Palestinian activists have launched a campaign calling on the British government to apologise for the Balfour Declaration, which pledged a homeland for the Jewish people in historic Palestine nearly a century ago.
At a launch event at the House of Parliament last Tuesday, Palestinian groups and their supporters blamed the plight of the Palestinian people on the legacy of the pledge and wider British colonialism in the region.
If the petition reaches 100,000 signatures, the British parliament will have to consider debating the subject.
Baroness Jenny Tonge, an independent member of Britain’s upper house of parliament, said pro-Palestinian MPs from across the spectrum would push the issue regardless of what happens with the petition.
“There will be people in the House of Commons and the House of Lords who will be raising the issue all through the next year,” Tonge said.
The activists, backed by the Palestinian diplomatic mission in the UK, intend to pressure the British government in the lead up to the hundredth anniversary of the pledge in November 2017.
In 1917, in a letter to Lord Rothschild, the head of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour, promised support for a homeland for Jews in Palestine so long as existing communities in the area were not “prejudiced”.
“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, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which 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,” the text of the declaration reads.
Shortly after the letter was published, the Ottoman Empire, which ruled historic Palestine, was defeated by allied powers in World War I, and Britain established mandate rule in the territory.
Speaking at the debate, the head of the Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), Majed al-Zeer, said the Balfour Declaration marked the beginning of almost a century of Palestinian suffering.
“[Britain’s] role directly contributed to the displacement of the Palestinians … the suffering that we are living through today is a direct result of Balfour’s legacy,” said Zeer. “So instead of independence, Palestinians were to get wars, camps, refugees, blockades, massacres and many more painful memories.”
British Palestinian author Karl Sabbagh said Balfour’s promise to the Zionist movement was just one in a series of conflicting pledges made to Jews and Arabs.
According to Sabbagh, while the promise initially stated that Britain would “endeavour” to facilitate a national home for Jews in Palestine, later governments codified the pledge into the country’s foreign policy.
“By the time it got into the mandate, Britain said it would secure the establishment [of a Jewish national home], ” Sabbagh said. “So suddenly we’ve gone from a letter expressing mild interest or support for something, into a statement that can be taken as a binding commitment.
“The existence of the mandate and the terms of the declaration were used willingly and deliberately by successive British governments of all political persuasions to turn Palestine into a Jewish state.”
Sabbagh further argued that Britain’s acceptance of its responsibility for its role in dispossessing Palestinians, could force the country to work towards a lasting solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“Recognition of the injustice would mean future governments would no longer side-step the issue. “It would mean at some level Britain would accept responsibility for its share of the situation today and might do more about it than just parroting the long-dead two state solution.”
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera, A British Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman said that the government recognised sensitivities surrounding the declaration but would not be apologising for it.
“The Balfour Declaration was a historic statement and one that the UK Government will not be apologising for,” the spokesman said. “We are focused on encouraging the Israelis and Palestinians to take steps which bring them closer to peace.
“However we do recognise the sensitivities many people have about the Balfour Declaration and will mark the anniversary accordingly.”
“The UK’s longstanding position is clear: We support a negotiated settlement leading to a secure Israel existing alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state; based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, and a just settlement for refugees.”
The launch event was marred by controversial comments made by a member of the public attending the event that appeared to go unchallenged by Tonge. Speaking at the close of the event, the unidentified man spoke of Jews having “agitated” Hitler prior to the Holocaust.
In her response, reported by Sky News, Tonge said she did not hear the full “rant”. “I remember the rant very well but I don’t remember hearing very much of it. It was a rant,” Tonge said
“You do get ranters at these meetings and I think the best way of dealing with them – if you challenge them they go on and on and on and on – the best way is to just say ‘yes, thank you very much, next speaker’.”
Tonge later quit as a member of the Liberal Democrat Party.
The PRC distanced itself from the comments made by the man and condemned attempts to “discredit” its activities. “PRC reiterates its position, which is that we don’t tolerate any form of anti-Semitism nor holocaust denial statements,” said PRC spokesman Samir Habib.
“The fact that some members of the Jewish Neturei Karta said anti-Semitic statements in the Q&A session of our meeting should not be used to defame our event or speakers. “Comments being made by members of the audience should not be used to discredit our activities”
Palestinians demand UK apology for Balfour declaration – Aljazeera.com