The Centenary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration: Britain, Palestine and Israel

By Jane Harries, Cymdeithas y Cymod peace activist, human rights observer and Wales for Peace Learning Coordinator.

Balfour Declaration WCIA Debate Leaflet Oct 2017

The Marble Hall of the Temple of Peace and Health in Cardiff was packed to overflowing on the evening of 18th October 2017, the air thick with expectation. The Cardiff Branch of the United Nations Association (UNA) had brought together two eminent speakers to talk about the historical context and present consequences of the Balfour Declaration – a document whose centenary is marked today, 2nd November.  It was clear we were in for an interesting evening.

So what was the Balfour Declaration, and why should we remember it today?  Does it have any significance for us in Wales?

The Balfour Declaration is in fact in the form of a letter written by Arthur James Balfour, Foreign Secretary in David Lloyd George’s wartime coalition government, to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in Britain.  The key words are as follows:

‘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.’

Balfour_portrait_and_declaration

The first speaker, Avi Shlaim – Jewish historian, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford and married to the grand-daughter of Lloyd George – started off the evening with a historical analysis.  He defined the Declaration as a typical colonialist act. The British had no moral or legal right to give a ‘national home’ to Jewish people in Palestine, having consulted neither with the Arab leaders, nor the Jews nor the British population. Nor was Palestine theirs to give.

Behind the scenes there were political motives. David Lloyd George wanted Palestine for the British in order to gain influence over the French and because of access to the Suez Canal.  He also wanted to dismember the Ottoman Empire and was willing to engage in double dealing to do so. Overtures were made both to Arab leaders and also to the Zionists, whom Lloyd George regarded as powerful and influential.

Jews had lived scattered across the globe before the First World war but at the end of the 19th century a nationalist Jewish campaign grew up in the form of Zionism, whose aim was to establish a national home for the Jews. Zionism particularly appealed to Lloyd George, steeped as he was in the Biblical passages and hymns of his chapel upbringing. This deep emotional connection may have been one reason why he became influenced by Dr Chaim Weizmann, Zionist Leader in the UK and later first President of Israel. And so Lloyd George’s government bowed to Zionist pressure and issued the Declaration, ignoring other Anglo-Jewish voices at the time, including Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the cabinet.

Balfour_Declaration_War_Cabinet_minutes_appendix_17_October_1917

The second part of the Declaration is often forgotten – that is that the civil and religious rights of ‘existing non-Jewish communities’ in Palestine (over 90% of the population at the time) should be respected.  The British Mandate in Palestine, issued by the League of Nations in 1923, included a responsibility to implement the Balfour Declaration.  The Mandate was, however, essentially pro-Zionist and led inevitably to the series of events we are familiar with today: the Arab revolt of 1936 – 39, the rise of Zionist terrorist activity against the British and Palestinians, British withdrawal from the region, and the foundation of the State of Israel mirrored by the Palestinian Nakba (= catastrophe, mass migration) in 1948.  The Israeli- Palestinian conflict is one of the most entrenched in the world and continues to blight lives today.  This is particularly true for the Palestinians, who have seen their homeland shrink and their human rights whittled away under a now 50-year military occupation.  Even the area which the British government recognises as a future state for the Palestinian people is now occupied by 700,000 Israeli settlers.

The second speaker, Professor Kamel Hawwash of Birmingham University, Palestinian commentator on the Middle East, explained the consequences of Balfour today.  He outlined the effects of the Israeli Occupation for those living on the West Bank, including loss of land, freedom of movement and livelihood, difficult access to education and health care, and subjugation to continuous harassment and violence.  In the Gaza Strip the population essentially lives in an open prison, deprived of many resources we take for granted, including clean water and proper sewage systems.  He then turned his talk to address an unusual question.  The state of Israel is more or less exactly the same size as Wales.  What would be the situation today if the Balfour Declaration had promised a homeland for the Jewish people in Wales, not in Palestine?  Using parallel maps, he brought this supposition to life, with swathes of Welsh land having been taken up into the State of Israel and Cardiff a divided city.  This helped us to see the Declaration from a different perspective.

