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.
— British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, November 2, 1917
Rarely if ever has a document of so few words had such profound and lasting impact as the Balfour Declaration, which at once laid the foundation for the modern Jewish state of Israel and sowed the seeds of a century of ceaseless conflict between Jews and the Arabs whose lands they usurped. Contrary to popular opinion, the Arab-Israeli conflict is neither complicated nor ancient, although it is first necessary to revisit ancient times to start this story.
Thousands of years ago, Jewish kingdoms thrived in what is today Israel and Palestine. Expelled by the Babylonians in 586 BC and again by the Romans more than five centuries later, it would be another two millennia until Jews once again ruled their own homeland in Palestine. And although they never completely disappeared from Palestine, Jews never numbered more than about 10 percent of the population there from ancient times until the early 20th century.
The first intrepid Zionist settlers began emigrating to Palestine from Europe in the 19th century. Zionism, a movement for the reestablishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, gained momentum amid fierce and often deadly anti-Semitism in Europe. Works like Theodore Herzl’s The Jewish State and events like the First Zionist World Conference in Basel, Switzerland in 1897 fueled a further increase in emigration. Even in these early days, many Jews understood the implications of Zionism — which is essentially the colonization by white Europeans of Arab lands — and rejected the movement. “The bride is beautiful,” a delegation of rabbis visiting Palestine in 1897 wrote of the land, “but she is married to another man.”
The other man was, of course, the Arabs of Palestine. As Zionist colonizers increased their numbers and land holdings in what was then still part of the Ottoman empire, conflict inevitably simmered. Some 40,000 European Jews arrived in Palestine in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. That conflict resulted in the disintegration of the Ottoman empire, with victorious British and French officials lustily carving up the Middle East for themselves. It was in these heady days full of imperial triumphalism and hubris that Secretary Balfour issued the document which many Zionists would cite as the foundation of the legitimacy of what would one day become the state of Israel.
There was one big problem, though, and it was right there in the text of the declaration: “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Such rights were certainly being prejudiced. Accelerating Zionist migration to Palestine, now a British mandate, led to a breakdown in relations between Arabs and Jews in the 1920s. The former took up arms against the latter, with hundreds of Jews murdered in a wave of terror, and Jewish militias forming in response to the violence. The rise of Naziism further fueled a Jewish exodus from Europe, although the ultimate goal of some leading Zionists seemed to have more to do with establishing a Jewish state in Palestine than with saving their people from Hitler’s horrors. David Ben-Gurion, later to become Israel’s first prime minister, wrote:
If I knew that it was possible to save all the (Jewish) children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half of them by transporting them to Palestine, I would choose the second — because we face not only the reckoning of these children, but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people.
As violence between Arabs and Jews escalated, British officials launched the Peel Commission to examine the “Palestine problem.” In 1937 the commission recommended a two-state solution; one for Arabs, one for Jews, with Jerusalem remaining under British control to protect Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy sites. Around the same time, Jews began initiating terror attacks against Arabs, first as retaliation but with groups like Irgun — led by future Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin— bombing crowded markets in Haifa and Jerusalem. In response, the British issued the MacDonald White Paper of 1939, limiting Jewish immigration and infuriating many Zionists by declaring the Balfour Declaration’s mandate of a “national home for the Jewish people” fulfilled. It said, in part, that:
His Majesty’s Government believe that the framers of the Mandate in which the Balfour Declaration was embodied could not have intended that Palestine should be converted into a Jewish State against the will of the Arab population of the country… They would draw attention to the fact that the terms the (Balfour) Declaration referred to do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded IN PALESTINE (emphasis in original document). His Majesty’s Government therefore now declare unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State. They would indeed regard it as contrary to their obligations to the Arabs under the Mandate, as well as to the assurances which have been given to the Arab people in the past, that the Arab population of Palestine should be made the subjects of a Jewish State against their will.
The White Paper of 1939 is arguably far more important than the Balfour Declaration. It is an official admission by the British government that its endorsement and initial encouragement of the Zionist colonization of Palestine was a mistake, and an attempt to correct the error. It was an unequivocal rejection of the legitimacy of a Jewish state in Palestine. Yet even today Israelis and their supporters celebrate the Balfour Declaration while completely ignoring the MacDonald White Paper.
