In Depth

Should the UK atone for the Balfour Declaration?

Centenary intensifies calls for British recognition of Palestinian state

The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration has intensified calls for the UK to atone for its role in creating Israel by recognising the state of Palestine.

The declaration turned the Zionist aim of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine into a reality when Britain pledged to establish “a national home for the Jewish people”, Al Jazeera says.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to London today to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas blamed the UK for Palestinian suffering, saying “celebrations must wait”.

In a comment article for The Guardian today, Abbas warned that the Palestinians will soon embrace a one-state solution and demand rights equal to those of Israeli citizens.

Abbas also called for the UK to atone for the “100 years of suffering” caused by the declaration.

“It is time for the British government to do its part,” he said. “Recognising the state of Palestine on the 1967 border, with East Jerusalem as its capital, can go some way towards fulfilling the political rights of the Palestinian people.”

The Balfour Declaration’s legacy

The pledge is viewed as a catalyst for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 and the conflict that followed with the state of Israel.

Israel declared independence in 1948 after the British Mandate expired, and won the subsequent Arab-Israeli War, “prompting significant demographic change in the region and exodus of more than 700,000 Palestinians,” says The Independent.

Israel later captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 war, along with the Gaza Strip - now controlled by Hamas. The last round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014.

What was the Declaration?

One 2 November 1917, Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, wrote to leaders of the UK's Jewish community to pledge support for a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine.

The Balfour Declaration formed the basis of the UK's mandate in Palestine, which led to mass Jewish immigration and the creation of Israel following the Second World War.

Why was it controversial?

For Palestinian nationalists, the declaration marked a shift in Western policy that would lead to the displacement of Palestinian people.

The declaration was, in the words of the Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, “made by a European power… about a non-European territory… in a flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory”.

Should Britain atone for its role?

The official UK response to the demand for a Balfour apology was released earlier this year.

“We are proud of our role in creating the state of Israel,” it said. “Establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.”

But while Britain is generally held responsible for the Balfour Declaration, “it is important to note that the statement would not have been made without prior approval from the other Allied powers during World War I,” says Al Jazeera.

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