Balfour initiated a policy of British support for Israel which continues to this very day, to the detriment of the occupied Palestinians of the West Bank and the five million Palestinian refugees living largely in warrens of poverty around the Middle East, including Israeli-besieged Gaza. Surely we should apologise
The Independent Online
Balfour’s 1917 declaration, of course, was an attempt to avoid disaster in the First World War by encouraging the Jews of Russia and America to support the Allies against Germany. Balfour wanted to avoid defeat just as Chamberlain later wanted to avoid war. But – and this is the point – Munich was resolved by the destruction of Hitler. Balfour initiated a policy of British support for Israel which continues to this very day, to the detriment of the occupied Palestinians of the West Bank and the five million Palestinian refugees living largely in warrens of poverty around the Middle East, including Israeli-besieged Gaza.
This is the theme of perhaps the most dramatic centenary account of the Balfour Declaration, to be published this summer by David Cronin (in his book Balfour’s Shadow: A Century of British Support for Zionism and Israel), an Irish journalist and author living in Brussels whose previous investigation of the European Union’s craven support for Israel’s military distinguished him from the work of more emotional (and thus more inaccurate) writers. Cronin has no time for Holocaust deniers or anti-Semites. While rightly dismissing the silly idea that the Palestinian Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al Husseini, inspired the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe, he does not duck Haj Amin’s poisonous alliance with Hitler. Israel’s post-war creation as a nation state, as one Israeli historian observed, may not have been just – but it was legal. And Israel does legally exist within the borders acknowledged by the rest of the world.
There lies the present crisis for us all: for the outrageous right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is speeding on with the mass colonisation of Arab land in territory which is not part of Israel, and on property which has been stolen from its Arab owners. These owners are the descendants of the “non-Jewish communities” whose rights, according to Balfour, should not be “prejudiced” by “the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. But Balfour’s own prejudice was perfectly clear. The Jewish people would have a “national home” – ie, a nation – in Palestine, while the Arabs, according to his declaration, were mere “communities”. And as Balfour wrote to his successor Curzon two years later, “Zionism … is … of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices [sic] of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land”.
Cronin’s short book, however, shows just how we have connived in this racism ever since. He outlines the mass British repression of Arabs in the 1930s – including extrajudicial executions and torture by the British army – when the Arabs feared, with good reason, that they would ultimately be dispossessed of their lands by Jewish immigrants. As Arthur Wauchope, the Palestine High Commissioner, would write, “the subject that fills the minds of all Arabs today is … the dread that in time to come they will be a subject race living on sufferance in Palestine, with the Jews dominant in every sphere, land, trade and political life”. How right they were.
Even before Britain’s retreat from Palestine, Attlee and his Cabinet colleagues were discussing a plan which would mean the “ethnic cleansing” of tens of thousands of Palestinians from their land. In 1944, a Labour Party statement had talked thus of Jewish immigration: “Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in.” By 1948, Labour, now in government, was announcing it had no power to prevent money being channelled from London to Jewish groups who would, within a year, accomplish their own “ethnic cleansing”, a phrase in common usage for this period since Israeli historian Illan Pappe (now, predictably, an exile from his own land) included it in the title of his best-known work.