For many Jews, the 1939 white paper was a colossal betrayal. From then on, Jewish militants targeted British and Arab alike. Irgun fighters bombed British government offices. Members of Stern Gang, led by future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, assassinated British Minister of State Lord Moyne in Cairo and planned to kill Winston Churchill as well. On July 22, 1946, Begin’s Irgun bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, killing 91 people, including 17 Jews. In 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led a two-day celebration commemorating the 60th anniversary of the King David Hotel terror bombing, outraging the British government but thrilling his hard-line base.
It should be noted that even as Zionist terrorists were busy murdering British and Arabs in an attempt to drive both from Palestine, Jews were still very much the minority there, numbering no more than 30 percent of the mandate’s overall population. But in the summer of 1947 the British quit Palestine in disgust, handing the problem over to the fledgling United Nations. Without consulting the indigenous Arab population, the UN voted to partition Palestine under intense pressure from the United States. Zionists exalted; although they owned just six percent of the land and made up just over a third of the population, their new state of Israel would get 55 percent of Palestine’s territory. UN Resolution 181 understandably enraged Palestine’s Arabs, who immediately stepped up attacks against Jews. Hundreds more were killed.
There was one huge, glaring problem with Resolution 181. If Israel was to become both a Jewish state and a democracy, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs would somehow have to be persuaded to leave their homes and go someplace else. Joseph Weitz, director of the Jewish National Land Fund, declared:
“Among ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both people in this country… and there is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to neighboring countries, to transfer them all… we must not leave a single village, a single tribe.”
A campaign of ethnic cleansing of Palestine’s Arabs began. Plan Dalet, devised by Ben-Gurion, called for attacks on Arab villages to drive out Palestinians and make way for Jewish settlement. “The principal objective of the operation,” read a directive to Zionist troops, “is the destruction of Arab villages… [and] the eviction of the villagers.” What terrible irony that a people who had just suffered through one of the worst genocides in human history were now themselves embracing ethnic cleansing to expand their own lebensraum. Palestinians call this dark chapter in their history the Nakba, or catastrophe. Hundreds of villages were ethnically cleansed, sometimes by horrific massacres, including at Deir Yassin, where over 100 men, women and children were killed. Such slaughters were hailed as great successes by leaders of what would very soon be declared the state of Israel. “We created terror among the Arabs,” Begin triumphantly boasted after Deir Yassin. “In one blow, we changed the strategic situation.”
More than 700,000 Arabs were fleeing or being forcibly expelled from their homes as Israel declared its independence on May 15, 1948. Neighboring and nearby Arab nations unsuccessfully attacked the fledgling state, a war portrayed by most Israelis as one of blatant aggression. But while it is true that the Arab nations were indeed the aggressors, they were waging war against an upstart colonial power that was ethnically cleansing nearly three quarters of a million Arabs, refugees who were, in turn, creating instability throughout the region. It seemed perfectly logical that Arabs would resist Israel, as even Ben-Gurion himself had once acknowledged:
“In our political argument abroad, we minimize Arab opposition to us. But let us not ignore the truth among ourselves… a people which fights against the usurpation of its land will not tire so easily… When we say that the Arabs are the aggressors and we defend ourselves– that is only half the truth. As regards our security and life we defend ourselves… But the fighting is only one aspect of the conflict, which is in its essence a political one. And politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves… The country is theirs because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down.”
Still fighting against the usurpation of their land today, the Palestinian people have indeed not tired so easily. Nor has Israel, which continues to crush every manifestation of Palestinian resistance with brutally disproportionate slaughter. A century ago, the Arab majority and Jewish minority lived side by side in relative peace in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration, and the wave of Zionist colonization it unleashed, helped change all of that. In what can only be described as an act of supremely arrogant imperial privilege, Britain at once laid the foundation for a Jewish homeland in Palestine and guaranteed that Jews would never live in peace there so long as Palestinians possess the will to resist.