As the evening wore on, there was strong feeling from one young member of the audience that the speakers were one-sided; she pleaded to hear the other side.  A student of Atlantic College, it appeared that she had spent a lot of time listening to the arguments of Palestinian and Israeli students living in her house. So what can we say about the Balfour Declaration that is more balanced and even positive?

The Balfour Declaration was of its time – as Avi Shlaim said essentially a colonialist document – so perhaps it should be judged as such.  It feels obvious from the wording of the document that the author was trying to balance what was felt to be a justified case for the Jewish people to have a homeland with the rights of the indigenous population. The problem is that this double-dealing didn’t work out in practice, with both sides seeing the British as compromising their cause.  And are we really justified in thinking that such a declaration or deal couldn’t be made today – for oil, or influence, or post-Brexit trade deals?

Balfour Palestine Mandate

It is true that Jews have been persecuted over centuries, including in pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th century. In a humanitarian global society, we surely would applaud the attempt to offer a safe haven for the persecuted, and the Balfour Declaration can be seen as such. What wasn’t foreseen, however, was that those persecuted may turn persecutors in their turn and deprive the indigenous population of their rights. What would the authors of the Declaration today say to the descendants of the 750,000 Palestinians forced to flee their homes in 1948 – and some again in 1967 –  many still living in refugee camps across the Middle East?

Balfour - West_Bank_&_Gaza_Map_2007_(Settlements)

Theresa May has talked about her ‘pride’ in the Balfour Declaration and in the creation of the State of Israel, a key ally for Britain in the Middle East.  Whilst rejoicing that persecuted Jews, including Holocaust survivors, found a homeland in Palestine, what do we feel about the plight of the dispossessed? Theresa May’s current government supports a 2-state solution in principle. What does the perpetuation of a military occupation do to the soul and psyche of the Occupier? Surely a conflict that is allowed to go on for so long cannot bring good for either side.

The Balfour Declaration is not a document that people know much about in the UK.  In Palestine it is part of everyone’s awareness – generally recognised as the starting point from which everything began to unravel, leading to a continuous process of dispossession which continues today.  To illustrate this point let me take you back to an August evening in East Jerusalem in 2012. At the time I was serving as a human rights observer on the West Bank and that evening we were called to an incident in Silwan. When we arrived we realised that the cause of the problem was seemingly small: an Israeli settler had parked his car in the middle of the road, preventing people from moving up or down. It was however Ramadan, and just before the breaking of the fast, and tempers get frayed. As we started talking to local residents and the Israeli armed police who had inevitably arrived, the expected question came: “Where are you from?” “Britain”, we said. “Ah, Balfour!” the local resident retorted – and went off into a tirade. The good thing was that once this had blown over he started joking with us, and the tension was released. The settler moved the car, and the incident passed off without any repercussions. This was not a lone incident, however. I have lost count how many times I have had to apologise for Balfour on the West Bank.

Bearing everything in mind how do we, the present generation, view the Balfour Declaration?  On the positive side, we can see it as an attempt to be balanced and to provide safety and security for persecuted Jews. It certainly was instrumental in the events leading to the creation of the modern State of Israel.  It can also be seen as an essentially political deal – an attempt to favour those who were believed to have influence whilst paying lip-service to the Arab leaders. It is hard to avoid the reality however, that the Declaration set off a string of events in the region which still have repercussions today, resulting in one of the world’s most intransigent conflicts and spelling death, dispossession and poverty for thousands.

