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99 years and counting! Make it Right for Palestine Campaign 2017

Nov. 4, 2016, midnight

The Balfour Declaration is a badge of dishonour that will continue to prevail until it is rectified by a public apology and the recognition of the State of Palestine at the United Nations.   Manuel Hassassian

November 2016 marks the start of an important centenary year for Palestinians in diaspora, in the refugee camps and in occupied Palestine.

The Balfour Declaration

On 2nd November 1917, a very important letter was written by Arthur James Balfour, the then British Foreign Secretary to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, a figurehead of the British Jewish community.

It was a short vague letter that was never debated in Parliament and had no legal status but it changed the course of history in Palestine and, arguably, the rest of the Middle East. It has become known as the Balfour Declaration.

The Promise

“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 objective, it being understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in other countries.” (i) [Emphasis added]

The Palestinians and the British Mandate

The ‘existing non-Jewish communities’ were the Palestinian Arabs both Muslim and Christian which made up 92% of the population of the country at the time. A small, mainly Sephardic Jewish population lived peaceably alongside the Arabs in Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed and Hebron making up 8% of the population.

This is the crux of the issue! Palestine was about to fall under the protection of the British, under the Mandate system wherein the former Ottoman Empire, to which Palestine was subject, was carved up and put under the control of Britain and France. Balfour’s letter promised the Zionist Federation, representing a movement of European Jews, with the objective of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, a country which was already inhabited and had been inhabited for hundreds of years by Palestinian Arabs and now was about to come under the trusteeship of the British.

Balfour’s promise, in his letter to Rothschild, contradicted a previous promise of granting independence to all Arab lands in return for Arab help in fighting the Turks in the First World War. This promise came in the form of a letter written in 1915 by Sir Henry McHahon, Britain’s High Commissioner of Egypt, to Sherif Hussein, representing the Arab people, wherein he stated that “Great Britain is prepared to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs…(ii)”

Support for the Balfour Declaration

The significance of Balfour’s letter and promise, made after McHahon’s letter to Sherif Hussein, was clearly understood as being sensitive and several drafts of the letter were worked through, including by Lord Rothschild himself! The final draft was not approved until Balfour returned from the US with the support of President Wilson and, after Jules Cambon, the then French Foreign Secretary gave his espousal for the “Jewish colonisation of Palestine” (iii).

Most of the members of the British government of the time were supportive of the policy, right up to Lloyd George himself who, as early as November 1914 saw the “ultimate destiny of Palestine as becoming a Jewish state”(iv).


There was opposition to the Declaration by Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, and later by Lord Curzon, former viceroy of India, who asked what would happen to the indigenous Arab population.

Balfour in a memorandum to Curzon in 1919 writes:

‘…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 Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land…”(v) [Emphasis added]

The ethnic cleansing of Palestine

The Balfour Declaration, which represented a clear and emphatic British policy, was so very significant as it was instrumental to what came to pass in the decades following it, namely the disinheritance of the Palestinian people.

The culmination of this took place between 1947 and 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed by Zionist militias and became refugees in neighbouring countries. 400 Palestinian villages were razed to the ground. Today their descendants number 7 million. Those Palestinians who remained, in what are now the occupied West Bank and Gaza, have been under one form or other of Israeli occupation and control ever since.

Why did the British government espouse this policy?

The reasons for the British government’s support for the Zionist federation in 1917, in its objective to colonise Palestine, are many. Some of the key motivations were British interests in securing the route to India through Suez by having a grateful Jewish nation placed in such a strategic geographic area. Another was that America would be brought into the First World War because of its support of Zionist objectives. Finally, there was, undoubtedly, real sympathy for the European Jews who had suffered persecution.

Trust betrayed

It must be said that the dream of a Jewish homeland under the auspices of the British government in 1917, became in practice, a project in settler colonialism. And there were certainly ideological and strategic links between Zionism and European Imperialism. As Edward Said says, “Between Zionism and the West there was a community of language and ideology; so far as the Arab was concerned, he was not part of that community”(vi). And just as Arthur Balfour did not see the necessity of consulting “the wishes of the present inhabitants [that is the Palestinians] of the country” under his trusteeship about a promise he made to give it away to another people, so the “Zionist view of the Palestinians was a Eurocentric one”(vii). This is evident from a note in the diary of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, which refers to the Palestinians and reads “we shall have to spirit the penniless population across the border”(viii)

Remembering and reclaiming the past

The centenary of the Balfour Declaration is important for Palestinians as it allows us to take the long view of a modern history which has seen our dispossession and displacement. Our present reality, wherein some of us are still suffering as refugees and some of us live under occupation, is a consequence of a policy adopted 99 years ago, framed in a simple letter to one man of power to another.

Make it right!

It is time, for all of us to acknowledge the weight of this history and see how restorative justice can be done. For this reason the Palestinians ask the British government to keep the second half of their promise, to uphold the rights of the Palestinians and work on all fronts to end the 50 year occupation. 2017 has been declared as the year to end occupation by President Mahmoud Abbas at the UN. This includes ending the cruel 10 year siege of Gaza. Britain should work to put right the wrong done to the Palestinians and help establish and recognize an independent Palestinian state where the aspirations and hopes of a new generation of Palestinians can be realized in contrast to their present reality of oppression and despair. It’s time to MAKE IT RIGHT!

i Embleton, M.(p. 17,2016) Going deeper with ‘Britain in Palestine, 1917-1948’

ii Embleton, M.(p. 14,2016) Going deeper with ‘Britain in Palestine, 1917-1948’

iii Embleton, M.(p.21,2016), Going deeper with ‘Britain in Palestine, 1917-1948’

iv Embleton, M.(p.18,2016), Going deeper with ‘Britain in Palestine, 1917-1948’

v Said,E. (p.16,1992), The Question of Palestine, New York, Vintage Books

vi Said,E. (p.26,1992), The Question of Palestine, New York, Vintage Books

viii Said,E. (p.13,1992), The Question of Palestine, New York, Vintage Books

For more information visit:

Institute of Palestine Studies


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