Balfour Declaration: UK celebrations 'a slap to the Palestinian people'
The British government's decision to back celebrations marking the centenary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration has inadvertently highlighted to younger Britons its role in denying the Palestinians a state, Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Authority's ambassador to London, said on Wednesday.
Mr Hassassian was speaking as the House of Commons, the lower house of the British parliament, debated the short memo from Arthur Balfour, then the foreign secretary, to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, that outlined British support for a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine.
“Marking the centenary is intended to be a slap to the Palestinian people,” he told The National. “Instead it’s become significant that as we have intensified our campaign against the antagonistic position of the British government of celebrating the centenary, the younger generation [in Britain] is becoming aware that their government did such a thing."
“The Balfour declaration mentions the civil and religious rights of the Palestinian Arabs. What we are calling for is the third right to be established, the political rights of the Palestinians.”
Theresa May, the British prime minister, declared on Wednesday that her government was “proud” of the role the UK had played in establishing the Israeli state. She will attend a dinner to celebrate the declaration, jointly hosted by the current Lord Balfour and Lord Rothschild, with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week.
More than a dozen British MPs spoke in the debate on the declaration on Wednesday and there are scores of events planned around the country to coincide with November 2, the date of the memo.
Alistair Burt, foreign office minister for the Middle East, defended the declaration, which he said was drawn up in a world of “competing colonial powers”.
“If we want to see this issue settled and the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians the way we want to see it, we [need] the fulfilment of every part of the Balfour Declaration,” he said.
“This government is proud of the role the UK played in the establishment of the state of Israel. We will be welcoming the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guest of government on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration."
“It is a centenary we will mark with pride and respect but also with a degree of sadness that issues between Israel and Palestine have not been resolved.”
A repeated point that has emerged in debate surrounding the centenary is that the undertaking to the Jewish side was not matched by fulfilment of the promise to the Palestinians. As well as declaring that the British government viewed "with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people", Balfour's memo also stated that this was on the clear understanding "that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious right of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine".
“The establishment of a Palestinian state is long overdue,” said Conservative MP Matthew Offord, the sponsor of Wednesday's debate. “To deny the two-state solution is to side with the hardliners of both sides.”
The historical impact of the Balfour Declaration was reflected in a series of calls by MPs for the government to immediately recognise Palestine as a state.
“The land was not desert. It was towns and villages in which Palestinians represented more than 90 per cent of the population,” said Joanna Cherry, a Scottish Nationalist Party MP. “The true legacy of Balfour is five million Palestinians living in refugee camps. The second part of the Balfour Declaration hasn’t been fulfilled.”
Mr Hassassian has promoted a campaign around the social media hashtag #makeitright. “There is a wedge between the British government and the people when it comes to Palestinian rights. It has not recognised the grass roots support among the general [British] public for the UK to recognise the state of Palestine,” he said.
The British government has repeatedly stated its support for two states, as well as its opposition to settlement activity and the division of Jerusalem. But it has not backed the broader campaign for Palestinian recognition both at a state level and international bodies.
The memo dated November 2 was drafted as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and a British expeditionary force led by General Edmund Allenby advanced towards Jerusalem. It was endorsed by the League of Nations in 1922, making it part of international law.
Recalling an earlier encounter with Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, Mr Hassassian said he would work for the British government to add a single word to the Balfour memo: political.
“I told him he could call it the Johnson declaration,” he said. “What could he say? He was cornered.”