Balfour-Israel-Palestine_peace.svg

The Israeli Palestinian Peace Process

Some sources:

The Balfour Declaration – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balfour_Declaration

The Balfour Declaration – New Statesman, a more critical view: https://www.newstatesman.com/books/2010/08/arab-palestine-jewish-rights

The Balfour Project  – Lloyd George –  critical view of Lloyd George’s part in the Declaration: http://www.balfourproject.org/lloyd-george/

Avi Schlaim: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avi_Shlaim

What is Wales had been offered as a Jewish Homeland – Middle East eye> http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/what-if-wales-had-been-offered-jews-homeland-palestine-zionist-israel-526573400

Article on Theresa May’s stance – Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/balfour-declaration-israel-palestine-theresa-may-government-centenary-arabs-jewish-settlements-a7607491.html

Chaim Weizmann: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaim_Weizmann

Palestine – Israel: Effects of Occupation – an educational pack (from the US): http://www.palestineinformation.org/dig_deep

Jane Harries’ blog from Palestine: https://janeharries.wordpress.com 

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ISIL, Syria and the Middle East: The US Perspective

By Georgia Marks

Written after Georgia attended the WCIA event ‘ISIL, Syria and the Middle East, The US Perspective’ with a talk from Thomas Williams from the US Embassy in London. 

The Middle East is one of the most controversial topics talked about today. December 2010 saw peaceful Arab Spring protests about socio-economic issues and against Arab dictatorships. In March 2011, the Syrian government used violence in retaliation against the demonstrators. Once a minority of these protesters fought back, along with some of Syria’s troops, a civil war began in Syria, which rippled across the Middle East. It led to international intervention, including by the USA.

Thomas Williams from the US Embassy talks at the Temple of Peace about ISIL, Syria and the Middle East

Thomas Williams from the US Embassy talks at the Temple of Peace about ISIL, Syria and the Middle East

On 28 April 2016, Tom Williams from the US Embassy in London spoke in Cardiff at the WCIA about the US perspective on issues in the Middle East. He stated that the US strategy in regards to the Middle East is straightforward: the achievement of real stability links to a “consistent international rule of law.” There is a right to act unilaterally, but the US do not perceive this as a sufficient method of intervention compared to diplomacy. Williams stressed the importance of historical relationships, e.g. with the UK, but also with new allies.

In my opinion, this is a sound plan, but also an inconsistent one, as Obama originally wanted to take military action and then changed his mind. This may give people in the Middle East a false hope that at some point the US may intervene militarily, which I think will only drag out the war in Syria.

Williams described the Middle East as a “region of regimes” which were disrupted by the Arab springs; they are still dealing with the consequences of political transition as a result of the protests. There are many issues facing this part of the world. Demographically there is a youth bulge and a surge of underemployment in some areas. The antiquated schooling systems result in high levels of illiteracy which increases the unemployment rates. The rule of law is particularly sketchy, with the demonstrations in 2010 and 2011 fuelled by the resentment of corruption. Additionally, political instability is one of the main issues of the Middle East, with the crisis from the civil war in Syria flowing to the surrounding countries, leading to a surge of refugees which has broad international impacts.

Williams said the top priority of the US foreign is Syria, with the crisis continuing into its 6th year, 5 million refugees are currently registered. Some are staying in camps but a large number are currently in host communities which is demanding not only on the governments of these countries, but also on the general population due to competition for housing and labour. The biggest strain is on Jordan, Turkey and the Lebanon. But all of this was inevitable- with any major political transition comes upheaval of society. So in my view the US should have anticipated and planned for before they intervened. Williams said that the strategy undertaken by the US is threefold.

  • To mobilise the partners for the campaign to fight ISIL.
  • Diplomacy to end the civil war in Syria. Talks are vital, with Williams describing current talks as the most promising initiative in years. There are sharp divisions, but there is unity to have political transition.
  • A humanitarian approach which aims to ensure that the instability does not spread beyond the borders of Syria. In particular this looks at hosting refugees.

In my opinion the first strategy creates more work for the third strategy. Fighting against ISIL will increase the need for humanitarian aid. The safety of the people in Syria is more likely to be jeopardised if there is more conflict. Therefore putting more US effort into diplomacy will be more effective; if the country is more stable because of peace negotiations then the need for humanitarian aid will decrease.

