It's been 100 years since the document changed the course of history, yet Britain still fails to acknowledge Israel's denial of the Palestinian right to national self-determination - and its own complicity
The Balfour Declaration, issued on 2 November 1917, was a short document which changed the course of history. It committed the British government to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, provided nothing was done "to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine".
At that time, the Jews constituted 10 percent of the population of Palestine: 60,000 Jews and just over 600,000 Arabs. Yet Britain chose to recognise the right to national self-determination of the tiny minority and to flatly deny it to the undisputed majority. In the words of the Jewish writer Arthur Koestler: here was one nation promising another nation the land of a third nation.
Some contemporary accounts presented the Balfour Declaration as a selfless gesture and even as a noble Christian project to help an ancient people reconstitute its national life in its ancestral homeland. These accounts spring from the biblical romanticism of some British officials and their sympathy for the plight of the Jews of Eastern Europe.
Subsequent scholarship suggests that the main motive for issuing the declaration was cold calculation of British imperial interests. It was believed, wrongly as it turned out, that Britain's interests would best be served by an alliance with the Zionist movement in Palestine.
Palestine controlled the British Empire's lines of communications to the Far East. France, Britain's main ally in the war against Germany, was also a rival for influence in Palestine.
Under the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, the two countries divided up the Middle East into zones of influence but compromised on an international administration for Palestine. By helping the Zionists to take over Palestine, the British hoped to secure a dominant presence in the area and to exclude the French. The French called the British "Perfidious Albion". The Balfour Declaration was a prime example of this perennial perfidy.
Balfour's main victims
The main victims of the Balfour Declaration, however, were not the French but the Arabs of Palestine. The declaration was a classic European colonial document cobbled together by a small group of men with a thoroughly colonial mind-set. It was formulated in total disregard for the political rights of the majority of the indigenous population.
Foreign secretary Arthur Balfour made no effort to disguise his contempt for the Arabs.