The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was then, and continues to be the most infamous act of the British empire. Writing on the occasion of the anniversary, Stuart Littlewood points out that this declaration “began the still-ongoing colonisation of Palestine and sowed the seeds of an endless nightmare for the Palestinian people, both those who were forced to flee at gunpoint and those who have managed to remain in the shredded remains of their homeland under Israel’s brutal military occupation.”
Stuart Littlewood substantiates the events which set the stage for a century of ethnic cleansing and denial of Palestinian rights. TML Weekly provided an extract of his account of how this tragedy “was allowed to overtake the Palestinians.”
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For centuries long our land enslaved
by Turkish kings with sharpened blade.
We prayed to end the Sultan’s curse,
the British came and spoke a verse.
“It’s World War One, if you agree
to fight with us we’ll set you free.”
The war we fought at Britain’s side,
our blood was shed for Arab pride.
our only gain, the lies of Britain.
Stephen Ostrander’s simple verse manages to cut through a mountain of rhetoric to the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
There was a Jewish state in the Holy Land some 3,000 years ago, but the Canaanites and Philistines were there first. The Jews, one of several invading groups, left and returned several times, and were expelled by the Roman occupation in 70AD and again in 135AD. Since the 7th century Palestine has been mainly Arabic. During the First World War the country was ‘liberated’ from Turkish Ottoman rule after the Allied Powers, in correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon and Sharif Hussein ibn Ali of Mecca in 1915, promised independence to Arab leaders in return for their help in defeating Germany’s ally.
At the same time, however, a new Jewish political movement called Zionism was finding favour among the ruling elite in London, and the British Government was persuaded by the Zionists’ chief spokesman, Chaim Weizman, to surrender Palestine for their new Jewish homeland. Hardly a thought, it seems, was given to the earlier pledge to the Arabs, who had occupied and owned the land for 1,500 years — longer, say some scholars, than the Jews ever did.
The Zionists, fuelled by the notion that an ancient Biblical prophecy gave them the title deeds, aimed to push the Arabs out by inserting millions of Eastern European Jews. They had already set up farm communities and founded a new city, Tel Aviv, but by 1914 Jews numbered only 85,000 to the Arabs’ 615,000. The infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917 — actually a letter from the British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, to the most senior Jew in England, Lord Rothschild — pledged assistance for the Zionist cause with apparent disregard for the consequences to the native majority. Calling itself a “declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations,” it said:
“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, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing and non-Jewish communities….”
Balfour, a Zionist convert, later wrote:
“In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. The four powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now occupy that land.”
There was opposition. Lord Sydenham warned: “The harm done by dumping down an alien population upon an Arab country may never be remedied. What we have done, by concessions not to the Jewish people but to a Zionist extreme section, is to start a running sore in the East, and no-one can tell how far that sore will extend.”
The American King-Crane Commission of 1919 thought it a gross violation of principle. “No British officers consulted by the Commissioners believed that the Zionist programme could be carried out except by force of arms. That, of itself, is evidence of a strong sense of the injustice of the Zionist programme.”
There were other reasons why the British were courting disaster. A secret deal, called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, had been concluded in 1916 between France and Britain, in consultation with Russia, to re-draw the map of the Middle Eastern territories won from Turkey. Britain was to take Jordan, Iraq and Haifa. The area now referred to as Palestine was declared an international zone. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Balfour Declaration and the promises made earlier in the McMahon-Hussein letters all cut across each other. […]
The Zionist Organization asked permission to submit its proposal for Palestine to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, hitching a ride on the British request to be granted a mandate over Palestine in order to implement the Balfour Declaration. The Zionist case included the statement that “the land itself needs redemption. Much of it is left desolate. Its present condition is a standing reproach. Two things are necessary for that redemption — a stable and enlightened government, and an addition to the present population which shall be energetic, intelligent, devoted to the country, and backed by the large financial resources that are indispensable for development. Such a population the Jews alone can supply.”
Prominent U.S. Jews opposed to this move handed President Woodrow Wilson a counter-statement objecting to the Zionists’ plan, and asked him to present it to the peace conference. It said the scheme to reorganise the Jews as a national unit with territorial sovereignty in Palestine “not only misrepresents the trend of the history of the Jews, who ceased to be a nation 2,000 years ago, but involves the limitation and possible annulment of the larger claims of Jews for full citizenship and human rights in all lands in which those rights are not yet secure. For the very reason that the new era upon which the world is entering aims to establish government everywhere on principles of true democracy, we reject the Zionistic project of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.”