A member of the audience questioned the changing stance of the USA. At the beginning of the civil war the US, UK and others made it clear that Assad must go. However, after the emergence of large terrorist organisations such as ISIL, the attitude towards Assad became much more positive. Is it not defeating the point of original intervention if the Assad regime stays? The evolution of views, Williams said, reflects the change in circumstances. He explained that after the protests in Syria, Assad lost legitimacy; ultimately the situation with Assad will have to be negotiated with the Syrian government because America’s underpinning policy is unchanged.

The US have also been focusing on political and economic issues, with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank working together to build the economy. A member of the audience questioned how helpful economic institutions like the IMF really are in this region.

The speaker answered arguing that humanitarian efforts are not always effective in particularly violent areas. Experience in Iraq and Afghanistan have highlighted the difficulties in humanitarian progress as it is hard to give evidence that the US has actually helped. So a potentially more effective alternative is stabilisation of the economy. I think this point is well thought out as the stabilisation of the economy will in turn aid society if there is something to support the people. But a reliance on westernised systems may cause the Middle East to become too dependent on the west. The US should help to stabilise the economy, but without constant economic support so that these countries can survive by themselves economically.

Williams expressed that the main goal within the surrounding countries of the region is to secure political stability. The USA are supporting a Tunisian democratic transition through a mutually agreed agenda, working with Tunisia to fight corruption. He argues that US intervention has helped a stronger, improved government through decentralisation, with Obama describing the country as a potential counter terrorism partner.

The USA have also been working in Libya to assist public institutions to become political institutions; the government of national court has made progress, but has yet to establish legitimacy. There has also been growing terrorist presence in Libya, which could threaten these improvements.

Additionally, the USA have looked at negotiating with Israel and Palestine where there is currently little political motivation. Williams stressed that they must stay committed to these countries. He emphasised diplomacy, using the example of its success in Iran. He suggests Iran could have chosen to create nuclear weapons but made the choice to refrain from gaining such resources because of negotiations with the US. Although the speaker still described Iran as a concern, it does go to show that patient collaboration works.

A member of the audience asked if ISIS was dealt with tomorrow, did Williams not think that the US had established alliances for the sake of it. However, the speaker highlighted that some of their allies, such as the Kurdish forces, are highly problematic in the region, but they focus on working with effective forces to fight terrorism; the regions themselves are to deal with the aftermath. They fight the shortest term challenge and then deal with other issues as they emerge.

A survey by ORB international found that 22 per cent of Syrians believe that ISIS has had a positive influence on their country.[1] In my opinion, this weakens US intervention, and suggests that there is a decreased confidence in America’s aid. All this lengthens the time it will take to progress towards political stability.

Williams concluded that military intervention is not always the best option. Real diplomacy, although hard and sometimes unsatisfactory, is fundamental. The USA needs the world in order to succeed in international intervention, but the USA is also central to the world for diplomatic intervention. International community is important.

A diplomatic approach to the Middle East, rather than military intervention is a long process, but I think the most successful option likely to achieve political stability and peace over military intervention. Due to the threat that ISIL pose on the world, military action can make the situation worse. To establish peace negotiations by Middle Eastern countries would lead to future conflicts being resolved within these regions without the need for external intervention.

The USA could have handled the beginning of their intervention more successfully, with a consistent idea of how they would intervene in the Middle East. There is a history of military intervention in this region, for example in Afghanistan. So when the USA originally decided to intervene militarily but then changed their position to an emphasis on diplomacy, it gives the people false hope that eventually the USA will use military action to fight terrorist groups. Additionally, negotiations with Assad reinforces the idea of inconsistent policies of the US. This makes it hard for the Middle East to treat US intervention as legitimate if there is never a clear stance. So if the idea of diplomacy and humanitarianism is showcased consistently, it has the potential to prevent the elongation of the civil war in Syria.

