Balfour Declaration: Why Britain cannot continue to avoid its responsibility

By Dr. Saeb Erekat/

In 2015, Tobias Ellwood, Britain’s foreign and commonwealth affairs minister for the Middle East and Africa, said that the United Kingdom was going to mark 100 years since the Balfour Declaration. But what does it mean to mark such an event if the U.K. is unwilling to repair the damage it caused to the national and human rights of the Palestinian people?

The Balfour Declaration was a letter sent by a British lord, on behalf of the U.K., to a British banker and politician representing the Zionist movement in 1917. It promised the establishment in Palestine, a land that did not belong to them, of a national home for the Jewish people. When Palestine came under British administration a few years later, London made sure to include this letter as part of the British Mandate.

When the Balfour Declaration was issued, the area known as historic Palestine was inhabited by over 700,000 people, the overwhelming majority indigenous Arabs. Rather than a “land without a people for a people without a land,” Palestine in fact had an Arab population entitled to the same rights as those in the rest of the region, namely a natural right to self-determination and an independent state recognized in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. The Balfour Declaration effectively ignored the national, civil and political rights of the Palestinian people, only stating that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish communities.”

The Balfour Declaration, though officially adopted, was never popular in Britain. The British parliament refused to endorse the British Mandate of Palestine in 1922 due to its adoption of the Balfour Declaration. At that time, the only Jewish member of the British Cabinet, Sir Edwin Montagu, completely rejected the proposal. Lord Curzon went as far as questioning: “What is to become of the people of the country? Their forefathers have occupied the country for the best part of 1,500 years and they own the soil… they will not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants.”

Palestinian rejection of the Balfour Declaration was not rooted in anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish sentiments, rather in defense and pursuit of the inalienable right of the Palestinian people for self-determination in their homeland. Palestinians always differentiated between Jews living in Palestine and foreign Zionists aiming at turning Palestine into a Jewish state, a position that has been clearly communicated by various Palestinian delegations to official British counterparts. No people would have accepted that a foreign power offer their country for the benefit of others, all while negating their political rights.

The effects and consequences of the Balfour Declaration are asprevalent today as they were 99 years ago. The ethnic cleansing and forcible transfer of Palestinians in occupied Palestine continues, the annexation and appropriation of Palestinian lands is ongoing while the settler-industrial complex expands its colonial regime, and Palestinian civil and political rights continue to be denied.

Concrete steps must be taken in order to protect and promote the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. Palestinians do not need to be reminded of Britain’s colonial transgressions—most can recite the text of the letter verbatim and detail the annals of British history with precision. Palestinians need the U.K. to first and foremost recognize its historic responsibility and apologize. Rather than “mark” this grave insult to world justice, Britain needs to acknowledge its responsibility and commit to protecting and advancing the political, civil, and national rights of the Palestinian people.

Moreover, the U.K. must acknowledge that the two-state solution on the 1967 border, a position the U.K. itself holds, is in fact a recognition of Palestinian statehood. It is time for the U.K. to unequivocally recognize the State of Palestine. For what is the two-state solution without two sovereign and independent states living side-by-side in peace and security?

The Palestinian government has made great strides in building our national institutions and advancing our political and diplomatic efforts. We have acceded to various international instruments, promoted Palestinian rights in international organizations, and will continue our strategy to attain our internationally-recognized right of self-determination. Coupled with the efforts of non-violent popular campaigns at home and abroad, Palestine continues its aspirations for full independence.

Almost 100 years after the Balfour Declaration, 70 years after the tragedy of the Nakba, and 50 years under an illegal military occupation, let 2017 mark the celebration of the end of occupation and a new beginning for Palestine, while fully acknowledging the responsibility for past injustices.

In order to build a future of peace between Israel, Palestine, and the rest of the world, justice must be honored. The United Kingdom cannot continue to avoid its historic responsibility in Palestine.

Dr. Saeb Erekat is the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization.