Britain must atone for its sins in Palestine

October 31, 2012

Ever since the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Britain has denied our people their rights

By Nabeel Shaath

Over the past few weeks, British diplomats have stated that they are doing all they can to discourage Palestine’s bid for “observer state” status in the UN General Assembly. If this is an official British position, then it is reprehensible, yet not all that surprising.

Ninety-five years ago tomorrow, on November 2, 1917, British imperialism in Palestine began when Lord Balfour, the then British foreign secretary and former prime minister, sent a letter to Baron Rothschild, one of the leaders of the Zionist movement. This letter became known as the “Balfour Declaration”.

In that letter, Balfour promised British support for the Zionist programme of establishing a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. This pledge of support was made without consulting the indigenous Christian and Muslim inhabitants of Palestine, the Palestinian people. And it was made before British troops had even conquered the land.

Balfour, on behalf of Britain, promised Palestine – over which Britain had no legal right – to a people who did not even live there (of the very small community of Palestinian Jews in Palestine in 1917, very few were Zionists). And he did so with the worst of intentions: to discourage Jewish immigration to Britain. No wonder Lord Montagu, the only Jewish member of the Cabinet, opposed the declaration.

And yet, just two years earlier, Britain had committed herself to assisting the Arab nations in achieving their independence from the Ottoman Empire. Arab fighters all over the region, including thousands of Palestinians, fought for their freedom, allowing Britain to establish her mandate in Palestine.

From that moment, Palestine became the victim of colonial conspiracies. The Balfour Declaration helped to encourage Zionist immigration into Palestine and away from America and Western Europe. Concomitantly, Britain repressed Palestinian nationalism, which was exemplified by its crushing of the Arab revolt of 1936-1939 and the denial of the right of the Palestinian people to express their will through their own representation. In fact, Britain suppressed Palestinian political representation through a policy of systematic denial of Palestinian political rights.

The dying days of Britain’s rule in Palestine were marked by destruction, blood, and the start of the Palestinian exile, meaning the expulsion of the majority of the Palestinian people against the backdrop of Zionist terrorism. It was not the Palestinians who blew up the King David Hotel, who blew up the British Embassy in Rome, who tried to assassinate Ernest Bevin, Britain’s foreign secretary, and who succeeded in assassinating Lord Moyne, British minister of state in the Middle East. That was the Irgun, an ideological Right-wing group – and the predecessor to Israel’s ruling Likud Party.

The British mandate was supposed to deliver independence to Palestine through the establishment of representative institutions. It was never meant permanently to thwart Palestinian national aspirations. Nor was it ever envisaged that the British mandate would end with a catastrophe in the form of the expulsion of the majority of the Palestinian people from their homeland.

When Britain decided to relinquish Palestine to the UN in 1947, she was well aware that the Zionist movement was well established and equipped, while Palestinians were still healing from the effects of British colonialism during the years of the revolt.

Since the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, during which approximately two thirds of the Palestinian people, Christians and Muslims, were expelled to become refugees, Britain has not done anything substantially to repair the suffering it has caused to the Palestinians. Britain has not met its historic responsibility. Successive British administrations have avoided repairing this injustice by making statements of goodwill instead of taking actions to end the Israeli occupation and support the Palestinian right to self-determination.

It is unacceptable that today, 65 years after the partition of Palestine, the UK has recognised the state of Israel but not the state of Palestine. It is unacceptable that, having invested large human and economic resources in the development of Palestinian institutions, the UK has not taken the necessary political and diplomatic steps to realise the establishment of a free and independent state of Palestine. Rather than continuing down this path, the UK, more than any other state, should stand behind the Palestinian endeavour towards the fulfilment of their national rights and aspirations, through supporting its application for enhancement of status at the UN.

Some argue that Palestine’s recognition and enhanced status will not immediately end the occupation. None the less, it is a step in the right direction towards a peaceful solution, and it sends a strong message to Israel that the world will no longer tolerate its illegal and oppressive policies. For a country with the historic responsibility that the UK carries towards Palestine, a victim of British colonialism, this should be the least we can expect in order to repair decades of occupation and exile.


Dr. Nabeel Shaath is a member of the PLO Political Committee and Fatah Central Committee, and is a former Palestinian foreign minister.

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