The Balfour Declaration – 90 years ago today

Ma’an, a Palestinian news agency, wrote on Friday, the 90th anniversary of the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, that “Despite the condition that the creation of the Jewish homeland should not prejudice the rights of Palestinian communities, that ill-fated decision has led to a continuing state of conflict, the deaths of thousands of people and created a huge refugee problem, with many Palestinians exiled from their ancestral homeland”. The Ma’an article on the 90th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is here.

On the same day, Kol Israel Radio reported “Minister Isaac Herzog [Minister of Welfare and Social Services, Minister of the Diaspora, Society, and Fight Against Antisemitism] will speak about the declaration at Sunday’s cabinet meeting. Herzog said the event is an important historical milestone towards the creation of the state of Israel. Herzog will also participate in an event in Tel Aviv on Monday, together with British Ambassador Tom Philps, marking the anniversary”. The Kol Israel report on the 90th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is here.

Ma’an called the Balfour Declaration “117 words that changed the face of the Middle East”.

The Balfour Declaration is a typed letter, signed by then-British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, and addressed to a member of the British Parliament, Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in Britain, at the height of the First World War.

It is a “declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations”, and was approved by the British cabinet.

The Balfour Declaration

The image above was found on the website of
the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs here.

It says that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.

 

The Allied forces were fighting Germany — and its ally, the Ottoman Empire.

By the time the Balfour Declaration was made, British forces led by General Allenby had already marched out of Egypt through the Sinai. They overcame Ottoman defenses to seize Gaza via Beersheba (see post here) on 31 October. (The Balfour Declaration is dated two days later, 2 November.)

The British-led forces then continued on to Jerusalem, which General Allenby entered in mid-December 1917. The British military occupation of Palestine began. It was subsequently transformed into a British military adminstration of Palestine.

By the end of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire had been disbanded, and allied victors agreed in the 1920 San Remo Conference that Palestine would remain under British control. In 1922, the British administration was formally converted into a Mandate, under the supervision of the gentlemen who sat in the Council of the League of Nations. [Before that, the U.K. took administrative decisions that Transjordan — originally part of the Palestine Mandate — would be administered separately. As a result, Transjordan was removed from the area where Jewish immigration was encouraged. In addition, Transjordan was to function somewhat autonomously under (looser) overall British control, while Palestine was to remain under direct British administration. This was endorsed by a resolution of the Council of the League of Nations in September 1922 — though the arrangements had already been implemented on the ground by a British agreement with then-Emir Abdallah that took effect in March 1921. In exchange, Abdallah agreed that “Order and public security were to be maintained and there were to be no attacks against Syria…” This Interim Report on the Civil Administration of Palestine (July 1920-June 1929) can be found here.

The Palestine Mandate legally entered into force in 1923, after conclusion of the Treaty of Lausanne between the Allies and Turkey.

The Palestine Mandate picked up and endorsed the Balfour Declaration: “…the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country; and … recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country…”

It also stated that “The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes”.

The entire Palestine Mandate can be viewed here.

International Law Professor Marcelo G. Kohen has written that “The 1922 Mandate of Palestine recognized for the first time in an international instrument that the Jews constituted a People”.

Professor Kohen expressed these views in a chapter he wrote, “La Longue Marche vers la reconnaissance territoriale de l’autre” (“The Long March towards the territorial recognition of the other”, contributing to the book Israel et l’Autre (Israel and the Other), edited by William Ossipow, and published by Labor et Fides in Geneva in 2005. (Translation is by this writer).

“The creation of a Jewish national home did not mean the disposition of the territory of Palestine, because at the moment of the creation of the mandate, a Jewish community already existed in Palestine. What the 1922 Mandate stipulated was the facilitation of Jewish immigration there…

“Once incorporated in the League of Nations agreement between the British Government and the League of Nations, the Balfour Declaration became a conventional engagement, in which the international community said that one of the aims of the mandate was the creation in Palestine of a national Home for the Jewish people – which makes the Zionist policy of immigrating to Palestine legal under international law …

“It was the League of Nations which decided the fate of Palestine — and it decided to create a national home for the Jewish people, which is the international legal foundation of Jewish immigration in Palestine and of the creation in this territory the Jewish national home”.

Historian Rashid Khalidi has pointed out that the Balfour Declaration fails miserably to recognize exactly who was, or were, the others it referred to — the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

Israeli historian Avi Schlaim has written that “The statement was exceedingly brief, consisting of a mere sixty-seven words [n.b. – Shlaim was only counting the core phrase], but its consequences were both profound and pervasive, and its impact on the subsequent history of the Middle East was nothing less than revolutionary … The national home it promised to the Jews was never clearly defined and there was no precedent for it in international law. On the other hand, it was arrogant, dismissive, and even racist, to refer to 90 per cent of the population as ‘the non-Jewish communities in Palestine’.” Avi Shlaim’s chapter on the Balfour Declaration is posted here.

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