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The Promise that shook a people

What was the Balfour Declaration?

Jerusalem24 – Mohammad Hamayel – November 2nd, marks what the Palestinian people call, Balfour’s Promise. The promise, or as it is called in English, the Balfour declaration was a public statement issued by the British government in 1917 during the First World War.

The statement announced the support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, then an Ottoman region with a small minority Jewish population. The declaration was contained in a letter dated 2 November 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. The text of the declaration was published in the press on 9 November 1917.

The letter read:

His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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 non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

– Arthur James Balfour, Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom

When it was released, Britain had already promised the Arabs independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1915 Hussein-McMahon correspondence.

Immediately following their declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire in November 1914, the British War Cabinet began to consider the future of Palestine; within two months a memorandum was circulated to the Cabinet by a Zionist Cabinet member, Herbert Samuel, proposing the support of Zionist ambitions in order to enlist the support of Jews in the wider war. A committee was established in April 1915 by British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith to determine their policy towards the Ottoman Empire including Palestine. Asquith, who had favoured post-war reform of the Ottoman Empire, resigned in December 1916; his replacement David Lloyd George favoured partition of the Empire. The first negotiations between the British and the Zionists took place at a conference on 7 February 1917 that included Sir Mark Sykes and the Zionist leadership. Subsequent discussions led to Balfour’s request, on 19 June, that Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann submit a draft of a public declaration. Further drafts were discussed by the British Cabinet during September and October, with input from Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews but with no representation from the local population in Palestine.

The declaration had many long-lasting consequences. It greatly increased popular support for Zionism within Jewish communities worldwide, and became a core component of the British Mandate for Palestine, the founding document of Mandatory Palestine, which later became Israel and the Palestinian territories. As a result, it is considered a principal cause of the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict, often described as the world’s most intractable conflict.

A 1930 protest in Jerusalem against the British Mandate by Palestinian women. The sign reads “No dialogue, no negotiations until termination [of the Mandate]”
According to the 1920 Palin Commission, the local Christian and Muslim community of Palestine, who constituted almost 90% of the population, strongly opposed the declaration. According to John J. McTague Jr.s’ “The British Military Administration in Palestine 1917-1920,” the majority of Britain’s military leaders considered Balfour’s declaration either a mistake, or one that presented grave risks.

The 1919 King–Crane Commission reported that, “no British officer, consulted by the Commissioners, believed that the Zionist programme could be carried out except by force of arms.”

A delegation of the Muslim-Christian Association, headed by Musa al-Husayni, expressed public disapproval on 3 November 1918, one day after the Zionist Commission parade marking the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. They handed a petition signed by more than 100 notables to Ronald Storrs, the British military governor.

The petition read:

We have noticed yesterday a large crowd of Jews carrying banners and over-running the streets shouting words which hurt the feeling and wound the soul. They pretend with open voice that Palestine, which is the Holy Land of our fathers and the graveyard of our ancestors, which has been inhabited by the Arabs for long ages, who loved it and died in defending it, is now a national home for them… We Arabs, Muslim and Christian, have always sympathized profoundly with the persecuted Jews and their misfortunes in other countries… but there is wide difference between such sympathy and the acceptance of such a nation… ruling over us and disposing of our affairs.

– Muslim-Christian Association

Edward Said in 1993.
(Photo Credit: NICHOLAS TURPIN/THE INDEPENDENT/SHUTTERSTOCK)

In his 1979 book, The Question of Palestine, Palestinian-American Edward Said said that the declaration has long formed the juridical basis of Zionist claims to Palestine. He also said that, the declaration was made by a European power, about a non-European territory,  in a flat disregard of both the presence and the wishes of the native majority resident in that territory, and it took the form of a promise about this same territory to another foreign group.

Mohammad Hamayel

Ramallah based journalist, Mohammad graduated from Al-Quds University with a B.A. in Media and Television. He has covered the 2015 Jerusalem Intifada as well as the Great March of Return for international media outlets. currently an editor/presenter at Jerusalem24. A UN alumni and a follower of global events and politics, especially American affairs.

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