A letter was all that it took for the British Empire to artificially (and accidentally) create the Israel-Palestine conflict on November 2nd, 1917. This letter, the Balfour Declaration, has caused a century of conflict in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs over Palestine. If at all, a solution to the conflict is as improbable as ever 100 years after the Zionists were promised “a National Home” by British Officials.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is as heated as ever. Walls separate the nations to the east of Jerusalem, a city considered holy for both parties, while Israel continues to build settlements in the Palestinian West Bank. Actions illegal by international law and condemned globally. While Jews in Israel managed to build a highly successful nation, Palestine Arabs see their hopes for an independent nation – in whatever form – diminished to scraps. Terror and violence on both sides dominate the news and relations between both countries, and it all started with a 67-word-letter. The Balfour Declaration.
British Interest and Zionism
The Jewish nationalist movement that started in the late 19th century, striving for an independent Jewish state, is called Zionism. It wasn’t a widespread movement, but it had some advocates with influential contacts in the higher British circles. They eventually made a push for creating a Jewish state in the midst of World War I.
Back then, Great Britain was still a highly influential imperial superpower. The Balfour Declaration was a product of opportunity for both Zionism as well as for the British Empire. Both British and French forces were actively discussing the partition of the Middle-East in case the Ottoman Empire was defeated. The only region both nations couldn’t agree on was Palestine, which was planned to be put under international rule. A trade-off the British Empire wasn’t willing to make, as it did not only plan to win the war but sought to expand its power further as a result. Palestine would’ve been a deciding factor to achieve that vision.
There were basically two issues to be solved. First, how to claim Palestine without angering the French and, secondly, to win the war first.
The Balfour Declaration
No matter the influences, in the end, it was the British that decided to back Zionism and offer “a National Home for Jews” in the region of Palestine. Even though Zionism was, by no means, a widespread movement. The British hoped that it would validate their claim of Palestine, not for themselves, but to create a Jewish sanctuary. The British Empire also hoped it could rally people of the Jewish Faith in their favor and influence the outcome of the war.
The declaration was drafted by both Zionists and British officials until a final form was decided on October 31, 1917. The Balfour Declaration was then signed by Arthur Balfour and sent to Lord Rothschild on November 2nd and published November 9th.
The Balfour Declaration, no matter from what angle, was never designed to promise a definitive settlement to Jews. It was primarily a securing of British short-term interests, that then eventually became true after World War I had ended and the Ottoman Empire was carved up accordingly. Looking at the 67 words of the Balfour Declaration today, it is clear that it is purely focused on the Jewish people and British territorial interests. It actually pays little regards to Palestinian Arabs. There is a portion dedicated to them, but it fails to even explicitly name them.
The Balfour Declaration states:
“[…]it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine[…]”
After World War I, Jewish immigration started and by the 1930s, thousands of Jews were given land to resettle in Palestine. Much to the disagreement of Palestinian Arabs.
The Aftermath in Palestine
The Balfour Declaration caused the uprising of one ethnic group over another one. The British did not seem to understand the implications of settling Jews inside Palestine back then but were to learn the dire consequences the letter and its implementation would bring. In the British minds, there was always the idea of building a functioning state where both, Arabs and Jews, would live and thrive together like they previously had under Ottoman rule, even though in a different composition.
Palestinian Arabs were angered and quickly rose up and opposed the British rule, which caused them to eventually give in and restrict Jewish immigration in the late 1930s. This turned out to be yet another fatal error of the British Government. During World War II, where Jewish people had to flee Europe in a bid for survival, immigration into Palestine was hard and difficult if at all possible.
After World War II, the British had enough and withdrew from the region, placing the issue of Palestine into the hands of the newly created United Nations. The hardship and atrocities the Jewish people had faced during the war, especially due to the Holocaust and the German invasion of Europe, led the United Nations to the decision of dividing Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. While the Jews accepted the convention and declared their independent state Israel almost immediately, the Arabs did not acknowledge the validity of the decision and started another war. A conflict that most of the Middle-East would join in, in an effort to destroy the freshly formed Jewish state of Israel.
60 Years of War in the Middle East
It’s been almost 60 years since Israel’s declaration of independence, and it’s been a history of constant war, suffering, and conflict. It is a history of constant aggressions of varying degrees from several sides, making a peaceful solution as improbable as it always was. For the past 50 years, Isreal is occupying the West Bank and started illegally settling its own citizens on what is supposed to be Palestinian ground. Terrorist attacks and conservative radical movements in both nations make it increasingly hard to get any dialogue started.
It remains to be seen what the future brings, as it stands right now, the Balfour Declaration has elevated the Jewish State of Israel to incredible heights. But one nations gain is another one’s loss, a lesson the Palestinians had to learn the hard way over the course of the past 100 years.
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