Perhaps Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was asking for too much: A formal apology from Britain for issuing the infamous Balfour Declaration? Her Majesty’s government not only refused to deliver the highly symbolic mea culpa, but it also, rather haughtily, insisted that it was “proud of our role in creating the state of Israel”. Never mind the rather stale follow-up statement to the media that Britain continues to “support the critical objective of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state.”
So Britain will not apologise for promising the leader of the British Jewish community, one hundred years ago, that it will facilitate the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine; it will also mark the centenary “in an appropriate and balanced manner” because it recognises the “sensitivities many people have about the declaration and the events that have taken place in the region since 1917.”
The media statement concluded by insisting that “the Queen and the government of Britain will not apologise to the Palestinian people and the celebration marking 100 years since the Balfour promise will be held on time.”
If President Abbas and the Palestinian people were hoping for a historic gesture from Great Britain relating to their continuing calamity as a result of this notorious promise, then they were in for a big disappointment. This had nothing to do with justice or morality — in politics both rarely matter — but with expediency and reality. Abbas was asking for the impossible!
But if an apology will not be made, why then go ahead with the celebrations? Surely, that is worse, from a Palestinian point of view, than not asking for forgiveness. Israel will be using the occasion to whitewash its image and deflect attention from the reality of its 50-year illegal occupation of what remains of historical Palestine.
That territory, under international law, is an occupied one and by negotiated agreements it is the national home of the Palestinians and the land on which an independent Palestinian state will be established.
The Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917 was a single paragraph in a letter addressed from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to the leader of Britain’s Jewsih community, Walter Rothschild. What gave this promise “teeth” was the fact that Palestine had been under British occupation then and, from 1920 to 1948, had been under a British mandate granted by the League of Nations. Britain not only promised a land that it did not legally own to a foreign party, it actually facilitated the transition of hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants to Palestine.
History can be a nag sometimes, but it is the foundation of deep-seated hatreds, mistrust and endless wars. It was not just the promise that Britain had made but the actual steps it had taken to help the Zionist movement carry out its grand design. Britain’s role in achieving that design, celebrated or condemned, cannot be disputed.
Israelis and Palestinians usually point to the first part of the Balfour Declaration, the one that promises parts of Palestine to the Jews, but they forget about the latter section of that ominous letter. Lord Balfour concluded: “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.”
We now know that neither Britain, as an occupying force, nor European countries, Nazi Germany in particular, honoured that commitment. Palestinians in 1948 areas, who made up the majority, were persecuted and punished for demanding their civil and political rights in their own homeland, while Jews in Germany and other European countries were subjected to gas chambers and different kinds of purges. Britain’s duty and obligation towards the Palestinian people were never honoured.
Britain, as a former colonial power, cannot offer the Palestinians a formal apology. That would create a precedent. It would have to do the same with other former colonies, like India, and that would upset diplomatic etiquette, as well as historical narrative, as we know it. Should Belgium apologise to the Congo, or Italy to the Libyans and Ethiopians, and France to Algeria? Who knows a precedent like this could open the path to financial compensations and no former colonial power would want this.
So the Palestinians should put up and shut up! It’s enough that Her Majesty’s government is supporting the two-state solution. Never mind the buried reports about Israel’s apartheid practices or its illegal occupation or that fact that it is killing Palestinians’ aspiration to build their own state in what is left of Palestine. Britain will mark the centenary prudently and responsibly and without remorse.
For the Palestinians, daring to ask for an apology, symbolic as it is, was audacious and untimely!
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.