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Lord Balfour's Burden
BdChronicle Special Feature:
This year, the Palestinian nation marks one hundred years of the Balfour Declaration. Lord Arthur Balfour was a British foreign secretary who decided to change the identity and fate of Palestine, a land that he did not own, by promising it to the Zionist movement, and dramatically altering the history of the Palestinian people. But to this day, the United Kingdom evades its historic responsibility by refusing to apologise to a nation still living in exile and under occupation as the result of that unethical undertaking by their politicians.
In 1917, Palestine had a robust population of over 700,000 inhabitants living on almost 28,000 square kilometres. Palestine had a well-established society, proud of its history and cultural heritage, and the centuries-long tradition of coexistence and tolerance among its inhabitants. The city of Jerusalem—built by the Jebusites, a Canaanite tribe—the ancient ports of Jaffa and Haifa, the biblical cities of Gaza, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Hebron and Nablus, as well as one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, Jericho, alongside the Dead Sea and the fertile Jordan Valley, all stood witness to this rich civilisation. Palestine was a country inhabited mainly by Arabs, mostly Muslims and Christians, but also a small Jewish minority.
Disgracefully, the text of the Balfour Declaration referred to the vast majority of the population as the “non-Jewish communities,” in a deliberate attempt at setting the foundation and basis of denying them any future political rights. Balfour was fully entrenched in colonial ideology with no respect for the deeply-rooted presence of Palestinians, Christians, and Muslims. In 1922, he wrote: “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs and future hopes of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” It was a glaring dismissal of the presence, history, and rights of the population that had inhabited the land for centuries. Examined against the backdrop of the current debates in international politics, Balfour could have easily been referred to as a “white supremacist.”
However, the Balfour Declaration, despite its great impact on our destiny as a nation, was never a matter of consensus among British politicians. The declaration continued with a British Mandate of Palestine that soon proved to be entrapped between Lord Balfour's folly and the reality on the ground. In the following years, British colonial rule grappled with the contradictions of its promises to the Jewish and Arab peoples. In 1922, the British Parliament rejected the British Mandate of Palestine precisely because it included the fulfilment of the Balfour Declaration as part of its goals. In fact, it was the only Jewish member of the British Cabinet, Sir Edwin Montagu, who expressed his rejection in these strong terms: “I would not deny the Jews in Palestine equal rights to colonisation with those who profess other religions, but a religious test of citizenship seems to me to be the only admitted by those who take a bigoted and narrow view of one particular epoch of the history of Palestine, and claim for the Jews a position to which they are not entitled.”
Balfour's perfidy anticipated the international community's disrespect for the rights of Palestinians after Israel's founding. Thirty years later, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted Resolution 181 (II) calling for the partition of Palestine into two states. Again, this decision disregarded the wishes, aspirations, and the very rights of the indigenous population of Palestine. The world voted for the partition of Palestine, but the country's people did not.
The international community was willing to support the Zionist desire to build a state in Palestine, but did not have the determination to supervise the implementation of their resolutions, leading to the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, which led to over two-thirds of the Palestinian people becoming refugees, including myself.
But the international community failed to fulfil the implementation of the UN Partition Resolution 181, a resolution that unquestionably did not allow or call for the forcible displacement of the Palestinian population. It also failed to implement Resolution 194 (III) to restore Palestine refugees to their homes. In fact, the United Nations' recognition of Israel was conditioned on Israel's implementation of this resolution. Similarly, disappointingly, the international community has failed to implement the countless UN resolutions that call on Israel to end its military occupation that began in 1967, including its colonial-settlement project.
Today, the presence of illegal settlements all over the occupied territory of Palestine has threatened to make the two-state solution impossible to realise. This is clearly the goal of the current right-wing Israeli government that does not shy away from hiding such intentions. Israel's prolonged occupation and its colonial-settlement project has virtually destroyed the prospects of the internationally endorsed two-state solution on the 1967 borders, thereby solidifying the reality of one state, Israel, controlling all the land of historic Palestine, while imposing two different systems: one for Israeli-Jews and another for Palestinians.
The two-state solution is not accepted by any of the political parties that constitute today's Israeli government coalitions. Their leaders continue to incite and spew hatred against the Palestinian people and inflammatory rhetoric against Palestinian national rights and aspirations. This has included the dangerous use of religion to justify war crimes and human rights violations, which is something that we believe is of paramount gravity and consequence to regional and international peace and security.
The one-state reality could not be possible without the impunity it has received from the international community. The Israeli colonial-settlement enterprise in Occupied Palestine could not succeed without international markets being opened to illegal Israeli settlement products, without free trade agreements welcoming these products, without international companies and the Israeli economy mutually profiting from this systematic denial of Palestinian rights, and without the commitments of several governments that no matter the crimes and human rights violations, Israel will continue to enjoy full impunity.
But make no mistake: Palestinians have learned the lessons from Balfour's colonialism. The steadfastness and resilience of our people should serve as a message to the entire world, and particularly to Israel, that there will be no peace in our region without the fulfilment of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. Our vision of peace is one of great compromise and is based simply on what we are entitled to under international law and UN resolutions: a sovereign and independent state that fully ends the Israeli occupation that began in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital, while ensuring at the same time that Jerusalem could be an open city between its eastern and western parts. We envision our sovereign control over our natural resources, airspace and maritime borders.
A just and lasting peace is possible. It requires the full implementation of the long overdue inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. We call upon those who allegedly support the two-state solution to recognise two states, not only one. At the same time, we shall keep the doors open for the possibility of a resumption of negotiations seeking to end the Israeli occupation and fulfil our rights. We don't see any contradiction between negotiations and continuing to seek justice through the legitimate tools and instruments available under international law. It is our right to undertake all peaceful means to end the torment of our people and to fulfil their inalienable rights and legitimate national aspirations.
(This article is written by Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of the State of Palestine, and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)