Even after 100 years, Britain, it’s not too late to do the right thing

Even after 100 years, Britain, it’s not too late to do the right thing

The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has taken a look at British history in Palestine in a newspaper article on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. His predecessor, Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary in 1917, promised “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, a country that belonged to a thriving and developing nation, the Palestinians, who made up 94 percent of the inhabitants at the time. Three-quarters of the entire Palestinian population, 750,000 people, were forcibly expelled when Israel was created. More than 400 Palestinian villages were destroyed. Today there are 7 million Palestinian refugees in the world’s longest refugee crisis living in camps in occupied Palestine, in neighboring Arab countries and in the diaspora.
Johnson does admit that Israel “dislodged” another people “by its birth” and he is not immune to their suffering. The current foreign secretary does not, however, elaborate on the intentions of imperial Britain at the time of the magnanimous gesture it made to the Zionist movement. Britain in the early 1900s was at the height of its imperial endeavors and wanted to plant a friendly and grateful ally in the Middle East to help keep this area subjugated and divided. The creation of Israel supported the wider ambitions of Britain, which along with its great imperial rival, France, carved up the Middle East in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.
Imperial policy transmuted into neo-colonialist mechanisms of control and dependency so that for the past 100 years the region has been divided, kept underdeveloped by conflicts and war and ruled by undemocratic regimes, supported and propped up by Britain and the US. Britain has succeeded in its aim to protect its strategic implant in the area, Israel, and to control the valuable resources of the Middle East along with its neo-colonialist ally, the US.
Back in February, Theresa May said her government would mark the Balfour Declaration with pride, and indeed it has been a major achievement for British strategic interests. Yet at the same time, Britain claims or pretends to claim to support a peaceful two-state solution, with a sovereign Palestine coexisting alongside the state of Israel. This solution is supported by Arab and Islamic countries and has had its most recent embodiment in the Arab Peace Initiative, led by Saudi Arabia.
Yet Britain’s friendly ally in the area, Israel, has refused all peaceful initiatives and continues its theft of Palestinian land and even now continues to coerce Palestinians to leave their homeland by way of its discriminatory practices and brutal occupation in what is a calculated form of incremental ethnic cleansing.
The current far-right, extreme Israeli government no longer pretends to debate a just solution and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. Current Cabinet members in Israel assert their right to possess the whole of the “promised land” from the river to the sea, which translates into a scenario of the forced transfer of Palestinians. Those who remain will inhabit not an independent Palestinian state but a “Palestinian entity,” as Benjamin Netanyahu has put it. A collection of Bantustans, fragmented and powerless, run by a weak authority in coordination with Jordan and Egypt.
Yet Britain asserts, even now, as Boris Johnson did last week, that it espouses an independent contiguous Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, as envisaged by the UN General Assembly Resolution 181. Johnson also refers quite genuinely to the unfinished business of the Balfour Declaration. Why then does Britain not act on these convictions, rather than, by all its actions, seem to work contrary to them? The current British government strengthens its relations with Israel by the day, as never before. Despite the constant talk about a Palestinian state, it adamantly refuses to recognize the State of Palestine, while 136 other nations have done so. In 2014, the British Parliament, representing the will of the majority of the British people, recognized the state of Palestine. The Labour Party and Liberal Democrats have also adopted a policy of formal recognition.

The UK foreign secretary admits that people were ‘dislodged’ by the creation of Israel. A century after the Balfour Declaration, the best way to right that wrong is to recognize a sovereign Palestinian state.

Manuel Hassassian

The Palestinian government has asked for an apology from the British government for what happened to them as nation, as a result of the catastrophic effects of the Balfour Declaration when, as Arthur Koestler put it, “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.” Yet on Wednesday evening in London, 150 VIPs including Theresa May, the current Lord Balfour and Benjamin Netanyahu will attend a celebratory dinner for the centenary of the Balfour Declaration hosted by the current Lord Rothschild. 
May and her government are far removed, however, from the views of their constituents. On Nov. 4, thousands of people from all over the UK will be marching in the heart of London in a national rally for Palestine. This will mean a lot to Palestinians in the diaspora and those under occupation in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. They have seen their government’s request for an apology fall on deaf ears. The current British government does not want to open the Pandora’s Box of its colonial past wherein it has left nations divided and still in conflict — India and Cyprus to name but two.
A century after the Balfour Declaration, the story of the Palestinians has not been forgotten, and despite the turmoil in the Middle East today, Palestine is still close to the heart of every Arab while the Balfour Declaration remains an open wound. In the past few years the many problems in the Arab world may have seemed to sidetrack the Palestinian cause. But in reality, the cause of progress, democracy and freedom in the whole Arab world is inextricably intertwined with the fight for justice for Palestine. From outward appearances, the crisis in the region seems insurmountable, but if we look in greater depth, a new dynamic can be observed. Young Arabs from every nation are questioning the status quo. They are working to recuperate their past, their identity and their dignity. This can be seen in the way social media is being used in many positive and diverse ways. This can be sensed, also, in the many cultural activities that are popping up in unexpected places, in music and song, in art and literature. In short, the oppressiveness of life in the Arab world is no longer keeping the people down. There is a resilience and a momentum that is gathering pace and the cause of Palestine is not a burden to this, it forms a galvanizing element in the fight for a future of hope and prosperity.
Israel will be at peril if it does not see these signs, and believes instead that it can survive through pure brute force. It may believe it can use the present chaos in the region to bypass the crux of the Palestinian question through other regional relations. This will not work in the end and there is no evidence that Israel is in fact succeeding in this, despite numerous Israeli media leaks. Any gains it makes will be short lived. If Israel wants to survive as a nation it has to relinquish its exceptionalism and be an ordinary nation building good relations with all its neighbors. If Britain really wants to support the cause for peace, it should cease pandering to Israel, giving it unconditional succor. It should change its foreign policy in the region and support the cause of democracy in all Arab countries. It should make right the wrong done to the Palestinians, recognize Palestine and work assertively and tirelessly to create a sovereign Palestinian state.
• Professor Manuel Hassassian, born in Jerusalem, has been the ambassador of Palestine to the United Kingdom since 2005. He has served as executive vice president of Bethlehem University and representative for the university at the Ministry of Education and at the Association of Arab Universities.
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