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Britain's Broken Its Promises to the Palestinians From Balfour Onwards. Now It Must Make Amends

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Arab Israeli protesters march to commemorate Nakba Day, Rahat, Israel, May 12, 2016.
Arab Israeli protesters march to commemorate Nakba Day, Rahat, Israel, May 12, 2016.Credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters
Donald Macintyre
Donald Macintyre

Mahmoud al-Bahtiti, who has been fixing car and truck engines in Gaza City for the past 50 years didn’t vote in the 2006 Palestinian elections because he trusted neither Fatah nor Hamas.

But on Britain, he has definite opinions – or at least, about Britain circa 1917. He doesn't need a centenary commemoration to bring up the Balfour Declaration with a British visitor. 

Last year, his business struggling for lack of customers, he asked me a question. Given that "We [Palestinians] are still suffering as a result" of the Declaration, wouldn’t an apology from the British government be in order?

Mahmoud wasn’t trying to get back what is now Israel. In his words: “The Jewish people took their rights after Hitler committed massacres against them. But who will give us our rights? Britain gave our lands to the Israelis and they never cared to give us our rights."

A Palestinian protest in Ramallah on October 18, calling on Britain to apologize for the Balfour Declaration.

Every Briton who has visited the West Bank or Gaza has heard something similar. But Bahtiti was unwittingly anticipating those who, a year later, rather than simply celebrating or mourning the centenary, are focussing on the less often quoted rider in the Balfour letter: That in establishing "a national home for the Jews nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine."

This is the "broken promise" that some British MPs, diplomats, academics and faith leaders are now demanding Britain’s government play its part in fulfilling, albeit belatedly.

In levelling historic blame for the conflict beyond Israel to Britain and the West, Bahtiti was speaking from the experience of all Palestinians over many decades. And the most recent history of Gaza has only reinforced his point.  

In 2002, the then U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said, in a speech, that "to win the war against terrorism, we must speak to the hundreds of millions of moderate and tolerant people in the Muslim world who aspire to enjoy the blessings of freedom and democracy and free enterprise."

These are exactly the ‘blessings’ denied to Gazans over the last decade, in the name of the war against terrorism.

Freedom? The vast majority of civilians can’t leave the Strip in war or peace.

Democracy? The international boycott imposed on Hamas after the 2006 election - judged free and fair by international monitors - was hardly an endorsement of democracy; and arguably it helped drive Hamas closer to Iran.

Enterprise? A 10-year Israeli-imposed ban on almost all agricultural and manufacturing exports has all but wiped out a private sector, much of it owned by businessmen like Bahtiti, with little love for Hamas and who once enjoyed close relations with their Israeli suppliers and customers.

Palestinian children doing their homework during a power cut in an impoverished part of Gaza City, September 11, 2017Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

In all this, the Quartet - the United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia - has been complicit.

After the Mavi Marmara episode in 2010 it did, at last, apply some pressure to Israel to allow more consumer goods and some raw materials into Gaza. Since then, however, its calls on Israel to lift the ban on most exports - Gaza’s lifeblood - and reverse the ever-tightening restrictions on movement of people have been little more than lipservice.

And this is not just a criticism of the U.S. Even before it colluded in Mahmoud Abbas’s last round of harsh sanctions on Gaza, the EU, as the PA’s biggest donor, stood by as the Palestinian president used European taxpayers' money to pay tens of thousands of employees, including teachers and medics, to stay at home rather than work for the Hamas de facto government - and their own fellow citizens.

Palestinians sit outside their houses as they escape from the heat during power cut at Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, June 19, 2017Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

If the British government wanted, 100 years after Balfour, to rethink its historic role in the conflict, it could begin by persuading its EU partners (while, pre-Brexit, it still has any) to reinforce the one initiative currently in play: The attempt at Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. To commemorate a point in history when the conflict deepened with support for a process of unification, at least on the one, weaker side.

A persuasive recent paper by Hugh Lovatt of the European Council for Foreign Relations argues that the EU should give Abbas ‘cover and impetus’ to rescind his punitive sanctions in Gaza; while welcoming the proposed deployment of PA forces to Gaza’s border, press Israel to ease its draconian restrictions on the Strip; agree to fund a consensus Palestinian Authority – including Hamas figures - provided that it sticks to PLO positions on non-violence and a Palestinian state on 1967 borders.

This would apply to a PA government as a whole - but not to each individual Hamas member, meaning the EU would have to insist Abbas reverses his latest demand: that individual Hamas members of a new unified Palestinian Authority recognize Israel.

Finally Lovatt suggests the EU should end its 11-year boycott of Hamas by opening a political dialogue with ‘moderate figures’ in the movement, not least to ensure humanitarian organisations can operate more effectively in Gaza.

The cover of 'Gaza: Preparing for Dawn'.

This would not come near to meeting Gaza’s Mahmoud Bahtiti’s aspiration for Palestinian rights. But assisting a reconciliation which almost every Palestinian fervently wants to succeed would be a (very modest) way of Britain doing something useful to mark the Balfour centenary.

Donald Macintyre was Jerusalem Bureau Chief of the Independent from 2004 to 2012. He is the author of the recently published Gaza: Preparing for Dawn (Oneworld, 2017).

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