The text of the letter was short and precise, leaving no room for any misinterpretation in the “promise” made by Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour to a powerful representative of the Jewish community in Britain, Lord Rothschild on a fateful day of 2 November 1917.
“I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet: His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The spirit of that declaration altered the very destiny of the Palestinian people until this day. Thirty years after Balfour gave away Palestine – which was neither his to give, nor has it fallen under the control of the British Empire as of yet – a United Nations Partition Plan, as articulated in Resolution 181, divided Mandatory Palestine between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Soon, Israel became a state, and the Palestinian people were denied every claim on their own land. In 1967, Israel moved in to occupy the rest of historic Palestine. The British promise, became an unending Palestinian nightmare.
This is precisely why there can be no discussing of the recent British House of Commons’ vote of Monday, 13 October, on a Palestinian state without digging deeper into history. Regardless of the meaning of the non-binding motion, the parliamentary action cannot be brushed off as just another would-be country to recognise Palestine, as was the Swedish government decision on 3 October, for example.
Unlike Sweden, and most of the 130 plus countries to affectively recognise Palestine, Britain is a party in the Middle East’s most protracted conflict. If it were not for Britain, there would be no conflict, or even Israel, of which to speak.
The historic vote passed after a fascinating debate which signals a shift in the way Israel is perceived, not just by the British public – a decided shift has already been registered on that front for years – but also within the British ruling political classes. True, nearly half of the MPs were absent or abstained, but the outcome was undeniably clear. Only 12 MPs voted against, and 272 in favour. After intense pressure and endless lobbying, this is all the support Israel could muster among one of its strongest allies.
Non-binding, of course, but still the vote matters. It matters because the British government remains a member of the ever-shrinking club of Israel’s staunch supporters. Because the Israeli arsenal is rife with British armaments. Because the British government, despite strong protestation of its people, still behaves towards Israel as if the latter is a law-abiding state with a flawless human rights records. It matters despite the dubious language of the motion, linking the recognition of Palestine alongside Israel, to “securing a negotiated two-state solution.”
But there can be no two states in a land that is already inhabited by two nations, who, despite the grossness of the occupation, are in fact interconnected geographically, demographically and in other ways as well. Israel has created irreversible realities in Palestine, and the respected MPs of the British parliament should know this.
The MPs votes were motivated by different rationale and reasons. Some voted “yes” because they have been long-time supporters of Palestinians; others are simply fed up with Israel’s behaviour. But if the vote largely reflected an attempt to breathe more life in the obsolete “two-state solution” to a conflict created by the British themselves, then, the terrible British legacy in will continue unabated.
Moreover, what is the use of a statehood that seems to grow symbolically with no change in the reality on the ground whatever to ensure its materialization? The list of “symbolic” Palestinian victories continues to grow almost at the same rapid speed in which the Palestinian landscape continues to shrivel.
And what is a state with no rights, neither for those who live within what is supposedly designated as future territories of that state, or the millions who live in what was once Palestine, now ‘Israel proper. As for the millions of Palestinian refugees, who continue to suffer the dire consequences of the Nakba (catastrophe of 1948), and every regional crisis since then, neither the British vote, nor all the other recognitions seem to remedy their terrible fate in anyway.
Needless to say, Britain’s moral responsibility towards the Palestinians can hardly be addressed in so inapt a gesture, especially as it arrived nearly one hundred years after the original meddling of Balfour and ‘His Majesty’s Government.’
It is inexplicable that one century after the British involvement in Palestine, the current British foreign policy is not far removed from the language and policies executed by the British Empire when Balfour gave Palestine away. In one of his letters at the time, Balfour so conceitedly wrote:
“For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country … The four great powers are committed to Zionism, and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. In my opinion that is right.”
Sure, British diplomacy is presently much more savvy to use such abhorrent language, but has the policies been fundamentally altered reflect a measurable shift?
Encouraged by the overwhelming recent vote in favour of Palestine at the parliament one can hardly deny the signs that both the British public and many in the country’s political establishment are simply disenchanted by Israel’s continued war and occupation which are the main reason behind the destabilisation of the region long before the Syria civil war and other upheavals began. Many British MPs are furious over Israel’s violent, expansionist and anti-peace conduct, including those who were once strong allies of Israel. That must not be denied.
But it is hardly enough. When the British government insists on maintaining its pro-Israeli policies, and when the general attitude of those who truly hold the reins of power in London remain committed to a farce vision of two-states, defending Israel and disempowering Palestinians at every turn, the Balfour vision of old will remain the real guidelines for British policy regarding Palestine.
66 years after ending its “mandate” in Palestine, Britain remains a party in a bloody conflict where Israel is still carrying out the same policies of colonial expansion, using western – including British – funds, arms and political support. Only when Britain fully and completely ends its support of Israel and financing of its occupation, and works diligently and actively towards correcting the injustice it had imposed on the Palestinians a century ago, one could consider that a real change in British policies is finally taking hold.
Ramzy Baroud is a PhD scholar in People’s History at the University of Exeter. He is the Managing Editor of Middle East Eye. Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).