The British Empire’s central role in the Zionist project and the subsequent violent displacement of the Palestinians is described by Alex Snowdon
Arthur James Balfour signed a short letter on 2 November 1917. Though brief, it would have historic ramifications. Balfour was Tory foreign secretary in a Liberal-led wartime government. The short note he signed pledged British support for the project of Zionist colonisation in historic Palestine. It would come to be known as the Balfour Declaration.
The declaration referred to the 'establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people'. Three decades later, this 'national home' would be established through the forced dispossession of the Palestinians who already lived there. Such a state could, as Balfour knew, only be founded on the back of violent displacement.
Balfour’s declaration was addressed to the wealthy aristocrat Walter Rothschild and expressed support for the British Zionist Federation. It gave official approval to the idea of a ‘homeland’ that would explicitly privilege one particular group – Jews, at that time scattered across the world – over the indigenous inhabitants of the territory.
The drive to colonise - to steal land by violent means and subjugate or expel the people it is stolen from – would consequently be built into the Israeli state at its foundations. The Balfour Declaration was the prelude to that.
Balfour and his colleagues were no friends of the Jewish people, who were victims of racist discrimination and demonisation through much of Europe (Britain included). In 1905 Balfour had, as Prime Minister, been responsible for legislation that sought to stop Jews fleeing persecution in Russia from coming to Britain. The 1917 declaration was an expression of British colonial interests.
Opposition to the declaration came from the only Jewish member of the British Cabinet. Sir Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, declared that the majority of British Jews were opposed to Zionism. He was right: it was then a minority current. His main concern was that a separate Jewish homeland gave legitimacy to the then widespread anti-Semitic notion that Jews were not welcome in Europe.
In 1917 the dominant figures in the British political establishment viewed Zionist aspirations sympathetically because they fitted British imperial concerns. One of these concerns was a desire to control the Suez Canal, which was vital for trade. Another was the maintenance of communications with India and their east African colonies. There was also a desire to secure a strong base in the Middle East for access to oil. Economic self-interest underpinned British sponsorship of Jewish settlement in Palestine.
Balfour's declaration betrayed contempt for the indigenous Palestinians, who then formed 86% of Palestine's population. The Declaration was notable for pledging that they would have 'civil and religious rights' but with no mention of political rights. The implication was clearly that Palestinians would be subordinated to Jewish settlers in their own land. In reality, of course, the establishment of a Jewish state would only be possible via ethnic cleansing and mass dispossession.
After the end of World War One the Middle East was carved up by the victors. The partitioning of the defeated Ottoman Empire brought new territory under the control of Britain and France. The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 (between Britain and France) and the Balfour Declaration contributed to this colonial enterprise.
Palestine – from the Mediterranean Sea in the west across to the Jordan River in the east – had previously been under Ottoman rule. It became a British Mandate territory under the auspices of the League of Nations after World War One.
During the years of the British Mandate, British authorities oversaw increased Jewish settlement while brutally suppressing Palestinian resistance, especially during the period of mass revolt and strike waves between 1936 and 1939. This laid the ground for the establishment of Israel through the Nakba - catastrophe - of 1947-48, when Zionist terror drove Palestinians from their land.
The notion of ‘a land without a people’ – of Palestine as a largely barren desert - is integral to the founding mythology of Israel and has persisted ever since. Ilan Pappe, the great Israeli historian, counteracts this mythology when he writes: ‘Palestinians spoke their own dialect, had their own customs and rituals, and appeared on the maps of the world as living in a country called Palestine’.
Palestine was a geographically distinct entity from Roman times onwards. It was a province of the Roman Empire. It continued to be regarded as a defined and fairly cohesive geopolitical space during the centuries that followed. Palestine was a province of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 onwards.
This is important to acknowledge because pro-Israel revisionists sometimes suggest that Palestine was never really a place to begin with, just as they suggest that the Palestinians were never a national or ethnic group.
Palestine became a thriving and cosmopolitan society – mostly rural but with significant urban settlements and some economic development. It had many coastal towns, with ports that were crucial for trade with Europe, and further inland a lot of rich agricultural land.
Ottoman records of 1878 indicate a population of 462,465 people. The vast majority were Muslim, around 10% were Palestinian Christians, and a little over 3% were Jewish. These were Jews rooted in Palestinian life and culture over generations, before the wave of settlement that followed.
The prevalent late nineteenth-century ideas of nationalism affected Palestine and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. The Palestinian elite developed a stronger sense of self-determination and demanded greater autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. Across the Arab world, especially in the urban centres and among the middle classes, the interconnected notions of nationhood and self-government gathered steam.
The sense of a national identity, defined by such things as shared territory, culture and language, became stronger in this period. This was a secular identity, not one defined by religion or sect. And the idea of achieving more political autonomy – or even complete independence – on the basis of nationhood was connected with this.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Palestinians’ self-image as a distinct national group deserving its own independent state was strengthened. This was in some tension, though, with both the reality of British colonial oversight and the increasing settlement of the land by Jews.
Zionist settlement began, initially on a small scale, in 1882. There is a story from the early days of settlement of two rabbis looking out at the land. One observes its beauty. The other agrees, but adds a cautionary note: “the bride is beautiful but married to another man”.
The state of Israel was – at birth – defined by colonialism, violence and racism. It has remained so ever since.
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Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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