Foreseeing the future with uncanny accuracy, it went on to say, “We rejoice in the avowed proposal of the Peace Congress to put into practical application the fundamental principles of democracy. That principle, which asserts equal rights for all citizens of a state, irrespective of creed or ethnic descent, should be applied in such a manner as to exclude segregation of any kind, be it nationalistic or other. Such segregation must inevitably create differences among the sections of the population of a country. Any such plan of segregation is necessarily reactionary in its tendency, undemocratic in spirit and totally contrary to the practices of free government, especially as these are exemplified by our own country.”
The counter-statement quoted Sir George Adam Smith, a noted biblical scholar and the acknowledged expert on the region, who had said: “It is not true that Palestine is the national home of the Jewish people and of no other people… It is not correct to call its non-Jewish inhabitants ‘Arabs,’ or to say that they have left no image of their spirit and made no history except in the great Mosque… Nor can we evade the fact that Christian communities have been [there] as long as ever the Jews were… These are legitimate questions stirred up by the claims of Zionism, but the Zionists have not yet fully faced them.”
America, England, France, Italy, Switzerland and all the most advanced nations of the world, it said, are composed of representatives of many races and religions. “Their glory lies in the freedom of conscience and worship, in the liberty of thought and custom which binds the followers of many faiths and varied civilizations in the common bonds of political union…. A Jewish State involves fundamental limitations as to race and religion, else the term ‘Jewish’ means nothing. To unite Church and State, in any form, as under the old Jewish hierarchy, would be a leap backward of two thousand years.
“We ask that Palestine be constituted as a free and independent state, to be governed under a democratic form of government recognizing no distinctions of creed or race or ethnic descent, and with adequate power to protect the country against oppression of any kind. We do not wish to see Palestine, either now or at any time in the future, organized as a Jewish State.”
But Wilson apparently failed to put the document before the Conference.
In 1922 the League of Nations placed Palestine under British mandate, which incorporated the principles of the Balfour Declaration. Jewish immigration would be facilitated “under suitable conditions” and a nationality law would allow Jews taking up permanent residence to acquire Palestinian citizenship (in sharp contrast to the Jews-only law now operated by a dominant Israel). But the high commissioner was soon recommending a halt to Jewish immigration for fear that it would create a class of landless Arabs. That same year the British government, aware of Arab concerns that the Balfour Declaration was being interpreted in an “exaggerated” way by Zionists and their sympathisers, issued a White Paper to clarify the position.
“The terms of the Declaration referred to,” it said, “do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded ‘in Palestine.’ In this connection it has been observed with satisfaction that at a meeting of the Zionist Congress, the supreme governing body of the Zionist Organization, held at Carlsbad in September, 1921, a resolution was passed expressing as the official statement of Zionist aims the determination of the Jewish people to live with the Arab people on terms of unity and mutual respect, and together with them to make the common home into a flourishing community, the upbuilding of which may assure to each of its peoples an undisturbed national development…
“It is also necessary to point out that the Zionist Commission in Palestine, now termed the Palestine Zionist Executive, has not desired to possess, and does not possess, any share in the general administration of the country. Nor does the special position assigned to the Zionist Organization in Article IV of the Draft Mandate for Palestine imply any such functions. That special position relates to the measures to be taken in Palestine affecting the Jewish population, and contemplates that the organization may assist in the general development of the country, but does not entitle it to share in any degree in its government.
“Further, it is contemplated that the status of all citizens of Palestine in the eyes of the law shall be Palestinian, and it has never been intended that they, or any section of them, should possess any other juridical status.
“It is necessary,” said the White Paper with masterly ambiguity, “that the Jewish community in Palestine should be able to increase its numbers by immigration. This immigration cannot be so great in volume as to exceed whatever may be the economic capacity of the country at the time to absorb new arrivals. It is essential to ensure that the immigrants should not be a burden upon the people of Palestine as a whole, and that they should not deprive any section of the present population of their employment.”
However, the White Paper flatly denied that a promise had been made to the Arabs ahead of the Balfour Declaration.
