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The Balfour Declaration: Britain’s responsibility in Palestine


By Bernard Regan




On 2 November 1917 the Conservative Party Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, on behalf of the British Cabinet, sent the following statement to Lord Rothschild for transmission to the Zionist Federation.


His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.


Written at the height of the 1914-1918 First World War it was a declaration of imperial intent and the prelude to the thirty-year British occupation of Palestine.


One of the most vociferous opponents of the declaration in 1917 was the only Jewish member of the Cabinet, Sir Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India. He believed that support for the “principle” of a “National Home for the Jewish people” would legitimate the spread of anti-Semitism already rampant in parts of Eastern Europe.  Montagu asserted that, “Anti-Zionism is a belief held by at least half the Jews of this country”.


He was not the only Jewish voice raised against the proposal. Mr C. G. Montefiore, President of the Anglo-Jewish Association criticized Herzl’s assertion that “anti-Semitism was eternal, and that it was hopeless to expect its removal”. Mr L. L. Cohen, Chairman of the Jewish Board of Guardians thought that since a Jewish home in Palestine would in any case only be able to take a fraction of world Jewry it would not resolve the problem of anti-Semitism.

These criticisms and the Palestinian opposition were ignored.  The British occupation of Palestine which began in December 1917 was followed in April 1918 by the arrival of the most pre-eminent leader of the Zionist movement Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist Commission. In April 1920 Sir Herbert Samuel, well-known for his pro-Zionist position, was appointed High Commissioner and thwarted every attempt by the Palestinians to attain self-determination.


Three factors drove British thinking in the middle of World War One: a desire to control the Suez Canal, the maintenance of communications with India and their east African colonies, and a wish to establish a base in the Near East to secure their access to oil.


Weizmann argued, that establishing the national home for the Jews in Palestine would,  “bring back civilisation to it, and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal”. The 1917 declaration united Zionist hopes and British imperialist ambitions.


Despite the fact the Palestinian people constituted more than 86% of the population of Palestine, Balfour referred to them in the Declaration as the “non-Jewish communities”.  The statement spoke of the “civil and religious” rights of the “non-Jewish communities” omitting any mention of political rights, like the right to self-determination.


The British acted duplicitously. In July 1915 they began discussions with Sharif Hussein the Emir of Mecca, to form an Anglo-Arab anti-Ottoman alliance. Hussein believed that the alliance would guarantee the independence of the whole of the Arab world from the north of Syria, the Arabian Peninsula through to Egypt with the Mediterranean Sea as its western edge.


In March 1916 negotiations conducted for the British by Sir Mark Sykes and for the French by Francois George-Picot resulted in an agreement that, after the war, the French would control Lebanon and Syria whilst the British would control Mesopotamia (Iraq), Jordan and Palestine. Hussein was told nothing of the Anglo-French deal.


The First Palestinian Congress held in January 1919 made clear the Palestinians’ desire for self-determination. The Congress nominated a delegation to represent the Palestinian people at the Paris Peace Conference but the British prevented them from leaving Palestine. When the Third Palestinian Congress of December 1920 agreed to send a deputation to Cairo to meet the Colonial Secretary, Sir Winston Churchill, he refused to meet them. The Colonial Secretary, Sir Winston Churchill played a critical role in trying to sell the Declaration to the Palestinians making much of the fact that what was being proposed was “a national home for the Jewish people” and not “the national home”.


From the outset the Palestinians organised mass demonstrations, general strikes and action protesting against the refusal of the British to establish political structures acknowledging their majority status in the country. Young and old, men and women, began to be mobilised against discriminatory policies which left Palestinians landless and unemployed. Increasing numbers became involved in what was an anti-imperialist struggle which erupted in the 1936-1939 period into armed conflict against the British.  The defeat of that struggle weakened the capacity of the Palestinian people to resist the onslaught of the Nakba. The 1948 Nakba was a direct consequence of British policy.  Balfour laid the seeds of that catastrophe but it remains clear that the Palestinian people have not given up on their quest for self-determination.


Bernard Regan


Bernard Regan’s book “The Balfour Declaration: Empire, the Mandate and resistance in Palestine. 1917 -1936” will be published by Verso in October 2017.





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