From first grade, Palestinian schools, media, intellectuals and politicians have focused on the promise made by a British politician to a Jewish businessman that has possibly changed the trajectory of history in the Middle East. In English it is called a declaration, but for Palestinians and Arabs the term is wa’d — a promise.
Great Britain at the time had nothing to do with Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire and in which Jews, mostly non-Zionist Orthodox Jews, numbered no more than 10 percent of the population. The racism in the letter is crystal clear. The word “Arab” does not appear. Instead the letter says “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
The letter was written near the end of the World War I, and it was a total contradiction of the McMahon–Hussein Correspondence, 10 letters between Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, and Hussein bin Ali, the emir of Makkah, from July 1915 to March 1916. In those letters, Britain promised to recognize Arab independence after the war in exchange for the launch of an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which was on the side of the Germans.
Arabs fought with the allies and died, expecting that they would gain their independence as a reward for their sacrifice. Instead, when the war ended the British and French marched into their liberated territory and claimed the remains of empire for themselves. As for Palestine, the British honored the Balfour Declaration, paving the way for Jewish immigrants to flood Palestine. Finally, in 1948, Britain simply left, allowing well-armed Jewish groups to take a major part of Palestine and declare it their own state.
While Balfour talks about the civil rights of non-Jewish communities, nowhere are the political rights of Palestine’s Arabs even mentioned. Balfour’s letter made its way into the Israeli declaration of independence on May 14, 1948. Along with the highly controversial UN partition plan of 1947, the Balfour Declaration became part of the legitimization of the creation of the state of Israel.
A minority population, weaponized and empowered by the West and by various Eastern bloc countries, ethnically cleansed the majority population and established a hostile country against the wishes of the people of the land. The 1948 Nakba, the Arabic term for catastrophe, created the Palestinian refugee crisis. Under the guise of custodian on behalf of absentees, Israel took over property privately owned by Palestinian Arabs, including those who continued to live in the new state of Israel. There was no recourse for them to return to their homes and lands and regain their rightfully owned property.
The Balfour Declaration was born out of malice and treachery, and has resulted in human suffering and political turmoil for an entire century.
The ultimate effect of that single British promise, followed up by support from various Western countries, has been the total devastation of the lives, property and national aspirations of Palestinians. As a result of this declaration and the various decisions that emanated from it, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were made refugees, and over 400 Palestinian Arab villages were erased in 1947-48. This lack of concern for Palestinians became much clearer after 1967, when Britain and the Western world paid little more than lip service to Palestinian statehood.
If we take the Balfour Declaration literally, it would appear to be in support of what we call these days the two-state solution. While governments are on the record as supporting this, little is done to realize the Palestinian part.
Today, more than 130 UN member states, representing the vast majority of the world’s population, recognize Palestine within its 1967 borders, despite the Israeli military occupation of all of mandatory Palestine. But with the exception of Sweden and Greece, no European or Western country has recognized Palestine as an independent state.
The Balfour Declaration was a wretched promise made with malice and treachery, and has resulted in human suffering and political turmoil for an entire century. The country behind that promise should apologize for what they did and do their utmost to reverse its negative effects on Palestinians.
• Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, is an award-winning journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He is a special reporter for Arab News and columnist with Al-Monitor. Twitter: @daoudkuttab