“It is not the case, as has been represented by the Arab Delegation, that during the war His Majesty’s Government gave an undertaking that an independent national government should be at once established in Palestine. This representation mainly rests upon a letter dated the 24th October, 1915, from Sir Henry McMahon, then His Majesty’s High Commissioner in Egypt, to the Sharif of Mecca, now King Hussein of the Kingdom of the Hejaz. That letter is quoted as conveying the promise to the Sharif of Mecca to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories proposed by him. But this promise was given subject to a reservation made in the same letter, which excluded from its scope, among other territories, the portions of Syria lying to the west of the District of Damascus. This reservation has always been regarded by His Majesty’s Government as covering the vilayet of Beirut and the independent Sanjak of Jerusalem. The whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was thus excluded from Sir Henry McMahon’s pledge.
“Nevertheless, it is the intention of His Majesty’s government to foster the establishment of a full measure of self-government in Palestine. But they are of the opinion that, in the special circumstances of that country, this should be accomplished by gradual stages…”
From then on, the situation would go from bad to worse. […]
In 1937 the Peel Commission declared that British promises to Arabs and Zionists were irreconcilable and unworkable. Too late, Britain dropped its commitment to the Zionists and began talking about a Palestinian state with a guaranteed Arab majority and protection for minorities.
The Zionists reacted furiously. Their underground military wing, the Haganah, and other armed groups, unleashed a reign of terror in the run-up to World War II. They continued their attacks on the British after the war and tried to bring in hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees.
In 1946 they blew up the south wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the British mandatory government, killing 91. This terrorist act was ordered by David Ben-Gurion in retaliation for the arrest of Haganah, Irgun and Stern Gang members suspected of attacks on the British. He then thought better of it and cancelled the operation but Menachem Begin, who led the Irgun, went ahead. Both Ben-Gurion and Begin, who had a big price on his head as a wanted terrorist, became Israeli prime ministers.
Throughout this period the United States were reluctant to allow Jews fleeing Europe to enter the empty spaces of North America, preferring to play the Zionist game and see them funnelled into Palestine. In 1945 the new U.S. president, Harry Truman, offered Arabs this excuse: “I am sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands of those who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”
However, Truman was frequently exasperated by the Zionist lobby and on one occasion had a delegation thrown out of the White House for their table-thumping antics. He wrote: “I fear very much that the Jews are like all underdogs. When they get on top they are just as intolerant and cruel as the people were to them when they were underneath.”
American author Gore Vidal provided an intriguing insight. “Sometime in the late 1950s, that world-class gossip and occasional historian, John F. Kennedy, told me how, in 1948, Harry S. Truman had been pretty much abandoned by everyone when he came to run for president. Then an American Zionist brought him two million dollars in cash, in a suitcase, aboard his whistle-stop campaign train. ‘That’s why our recognition of Israel was rushed through so fast.’ As neither Jack nor I was an anti-Semite (unlike his father and my grandfather) we took this to be just another funny story about Truman and the serene corruption of American politics.”
By now this monster Britain had breathed life into, was running out of control. The Arabs, tricked and dispossessed, were outraged. The collision has been fatally damaging to the West’s relationship with Islam ever since. As the violence escalated, Gandhi was moved to comment: “Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English. … They [the Jews] have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism.”
With the mandate about to expire in 1948 an exhausted Britain handed over the problem to the United Nations and prepared to quit the Holy Land, leaving a powder-keg with the fuse fizzing. The newly-formed UN thought it would save the situation by partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish states and making Jerusalem an international city. But this gave the Jews 55 per cent of Palestine when they accounted for only 30 per cent of the population. The Arab League and the Palestinians of course rejected it.
The UN Partition of Palestine never did stand close scrutiny. At that time, as some commentators have pointed out, UN members did not include African states, and most Arab and Asian states were still under colonialist regimes. The UN was pretty much a white colonialist club. The Palestinians themselves had no representation and they weren’t even consulted.
The first vote failed to reach the required two-thirds majority: 25 for partition, 13 against and 19 abstentions. To ensure success in the second vote a good deal of arm-twisting was applied to the smaller countries, but again it fell short. At the third attempt France was persuaded to come “on board” after the U.S. threatened to withdraw desperately needed post-WW2 aid, and on November 29 the UN voted to partition Palestine into three parts: a Jewish state on 14,000 sq km with some 558,000 Jews and 405,000 Palestinian Arabs; and an Arab state on 11,500 sq km with about 804,000 Palestinian Arabs and 10,000 Jews. Jerusalem, including major religious sites, would be a ‘corpus separatum,’ internationally administered.
