Britain promised the Jewish lobby a homeland while assuring the Bedouin they had nothing to worry about.
His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, its being understood that nothing shall be done that 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…”
These critical 67 words were part of what came to be known as the Balfour Declaration, which laid the ground for the settlement of Jews in Palestine. They were written by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour exactly 100 years today, but they have had the impact of dividing the world concerning what is known today as the Palestinian Question.
The Declaration was included in a letter Balfour sent to an ardent Zionist and influential banker, Lord Walter Rothschild. The Zionist movement gained incredible traction from this stance adopted by the British government as hundreds of young men and women of Jewish origin flocked to Palestine to lay claim to the land and establish a Jewish state that has been the cause of incessant violence in the Mediterranean area ever since.
It was a time when Ottoman Turkey, the “Sick Man of Europe,” was on his deathbed as the old empire that had ruled over a huge chunk of Central and Southern Europe as well as most of North Africa was crumbling and whetting the appetites of new empire builders in Europe.
Britain was one of the European powers deeply involved in this new colonial game of chess. Its agents, governors and viceroys were already straddling the globe, with footholds in outposts as far-flung as India, Africa and the Caribbean. The rivalry between the Brits and the other major players such as France and Germany for the pickings to be had from the collapse of the hated Turks was intense.
It was a time when the sons and daughters of Empire were encouraged to venture abroad and gather whatever they could for good old Albion at the same time as they made their own names for posterity.
In the effervescent setting of the Middle East, colourful figures emerged from this era, such as adventurous officer Thomas Edward Lawrence – dubbed Lawrence of Arabia – and a most amazing young woman named Gertrude Bell, who became busy in the intrigues that were to redraw the map of Arabia, introducing new dynamics that have continued to affect the whole world for a century.
Faced with a crumbling empire with all its imponderables, and caught between the pressures of the Zionists such as Lord Rothschild and the desire of the Bedouin tribes on the ground to secure their lands, religion and culture, Britain resorted to subterfuge. It was promising the Jewish lobby a homeland in Palestine while at the same time assuring the Bedouin that they had nothing to worry about as their interests were being taken care of.
“…nothing may be done which prejudices the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”
It is logical to think that these words were merely meant to assuage the fears of the Arabs who, of course, viewed with maximum suspicion any move to implant a foreign tribe in their midst. It was also a ruse to get the locals to deliver the demise of the Turks in the area.
Well, the Arabs gave their co-operation, the Turks were defeated and the days of the British Mandate over Palestine were ushered in, but the British failed to keep their side of the bargain when it came to securing the “civic and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.”
Of course, World War II brought with it new dynamics, especially the collective guilt of the world powers at the end of that war over the Holocaust and the horrific crimes committed against the Jews. The overwhelming desire was to help expedite the settlement and rehabilitation of those who had thus.
But Britain and the other major powers that emerged victorious in 1945 totally ignored the plight of the Palestinian people, who were now displaced and placed in camps around the Middle East because of the settlement of the Jews and the establishment of a state that has been likened to apartheid South Africa, without equal citizen rights.
It all started 100 years ago today.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org