On this day in 1917, the government of Great Britain issued its infamous “Balfour Declaration” promising to support the Zionists in their project to establish a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. While most people have heard of this document, what is never communicated in school textbooks or mainstream media reports is the Balfour Declaration’s true significance, which is that it set Great Britain on a policy course that ultimately facilitated the Zionists’ ethnic cleansing of most of the Arab population from their homes in Palestine in order to establish a demographically “Jewish state”.
In 1917, the First World War was raging, and Britain was seeking the help of both European Jews and Middle Eastern Arabs in the war effort against the Ottoman Empire, which controlled the territory of Palestine. To gain Arab support, in July 1915, the British promised to support “the independence of the Arab countries”. Understanding that this would mean freedom from oppressive foreign rule, Arab volunteers from Palestine were among the first to join a revolt against their Turkish rulers.
Great Britain, however, had no intention of honoring its pledge with respect to Palestine. Instead, as outlined in a then-secret pact between Britain and France known as the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, Britain aimed to carve up the Middle East and force an occupation regime upon the Palestinians.
To that end, the leadership of the Zionist movement by early 1917 were engaged in negotiations with the British government over how they could form a partnership to satisfy Britain’s aim of securing Jewish support for the war effort and the Zionists’ aim of reconstituting Palestine into a “Jewish state”.
While early drafts of an agreement explicitly stated that aim, the finally agreed text omitted the verb “reconstituted” and replaced “Jewish state” with “national home for the Jewish people”, in order to avoid offending anti-Zionist Jews as well as the Arabs. The Balfour Declaration also contained the self-contradictory language that British support for the Zionist project would not prejudice “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
The agreement was relayed to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, a prominent leader of Britain’s Jewish community and an ardent Zionist, by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in a letter dated November 2, 1917. As British Prime Minister Lloyd George later explained, the Balfour Declaration was issued for “propagandist reasons”. The Zionist leadership had promised Britain that if the Allies would commit to facilitating the Zionist project to reconstitute Palestine into a Jewish state, “they would do their best to rally Jewish sentiment and support throughout the world to the Allied cause.”
Just five weeks after issuing the Balfour Declaration, on December 9, 1917, British forces conquered Jerusalem with the help of Arabs who believed Britain’s promise that the outcome would be their independence from foreign rule.
This misplaced trust in the duplicitous British government was reinforced on November 7, 1918, when Britain and France issued a joint declaration again promising “the complete and definite emancipation of the peoples so long oppressed by the Turks, and the establishment of National Governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiatives and free choice of the indigenous populations.”
It was yet another promise to the Arabs that British policymakers had no intention of keeping. Far from helping the people of Palestine to develop self-governing institutions in the wake of the war, Britain conspired with the Zionists and other Allied powers to deny self-determination to the Palestinians in order to fulfill the promise to facilitate the Zionist project of reconstituting Palestine into a “Jewish state”.
To this end, the Allied powers sought vainly to legitimize Britain’s belligerent occupation of Palestine through the newly established League of Nations organization.
Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant established the “Mandate” system with the express purpose of helping the people living in territories conquered by the Allies to establish self-governing institutions. The Covenant required member states to give “principle consideration” to the will of the inhabitants in selecting the “Mandatory”, which was just the League’s term for Occupying Power.
Of course, the Allied Powers had no authority to divvy up occupied territories according to their own whims and political interests. And when it came to Palestine, the Allies even violated their own Covenant by refusing to take the will of the Palestinians into consideration and establishing an occupation regime for the purpose of preventing them from exercising their right to self-determination.
The Arab leadership had rejected any kind of occupation regime altogether and insisted that Palestine’s independence be immediately recognized. Yet, recognizing that a belligerent occupation was going to be forced upon them against their will, they expressed their preference that it be administrated by the United States rather than Great Britain.
While the Arabs of Palestine were not consulted about the choice of the Mandatory Power, the European Zionists were, and so on April 25, 1920, in direct violation of the League of Nations Covenant, the Allied Powers adopted the “San Remo Resolution” appointing Britain as the Mandatory Power and stating that the extent of the territory in which Arab peoples would be permitted to exercise independence was yet to be determined. The text of the resolution incorporated the wording of the Balfour Declaration and charged Britain with “putting into effect” the promise to facilitate the Zionist project.
On August 10, 1920, the territory in which the Allied Powers intended to deny self-determination to the inhabitants became more clearly defined with the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres, which stated that the independence of Syria and Iraq was to be recognized, whereas for Palestine the Occupying Power would instead be “responsible for putting into effect” the Balfour policy of facilitating the Zionist project.
The Arabs, naturally, were none too pleased by Britain rejecting their rights and acting to help the Zionists to “reconstitute” their homeland into a “Jewish state”, which remained the effective goal of the Balfour policy despite the change of wording of the final draft of the Declaration.
In June 1922, British Secretary of State for the Colonies (and later Prime Minister) Winston Churchill issued a policy statement affirming to the Zionists that Britain would continue to facilitate Jewish immigration into Palestine limited only by “the economic capacity of the country at the time to absorb new arrivals.”
To the upset Arabs, Churchill explained that their dashed hopes of independence were all just a big misunderstanding as the British had always intended to exclude Palestine from the areas in which the Allied Powers would permit Arab peoples to exercise self-determination.