This ludicrous carve-up was quickly followed by shameful incidents at Deir Yassin, Lod and Ramle. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were uprooted from their homes and lands and to this day are denied the right to return. They received no compensation, and after their expulsion Jewish militia obliterated hundreds of Arab villages and towns. No sooner had Britain packed her bags than Israel declared statehood on May 14, 1948 and immediately set about expanding control across all of Palestine.
The following day, May 15, is remembered by Palestinians as the Day of al-Nakba (the Catastrophe), which saw the start of a military terror campaign that forced three-quarters of a million Palestinians from their homeland to make room for the new Jewish state. Some 34 massacres were allegedly committed in pursuit of Israel’s territorial ambitions.
An event permanently etched on the Palestinian memory is the massacre at Deir Yassin by Zionist terror groups, the Irgun and the Stern Gang. On an April morning in 1948, 130 of their commandos carried out a dawn raid on this small Arab town with a population of 750, to the west of Jerusalem. The attack was initially beaten off, and only when a crack unit of the Haganah arrived with mortars were the Arab townsmen overwhelmed. The Irgun and the Stern Gang, smarting from the embarrassment of having to summon help, embarked on a ‘clean-up’ operation in which they systematically murdered and executed at least 100 residents – mostly women, children and old people. The Irgun afterwards exaggerated the number, quoting 254, to frighten other Arab towns and villages. The Haganah played down their part in the raid and afterwards said the massacre “disgraced the cause of Jewish fighters and dishonoured Jewish arms and the Jewish flag.”
Deir Yassin signaled the ominous beginning of a deliberate programme by Israel to depopulate Arab towns and villages – and destroy churches and mosques – to make room for incoming Holocaust survivors and other Jews. In any language it was an exercise in ethnic cleansing, the knock-on effects of which have created an estimated 4 million Palestinian refugees today.
By 1949 the Zionists had seized nearly 80 per cent of Palestine, provoking the resistance backlash they so bitterly complain about today. Many Jews condemn the Zionist policy and are ashamed of what has been done in their name.
UN Resolution 194 had called on Israel to let the Palestinians back onto their land. It has been re-passed many times, but Israel is still in breach. The Israelis also stand accused of violating Article 42 of the Geneva Convention by moving settlers into the Palestinian territories it occupies, and of riding roughshod over international law with their occupation of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
But expulsion and transfer were always a key part of the Zionist plan. According to historian Benny Morris no mainstream Zionist leader was able to conceive of future co-existence without a clear physical separation between the two peoples. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, is reported to have said: “With compulsory transfer we have a vast area (for settlement)… I support compulsory transfer. I don’t see anything immoral in it.”
He showed astonishing candour on another occasion when he remarked: “If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. We have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it is true, but 2,000 years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country.”
General Moshe Dayan, hero of the Six Day War (1967), made it known to Palestinians in the territories that “you shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes, may leave, and we shall see where this process will lead.” That appears to have been the general attitude ever since.
In 1967 Israel perceived a number of Arab threats designed to check Zionist ambitions, including a blockade of their Red Sea port. In a series of pre-emptive strikes against Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, Israel succeeded in doubling the area of land under its control.
Indeed, in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War Israel confiscated over 52 per cent of the land in the West Bank and 30 per cent of the Gaza Strip, violating both international law and the UN Charter, which says that a country cannot lawfully make territorial gains from war. It was reported that Israel demolished 1,338 Palestinian homes in the West Bank and detained some 300,000 Palestinians without trial.
The UN issued Security Council Resolution 242, stressing “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” and calling for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” It was largely ignored, thus guaranteeing further discord in the region.
Israel’s most notorious prime minister, Ariel Sharon, made a name for himself in 1953 when his secret death squad, Unit 101, dynamited homes and massacred 69 Palestinian civilians — half of them women and children — at Qibya in the West Bank. His troops later destroyed 2,000 homes in the Gaza Strip, uprooting 12,000 people and deporting hundreds of young Palestinians to Jordan and Lebanon.
Then in 1982 he masterminded Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, which resulted in a massive death toll of Palestinians and Lebanese, a large proportion being children. An Israeli tribunal found him indirectly responsible for the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and removed him from office. But he didn’t stay in the background for long.
By the end of 1967 there were just three illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. By the end of 2005 the total was 177. “When we have settled the land,” the then chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Force, Rafael Eitan, remarked in 1983, “all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle.”
By 2015 there were 196 illegal Israeli settlements in addition to 232 settler outposts in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to the Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem, and upwards of 750,000 settlers residing there. […]
(Stuart Littlewood, “Despicable Balfour: A Story of Betrayal,” October 29, 2016)