Middle East

The Balfour Declaration: the document that led to Israel’s creation 102 years ago

Sat 02 November 2019:

The Balfour Declaration a century ago opened the way for the creation of Israel, sowing the seeds of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that continues to tear apart the Middle East today.

The statement was made in an open letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour that was published on November 2, 1917, a year before the end of World War I.

In one sentence it announced the British government’s backing for the establishment within Palestine, then a region of the Ottoman Empire, of “a national home for the Jewish people”.

It was a shock to the Arab world, which had not been consulted and had received vague promises of independence of its own in the post-war break up of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

The Palestinians have always condemned the Declaration, which they refer to as the “Balfour promise”, saying Britain was giving away land it did not own.

Israeli Government Press Office handout photo showing a portrait of then-Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour taken in 1917 (GPO/AFP)

Britain’s interests

With the Balfour Declaration, London was seeking Jewish support for its war efforts, and the Zionist push for a homeland for Jews was an emerging political force.

The first Zionist congress in the Swiss city of Basel in August 1897 had declared: “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.”

It was a time of anti-Semitism and pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe, and an influx of Jews in Palestine was already underway: they numbered 47 000 in 1895 against 24 000 in 1882.

The Arabs protested against the Zionist intent and the first political organisations to fight it were established in 1911.

Arab world shared out

In 1916, Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes and France’s Francois Georges-Picot negotiated the post-war break-up of the Ottoman Empire and shared out the Arab world.

Their secret accords put modern-day Lebanon and Syria more or less under French influence and Iraq and Jordan under Britain.

Palestine was to be placed under international administration. But Britain did not see this as in its interests. It wanted to turn Zionist aspirations to its own ends, considering that a Jewish state could assure a foothold in the Middle East.

A copy of the Balfour Declaration (GPO/AFP)

One sentence, 67 words

Balfour sent his famous typewritten letter, which had been approved by the cabinet, to a high-ranking representative of the British Jewish community, Lord Walter Rothschild.

It read: “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.”

This one line of 67 words was a major victory for the Zionist chief in Britain, Chaim Weizmann, who was to become Israel’s first president and had campaigned hard to get the British government to approve the declaration.

It was a shock for Arabs in the Middle East, neither consulted nor informed. Jews in 1917 represented only 7% of Palestine’s population.

The first Arab demonstrations took place in February 1920.

This handout file photo taken in 1925 and obtained from the Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) shows (L to R) British General Edmund Allenby, Arthur Balfour, Former British Prime Minister, and Herbert Samuel, 1st High Commissioner of Palestine, posing for a picture in Jerusalem. (GPO/AFP)

Birth of Israel

The declaration was put into action in April 1920 at the San Remo conference of World War I allies which delivered a mandate on Palestine.

Approved in 1922 by the League of Nations, the mandate said Britain “shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home”.

London had to crush a 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine that demanded independence and an end to Jewish immigration.

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