This month sees the centenary of the signing of the Balfour Declaration, and in those 100 years we have continued to bend our interpretation of “normal”. A lot has been “normalised”, including the Israeli military occupation of Palestine, Israel’s almost routine imprisonment of children, racial and religious segregation, obnoxious “aid” deals, house demolitions and evictions.
All of this and more is now to be celebrated by the British government “with pride” in honour of Balfour’s infamous letter and the subsequent “normality” of such things by the State of Israel. It’s a celebration that, in and of itself, continues to normalise the most abnormal of acts; Britain had neither right nor authority to promise to give the land belonging to one people to another people.
This push to normalise the abnormal, unethical and illegal – even by the standards of the time – is not something new in Britain’s approach to the Palestine question. The Balfour Declaration, though it was lobbied for by leading Zionists wanting a Jewish state, actually provided a convenient excuse for Britain to bolster its influence in the Middle East. It was written in part to balance the presence of Britain’s historic rivals, the French. A state-like project in mandated Palestine helped to secure Britain’s hold over the Suez Canal, a major trade route, and limit France’s influence to its mandate countries in North Africa, Lebanon and Syria.
This opportunism was interrupted by the Jewish insurgency which grew in the late thirties and culminated in the 1946 terrorist bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which killed 91 people. It is an incident still celebrated in Israel, and those responsible are regarded as heroes.
The years prior to the insurgency saw Britain’s role in mandate Palestine include attempts to limit Jewish immigration, while land controls fell flat in the face of increased calls for statehood and an active Palestinian resistance movement.
What little control Britain’s colonial project gave it in the Middle East completely unravelled in 1956 when Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal. Along with France and Israel, Britain invaded the Sinai Peninsula in the so-called “Suez Crisis”. The invasion was met with harsh criticism from the international community, mainly the United States, and they were forced to retreat. Opportunistic self-interest had once again failed the British government.
On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, there is healthy debate around what it actually intended and meant. The consensus is that Balfour’s short letter was not official blessing for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. This was echoed by the British government in White Papers in 1922 and 1939 which rejected any sort of partition plan and stressed the need for a Jewish home within an independent Palestinian state. Another pertinent point is that the declaration refers unequivocally to “Palestine”, which dispels Zionist arguments claiming that such a place never existed.
What’s more, the current debate highlights the clause in Balfour which qualifies Britain’s support for “a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” [Emphasis added.] This has been ignored consistently from the day it was written.
Regardless of the fact that, historically, Britain apparently had no intention of creating the mess in which Palestine stands today, the government in Westminster continues to be hell-bent on sticking to its trajectory of self-serving opportunism. In today’s world filled with Brexit uncertainty, opportunism presents itself through the existence of a stable trading partner in the state of Israel.
In order to embrace this partner, the British government has to perform verbal, legal and political gymnastics to cover up its current and past incompetence, hoping all the while that we won’t notice its blatant hypocrisy and double standards.
They do not, of course, pass unnoticed, but Israel and its violations of international laws and conventions continue to be normalised by Britain and other countries. There is purposeful obfuscation of our history of complicity in such violations, and critics are dismissed with bland rhetoric about the “complexity” of the situation.
This alleged complexity, however, has not stopped the US from sending vast amounts of foreign aid to a country condemned by international law as an occupying power. No questions are asked about this, or why a country as prosperous as Israel needs aid in the first place.
This “complexity” has also stood in the way of the EU sanctioning Israel for the repetitive destruction of EU-funded projects donated to the Palestinians within the occupied territories. Such is the complexity of the knot into which the British government has tied itself on this issue that it is left with little choice but to celebrate “with pride” a document which has cause untold misery and suffering for millions of Palestinians.
Needless to say, the situation has become so “complex” that none of the main actors recognise or accept the inalienable right of Palestinian self-determination and provision of the most basic of human rights.
Return to normal
It’s clear that the Palestinians will not receive a Balfour apology from the British government; it has been dismissed out of hand, like so much else over the decades of Israel’s occupation. Opportunism is very much still the name of the game, and this leaves little hope for justice and restitution for the Palestinian people from either the international community or the Israeli government, which pushes for ever more normalisation.
From promising a people that help will be given to create a “national home” in someone else’s land, to the ongoing occupation, blockade and refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their land, as is their right, what is there to be proud of? What is yet to come? How far are we willing to go in pushing back the boundaries of what is considered normal?
Finally, what is actually complex about a conflict that is overwhelmingly clear both legally and morally? It’s time for us to move beyond such petty rhetoric about complexity and pride, and start to reassess our approach to foreign affairs when it comes to Palestine. After all, we’ve had 100 years to think about it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.