At the time of the declaration — a year before the end of the World War I and five years before the British Mandate for Palestine began — few could have predicted how thoroughly and catastrophically this promise would be kept, with Palestine literally wiped off the map and its people dispossessed of their homeland.
The declaration is by no means a relic of history. As Israel’s insatiable colonial appetite continues the process started 100 years ago, rendering a viable Palestinian state all but impossible, it is more relevant now than ever.
Indeed, just last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Israel “will never uproot” its settlements, which are spreading relentlessly like tentacles throughout the Occupied Territories, in violation of international law. Arthur Balfour, who claimed that “Zionism, be it right or wrong, is more important than the wishes” of the people of Palestine, would be proud. To add serious insult to crippling injury, so too is Britain’s current government.
It could have shown contrition for the declaration’s devastating legacy. It could have heeded the opposition Labour Party’s suggestion to mark the centenary by recognizing the state of Palestine, as almost three-quarters of the world’s countries have already done. This would be in line with UK public opinion, as an Arab News / YouGov poll in August showed 53 percent of Brits in favor of recognition and only 14 percent against.
At the very least, the government could have maintained a deliberate — if awkward — silence about the centenary. But no, the UK will actually be celebrating it, and has invited Netanyahu to take part. There will be a British royal visit to Israel to coincide with the centenary, in “a very important year in the history of bilateral relations,” as Israel’s president said.
The Balfour Declaration “demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May. The anniversary is one “we will be marking with pride,” she added. This is pride in ethnic cleansing, no less.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in 2015, when he was mayor of London, that the declaration is “a great thing… the right thing.” Expect more grotesque praise of this colonial nation-theft from May, Johnson and their colleagues.
Meanwhile, the local government body Transport for London last week banned adverts displaying Palestinian objections to the declaration. So the official message seems to be: “Either celebrate or shut up.”
And as if the centenary is not important enough, 2017 also marks the 10th anniversary of the Gaza blockade, and half a century of Israel’s military occupation, the longest in modern history.
100 years after Balfour, 50 years after occupation and 10 years after the Gaza blockade, Palestinians should be celebrating the end of injustice, not marking its continuation.
More than 90 percent of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are younger than the occupation itself. This means the overwhelming majority of the population has never known freedom or respect for their human and national rights, which much of the rest of the world takes for granted.
These three anniversaries represent the continuity of a century of injustice. In short, 2017 is steeped in symbolism for the Palestinian struggle, and serves as a stark reminder of the need for national unity, the lack of which Israel has exploited to its fullest. That makes last month’s reconciliation agreement between the two main Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, particularly timely.
Any optimism should be cautious, however, because if reconciliation were to fall flat, it would certainly not be for the first time. There are still fundamental differences between Fatah and Hamas, and the current deal has thus far sidestepped some of the particularly thorny issues, probably in the knowledge that they could scupper the deal altogether.
And on cue, Israel and the US are playing spoiler from the get-go, setting unrealistic conditions in an effort to ensure Palestinian unity remains a pipe dream. Israel has said it will refuse to talk with any Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas (in other words, any unity government, period).
In addition, Tel Aviv and Washington insist that Hamas disarm and recognize Israel (in other words, abandon core principles without any incentive). The Palestinian faction has, unsurprisingly, flatly rejected these demands.
It is unclear how the reconciliation deal will overcome this obstacle course when its predecessors did not. But it is crucial that both parties do their utmost to put the interests of the Palestinian people above their own.
At a time when more than a decade of division has weakened them both, when Israel continues to entrench its occupation and colonization of Palestine, and when regional developments are leaving the Palestinian cause increasingly sidelined, unity is not merely desirable but imperative.
This year marks major anniversaries of ongoing oppression. How long must the Palestinian people wait before they can commemorate the end of these injustices rather than their continuation?
• Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs. Twitter: @sharifnash