Churchill further declared that the aim of British policy was to help establish self-governance in Palestine, but only after fulfilling the pledge made to the Zionists to facilitate their colonization project.
In other words, it was the effective policy of Great Britain to deny self-determination to the inhabitants of Palestine until the Jews had through mass immigration established a numerical majority—or at least until the Zionists had become powerful enough to carry on their project without the support of British guns.
With this policy already in place, it wasn’t until July 24, 1922, nearly five years after the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, that the League of Nations formally adopted the Mandate for Palestine, which was drafted by the Zionists to serve their interests at the expense of the majority Arab inhabitants of Palestine. Like the San Remo Resolution, the Mandate incorporated the text of the Balfour Declaration and charged Britain with facilitating the Zionists’ colonization project.
The Arabs, however, were not going to take this sitting down and in 1936 held a general strike as an act of mass civil disobedience. It evolved into an Arab revolt that lasted until 1939, when it was ultimately put down brutally by British armed forces.
The British were cognizant of how their policy was causing conflict and began seeking a way out. To that end, the British government appointed Lord William Peel to chair the Palestine Royal Commission, more popularly known as the Peel Commission. In 1937, the Peel Commission report was published, acknowledging that British policymakers had erred by mistakenly assuming that the Arabs would come to realize the supposed benefits of being subjected to Britain’s supposedly enlightened rule and would therefore consent to it.
“It must have been obvious from the outset,” the Commission remarked, “that a very awkward situation would arise if that basic assumption should prove false.”
As a solution to the problem, the Commission proposed partitioning Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. But this in turn presented a demographic problem, which was that in the area of the proposed Arab state there were relatively few Jews, while in the area of the proposed Jewish state, there was a sizable Arab population. So, to solve that problem, the Commission proposed a “compulsory transfer” of populations.
In other words, the British proposed ethnically cleansing Arabs from their homes in Palestine in order to facilitate the Zionists’ aim of establishing a “Jewish state” there.
This was an idea with which the Zionist leadership was on board. “I am for compulsory transfer”, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion told the Jewish Agency Executive in 1938. “I do not see anything immoral in it.”
After World War II, the League of Nations was dissolved and replaced with the United Nations organization, which took over responsibility for the Mandate system. Seeking to extract itself from the conflict situation it had created in Palestine, Great Britain requested the UN General Assembly to come up with a solution.
Consequently, the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was established in 1947. Its report contained two recommendations. The minority recommendation, which was in accordance with the solution the Arabs had been insisting upon since the beginning, was for Palestine’s independence to be recognized and a democratic government established under a constitution that would guarantee representation and protect the rights of the Jewish minority.
The majority recommendation, however, was to reject the democratic solution and instead to partition Palestine against the will of the majority of its inhabitants, who also owned most of the land.
Despite their best efforts, by the time the Mandate was terminated in May 1948, the Jewish community had managed to acquire less than 7 percent of the land in Palestine. Arabs owned more land than Jews in every single district, including Jaffa, which included the main Jewish population center of Tel Aviv. Arabs owned more land than Jews and, when the Bedouin population was counted, also constituted a numerical majority even within the proposed “Jewish state”.
The Arabs naturally rejected the UN’s racist, colonialist partition plan.
The gross inequity of the partition plan is simply explained by the fact that the majority UNSCOP recommendation was premised upon the explicit rejection of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. The committee’s report stated that the principle of self-determination “was not applied to Palestine, obviously because of the intention to make possible the creation of the Jewish National Home there.”
Of course, this placed UNSCOP’s majority recommendation in direct violation of the principle of the UN Charter to uphold the universal right to self-determination. Yet this did not stop the General Assembly from recommending the partition plan on November 29, 1947, with the adoption of Resolution 181.
Contrary to popular myth, Resolution 181 neither created Israel nor conferred any legal authority to the Zionist leadership for their unilateral declaration of Israel’s existence on May 14, 1948. Rather, it merely referred the matter to the Security Council, where the partition plan was dead on arrival. As US representative Warren Austin observed, the only way the plan could be implemented would be through the use of force, and the UN had no authority to forcibly partition Palestine against the will of the majority of its inhabitants.
On the other hand, the UN did have authority, Warren argued, to intervene to prevent a breach of international peace. Instead, the UN sat by and watched as the Zionists, with an army built up under the protective cover of Britain’s occupation regime, ethnically cleansed Palestine.
The Mandate expired on May 14, 1948—the same day the Zionist leadership unilaterally and with no legal or moral authority declared the existence of the state of Israel. By that time, 300,000 Arabs had already been ethnically cleansed from their homeland in order for the “Jewish state” to be established.
By the time it was over, more than 700,000 Arabs had been ethnically cleansed, and the Zionist forces made sure they could never return to their homes by systematically wiping hundreds of Arab villages off the map.
That is the true legacy of the Balfour Declaration.
It was a propaganda document that had no legal authority or moral legitimacy, and which set the British government on a policy course that ultimately facilitated the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
It was this heinous violation of the rights of the Palestinians that is the root cause of the conflict that persists today, with the US having replaced Great Britain as chief facilitator of Israel’s ongoing crimes against the Palestinians.
For documentation and a more in depth look at the significance of the Balfour Declaration, see my 2017 Foreign Policy Journal essay written for the document’s 100th anniversary, “What Was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and Why Was It Significant?”