Opinion |

100 Years Ago, Britain Facilitated Palestine's Ethnic Cleansing. Today, Britain's Celebrating It

By marking Balfour 'with pride', Britain is disregarding its colonial guilt and Palestinian rights

Saeb Erekat
Saeb Erekat
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Palestinian refugees, part of an exodus of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, arriving in east Jordan in 1968
Palestinian refugees, part of an exodus of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, arriving in east Jordan in 1968Credit: AP
Saeb Erekat
Saeb Erekat

This year, approximately 13 million Palestinians scattered throughout the world mark 100 years since the Balfour Declaration. Largely ignored by successive British governments, the consequences of this infamous declaration are suffered by the Palestinian people until today.

Though many British citizens may not be aware of the impact of the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate, these two measures paved the way for the ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine in 1948. Even while British troops were still in Palestine, Palestinian civilians were expelled from their homes and even massacred in vile terror attacks.

Today, while Israel glorifies the terrorists who expelled the Palestinian people from their homes, the Balfour Declaration continues to inspire the systematic denial of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination by the Israeli government.

In a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild on 2 November 2 1917, the British Foreign Secretary at the time, Sir Arthur James Balfour, promised the land of Palestine as a homeland for the Zionist movement.

But Palestine had a people, and the United Kingdom had no right to promise it to anybody else.

Balfour's promise was a conscious decision to unblushingly ignore hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Christians and Muslims living in Palestine, who made up approximately 95 percent of the population. This disregard continues today, as the British government celebrates 100 years of Palestinian dispossession by inviting the Israeli prime minister to London.

Lord Balfour and his famous declaration of November 2, 1917.Credit: Daniel Zvi / Wikimedia Commons

At the time of the Balfour Declaration, we were a nation of over 700,000 people, well-rooted on almost 28,000 square kilometers of a land called Palestine. Those were the descendants of those who built the city of Jerusalem, the ancient ports of Jaffa and Haifa and the cities of Gaza, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Nablus, as well as my hometown Jericho, the oldest inhabited city in the world, alongside the Dead Sea and the rich Jordan Valley.

One hundred years ago, the Balfour Declaration was about severing Palestine from the geography of the world and an attempt to wipe out our national identity. Despite the losses, suffering, and exclusions, our identity is still preserved through our pride and historic heritage, created by our vibrant and robust nation.

The direct consequence of British colonialism in Palestine was the interruption of this nation. It began with the Nakba, catastrophe, of 1948. But this was not a particular historic episode of dispossession and ethnic cleansing but became an ongoing process that continued even after Israel's military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, wherein more Palestinian villages were destroyed including Imwas, Yalu, and Beit Nuba.

And despite our painful compromise to recognize Israel as a State on 78 percent of our historic homeland, Israel continues to deny our right to exist in freedom and dignity on what is today the internationally recognized State of Palestine, which constitutes 22% of our historic homeland.

The fact that the British government has decided to celebrate this is to add insult to injury, especially considering that the Balfour Declaration, which negated the political rights of the people of Palestine, is exactly what the Israeli government is implementing on the ground.

The Israeli government rejects the two-state solution that will provide Palestinians with their long overdue political rights, at the same time that it rejects one democratic state all over historic Palestine with equal rights for all. Balfour’s spirit was not with democracy and justice but with colonialism and oppression.

British street artist Banksy's 'Apology Party' for the Balfour Declaration, attended by Palestinian children from the al-Aida refugee camp. Bethlehem. November 1, 2017 Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Evidently, the British government is adamant to disregard Palestinian rights by "marking with pride" its colonial role that caused injustice and the mass displacement of the people of Palestine.

It is not enough when the British government claims to support the two-state solution while it mobilizes its diplomatic weight against the recognition of the State of Palestine or against any attempts at holding Israel accountable for its violations of international humanitarian law and UN resolutions.

The British government also still ignores the votes of 274 members of the British parliament, who called on their government to recognize Palestine's right to statehood, and it disregards the work of thousands of its citizens who continuously advocate for the rights of Palestinians.

Instead, the British government should rectify this historic injustice with a long awaited apology and through the recognition of the State of Palestine. Although, this alone will not erase or repair the consequence of colonialism, it would serve as an example for the rest of the international community to do what is necessary for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East and around the globe.

The time is ripe for the UK to act responsibly to bring about a necessary paradigm shift by recognizing the State of Palestine on the 1967 border, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and by taking concrete steps toward the achievement of the political rights of the Palestinian people, the very rights that were denied by Balfour a century ago.

Dr. Saeb Erekat is the Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization

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