First came the Balfour Declaration, issued exactly a century ago in the United Kingdom, then came its end result, exactly 30 years later at the United Nations.
One might expect that the resonance of that aging, infamous document would have faded away a hundred years after the fact. Yet it shows no sign of doing so. It remains to this day a ghostly presence in our daily lives (how could you, say, go through the humiliation of checkpoints in the West Bank without thinking of it?) and a spooky marker in our history books.
It’s not easy to find a new way to write about a subject as well-reconnoitered as the Balfour Declaration, so copiously written about by professional historians, effectively a diktat (yes, I think that’s the honest word to use here) whose consequences are so keenly experienced by Palestinians as “felt” history. The release of this 67-word document – even at a time when Britain was still in its colonial heyday, when it felt free to determine the political destiny of its “subjugated peoples”, often literally with the stroke of a pen, behind their backs and against their pleas – was seen, and not just by Arabs, as no less than an act of imperialist, moral depravity. The end result of that the sleight of hand by Britain in November 1917 came exactly 30 years later at the UN in November 1947, when the General Assembly voted to partition Palestine between the Arab majority and the Jewish minority, giving away 52 per cent of it to the latter.
SPECIAL COVERAGE ON BALFOUR DECLARATION:
Ramzy Baroud writes: How Britain became an obstacle to peace
Mahmoud Abbas writes: Why Britain must say sorry for a century of injustice
Diana Buttu writes: We live a life of fear in an open-air prison
Fadi Esber writes: How Truman paved the way for Jewish occupation
And if you think America’s advocacy of Zionism then was less fervent or less zealously pursued than it is in our time, then read this from that most popular book, O Jerusalem, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, made iconic since its publication by Simon & Schuster in 1971, on how the US worked so hard to see to it that Palestine was dismembered that year.
“By direct orders of the White House, the United States had exerted every form of pressure available to it on those nations in the UN opposed to partition or hesitant in their support of it”, wrote the authors. “President Truman had personally warned the United States delegate to the UN, Herschel Johnson, to ‘damn well deliver the partition vote or there will be hell to pay’.”
And the human toll on Palestinian, as Israelis the following year scrambled to conquer, by force of arms, an additional 26 per cent of of the land?
Consider, for one thing, the ethnic cleansing by Zionist troops that took place in the east of the country, including in the twin cities of Lydda and Ramleh, where tens of thousands of Palestinians were expelled en masse. Again Collins and Lapierre: “Under a boiling sun clutching what few possessions they had had time to gather, an occasional Israeli bullet fired over their heads to keep them moving, the miserable column of human beings stumbled over the rock- and thorn-strewn hillside toward Ramallah. An unknown number of the aged and the young died during the trek.” In the south, hundreds of villages and towns were emptied and tens of thousands of people, who had lived in them for generations, arrived in Gaza, harrowed, beaten, and bled.
As for the refugee exodus in the north, along the coast road leading to the Lebanese border, I need not refer here to outside sources, given the fact that I am one such. I am a man approaching 80 now, and as as an eight-year-old at the time, I can attest to what I saw: Old men hobbling along the road with help from their canes, appealing to the God the munificent, the merciful, to help them in their ordeal; children walking alone, with no hands to hold; a pregnant woman by the wayside, screaming with labour pain; whole families, exhausted from the heat and parched by dehydration, rested under whatever tree they could find. And so it went.
And in the refugee camps later, came the misery, the destitution, the cold and the knee-deep mud. And later still came the men, erstwhile proud Palestinians who had been self-sufficient bread winners in their homeland, now standing in line to pick up their families’ rations at UN food depots, with some, like my own father, willing themselves to death – and often succeeding.
To this day, these images remain with me, speaking to me, about me, from me, defining my inward preoccupations as a human being, and resounding around every corner of my being as a Palestinian. Over the years, I passed the images on to my kids – now adults – as often as I could, lest they forget their archetypal roots, and they in turn are passing them on to their own kids, in order that the images become a part of their habits of reference, a part of their teleological spirit of history.
In May, 1953, John Foster Dulles, then America’s secretary of state, while on an official visit to Lebanon, gave a speech at the Alumni Club of the American University of Beirut, where he declared, with facile ease (or was it facile contempt?) that “the Palestinian problem will solved in time, only when a new generation of Palestinians grew up with no attachment to the land”.
Sure, sure, Johnny.
Yes, Arthur Balfour, have no fear, the Palestinians are here, continuing to be.propelled by their Nakba’s prodigious drive for remembrance. And, Gosh, Art, it’s only been a hundred years. It’s still half time. The wrongs you have inflicted on the little, unsuspecting people of Palestine will be corrected, and corrected with due diligence and in due course. That’s a promise. Trust me on this one, fellow.
Fawaz Turki. Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.