the territories of the defeated Ottoman and German empires among themselves. This Mandate System entrusted Britain with the governance of Palestine, without consulting the Palestinian people about their desires or what independence would mean for them. The Zionist vision was incorporated into the mandate, further entrenching the British commitment to establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Zionist Immigration and Tensions
Under British rule, the Jewish population in Palestine grew significantly, aided by waves of immigration and the establishment of their own institutions and militia, the Haganah. Meanwhile, Palestinians realized that Britain wasn’t delivering on their promise of independence but instead was ceding their land to other people. This frustration culminated in the 1936 Palestinian strike, which the British sought to quell through arrests, torture, and punitive measures.
The Peel Commission and Further Divisions
The British government attempted to address the conflict by appointing the Peel Commission. Its solution was to divide Palestine into separate territories for Jews and Palestinians and transfer a significant number of Palestinians to ensure the viability of the Jewish state. However, this proposal failed to pacify the situation, and the Palestinian revolt continued, leading to further tensions.
The 1939 White Paper and Its Consequences
In response to the ongoing strife, the British government issued the 1939 White Paper, which rejected partition and advocated for Palestine’s independence within ten years, emphasizing coexistence among all residents. This decision led to a rupture in British-Zionist relations and prompted violence, including bombings and confrontations between Zionists, Palestinians, and British authorities.
Post-World War II Chaos and British Withdrawal
World War II saw the death of more than 60 million people, including six million Jews in Nazi death camps. Survivors sought refuge in Palestine, defying British restrictions on Jewish immigration. This resulted in direct clashes between Zionists and the British, with Palestinians often caught in the crossfire. By 1947, after 30 years of British rule, the British decided to leave Palestine and requested United Nations intervention to resolve the ongoing turmoil.
The UN Partition Plan and the Birth of Israel
The United Nations voted in November 1947 to partition Palestine, designating 55% of the land for a Jewish state, even though half the population in this territory was Palestinian. The Arab world and Palestinians rejected this plan, but the Zionist leadership, led by David Ben-Gurion, saw an opportunity to seize more territory. As British forces withdrew, Zionist militias executed a series of actions to reduce the Palestinian population in areas allocated to the Jewish state.
The Catastrophe of 1948
May 15, 1948, marked the end of British rule and the proclamation of the State of Israel, with David Ben-Gurion as its first prime minister. However, the conflict was far from over. Arab armies entered Palestine, but the newly formed Israeli Defense Forces were better equipped and organized. Israeli forces occupied areas intended for the Palestinian state, displacing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
The Nakba and Its Ongoing Impact
The mass exodus of Palestinians in 1948, known as the Nakba or catastrophe, led to the erasure of Palestine as a distinct entity. Israel was established on 78% of historic Palestine, while other territories were annexed by Jordan or Egypt. The United Nations passed resolutions calling for the right of Palestinian refugees to return home, a promise yet to be fulfilled. Decades later, the conflict continues, with the land offered to Palestinians diminishing over time. Many consider the treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories as a form of apartheid, raising profound questions about the legacy of the Balfour Declaration and the ongoing struggle for justice in the region.
The Ongoing Struggle for Justice
The events of 1947-1948 continue to shape the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. While Israel gained a demographic advantage in 1948 by forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the situation remains contentious. In 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, bringing millions more Palestinians under its rule. Presently, the population of Jews and non-Jews in this land is approximately equal, but those living under occupation have no rights, citizenship, or a clear path to independence.
Apartheid Allegations and the Quest for Resolution
The policies and practices of Israel in the occupied territories have drawn comparisons to apartheid by international, Israeli, and Palestinian human rights organizations. The ongoing conflict over territory, resources, and rights in the region has created a complex and deeply rooted crisis, challenging the prospects for a peaceful resolution.
The Balfour Declaration, made over a century ago, set in motion a series of events that continue to impact the lives of millions of people in the region. While the international community has made numerous attempts to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and achieve a peaceful resolution, the challenges remain significant. Land, identity, and historical narratives continue to be powerful drivers of the ongoing conflict, as both Israelis and Palestinians assert their rights and claims to the land.
The story of the Balfour Declaration serves as a poignant reminder of the long-lasting consequences of political decisions and international agreements, as well as the complex, intertwined histories of the peoples in the Middle East. Finding a just and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains one of the most significant challenges in the quest for peace in the region.