 

[1] ORB International. ‘ORB/IIACSS poll in Iraq and Syria gives rare insight into public opinion.’ http://www.opinion.co.uk/article.php?s=orbiiacss-poll-in-iraq-and-syria-gives-rare-insight-into-public-opinion

Global Female Empowerment: Why we should be looking to the Middle East for inspiration.

Protestors Demand End to Lawlessness in Tripoli

UN population fund (UNPFA ) Senior Advisor, Azza Karam and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Isobel Coleman, spoke last month about female empowerment and gender equality in relation to the Middle East. Their testimonies advocated that women, the youth and civil society are paramount in a resurging Arab political consciousness, the ‘Arab Spring’, which has been steadily growing. Beginning on the 17th December 2010 in Tunisia and on-going in other Middle Eastern countries such as Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, mass public protests concerning transparency, civil liberties and violence have taken place. Notably, there has been increased female participation in the Middle East with women standing alongside men in the front lines of protest. Ms Karam insisted that higher literacy rates, higher education, participation in the work place and the liberation of freedom via social media has contributed to the progression of female agency – asserting their own power. Both Ms Karam and Ms Coleman made it clear that the UN should utilise these mechanisms in their approach toward global female empowerment, closing gendered disparities in education while also contributing toward social and political stability in the Middle East.

The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia saw social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, as especially significant in rallying the masses in their political uprisings that began in late 2010. Social networking has opened a window of political insight to those, such as women or the youth, who previously may not have been exposed to opposing political opinions. This has invoked a new kind of political consciousness has been transposed into political activism. However, it is important to note that social media should not be entirely credited with the achievement of growing female assertion and participation. Ms Karam stressed that most importantly; rising educational and economic opportunities has been the primary contributor to political consciousness and personal freedom of women in the Middle East.

From this observation, Ms Karam stated that the UN has an obligation to support and form partnerships with these kinds of disparate voices in order to positively transform the wider Middle Eastern regions and other parts of the world. She advocates that women are “critical agents of change” for themselves and in surrounding socio-political issues. Ms Karam and Ms Coleman pairs these observations with criticism of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015. Two of the goals, universal education and promotion of gender equality with empowerment of women, have been criticised by Ms Karam in its approach as “inadequate”. She has, therefore, urged a program of development promoting educational and economic opportunities for women that sits under a blanket that encompasses culture and religion which has been previously neglected.

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, praised the assertion displayed in the ‘Arab Spring’, particularly recognising the role of women, in their passion and drive for democracy. However, Ms Coleman advocated that the UN is currently supporting women in the Middle East most positively through its research mechanisms and dissemination of its findings. She states, “We are experiencing an arc of history that will take a long time to play itself out. Overthrowing dictatorships is easy. Building something new in its place – creating – is the hard part.”

The UN has recognised that closing gender disparities are essential for women in enabling political and economic participation within their home nations. Priorities include ending violence, bias and stereotype toward women on corporate, political and domestic platforms. This was made clear by Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, at the 5th Annual Women’s Empowerment Principles Event in New York on March 6, 2013. In addition to this the UN has not been shy in displaying its commitment to female empowerment through several mechanisms.
There are two UN Bodies:

  • Comission on the Status of Woman
  • Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

Two Global Programmes:

  • Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women
  • Gender and the Environment

As well as five Regional Programmes:

  • Gender and Social Development
    Economic Commission for Africa
  • Gender Equality and Empowerment
    Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific
  • Gender Activities
    Economic Commission for Europe
  • Gender Affairs
    Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean
  • Centre for Women
    Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia

It will be interesting in the post-2015, MDG period whether these bodies will adapt to the recommendations of Ms Karam and Ms Coleman or resume a continuation of normative approach toward gender equality in the Middle East and the rest of the world.

 

Jamie-Lee Cole

 

Sources:

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44305&Cr=women&Cr1=
http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/gender.shtml
http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44686&Cr=women&Cr1=
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2011/mar/22/middle-east-protest-interactive-timeline
http://www.unmultimedia.org/photo/detail.jsp?id=182/182428&key=1&query=female%20assertion&lang=en&sf=