The Israeli journalist Gideon Levy described the British Balfour Declaration as “an empire promising a land that it had not yet conquered to a people not living there, without asking the inhabitants”.
On Thursday (November 2), the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visited the UK to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the declaration that many see as the foundations for the creation of the state of Israel.
For many Palestinians and Israelis alike though, there is little to celebrate as both states exist on increasingly fragile foundations. Now, more than ever, Britain needs to be atoning for what Levy describes as this “original sin” and looking to shore up the right to exist of both the Palestinian and Israeli state.
On November 2 1917, Sir Arthur James Balfour, the UK’s then foreign secretary, signed a letter promising the land of Palestine to the Zionist Federation, a political movement whose goal was the creation of a ‘Jewish state’. This declaration was, and remains, perhaps the most significant symbol of the British policy, to support Jewish immigration into Palestine.
Many Israelis celebrate it as the foundations for the later establishment of a state where they could finally feel safe, shielded from the virulent anti-Semitism in Europe.
For many Palestinians however, it lay the foundations for the ‘nakba’, or ‘catastrophe’ which in 1948 saw armed Zionist groups expel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes, perpetrating horrific massacres and the razing of whole villages.
With this history, and the obvious sensitivities that surrounds these alternative understandings of history, one would assume a British Prime Minister would approach this issue with careful diplomacy.
Instead however, we see the Prime Minister welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the UK with little comment on either the historical or contemporary injustices in the holy land.
During the state visit she said that that the UK is proud of its “pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel” and that “we are proud to stand here today together with Prime Minister Netanyahu and declare our support for Israel… proud of the relationship we have built with Israel.”
It is right and proper that the Prime Minister uses this occasion to reiterate our national policy of supporting a strong and prosperous state of Israel. However, given this painful historical anniversary, in which the UK played such a central role, it beggars belief that she could fail to balance this with equally firm support for the state of Palestine.
Many Palestinians will see this as an affront: inviting to dinner the modern day Prime Minister of Israel, a man who has done so much to undermine the possibility of a Palestinian state. It will be perceived as the British Prime Minister celebrating the historical demise of their homeland.
Netanyahu heads a government passionately pursuing the growth of Israeli settlements across the Occupied Palestinian West Bank. A policy that is a clear violation of International Humanitarian Law, and a clear obstacle to the existence of a prosperous Palestinian state.
This Likud led Israeli government is aiming to have an additional 12,000 new settlement housing units this year alone. This is not a historical wrong, but a contemporary injustice that is being perpetuated by a head of state that our Prime Minister is then offering her support to.
Equally, while Netanyahu plays lip service to the idea of a Palestinian state, there are many in his government who are opposed to the very existence of Palestine and continue to call for the complete annexation of the West Bank.
While we take this moment to look back at the Balfour Declaration we cannot and should not turn our eyes away from the modern-day state of Palestine that continues to exist under the long-term military occupation of Israel. This occupation, according to the United Nations, has this year alone killed dozens of Palestinians, injured thousands and demolished hundreds of homes.
There are some that challenge the state of Israel’s right to exist. These include armed groups, foreign governments, and some within European activist movements.
These must be opposed. But this opposition must be balanced with equally powerful support for the Palestinian people and their right to self-determination. Without this balance the long-term security of both Israelis and Palestinians is at risk.
100 years ago, the UK made the mistake of siding with one side in a conflict that was yet to happen. Today, the UK cannot afford to make the same mistake in a conflict that continues unabated.
Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West