Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Balfour’s legacy: The destruction of Palestine

One hundred years after the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, it is incumbent on Britain to make amends for its shameful record in Palestine, writes Salman Abu Sitta

Palestinian loss of land since 1946
Palestinian loss of land since 1946

The last hundred years have witnessed the world’s longest war against a people – a hundred years of the Palestinian people’s struggle for freedom from colonialism in their own country and a hundred years of the destruction of Palestine and the dispersal of its people.

Such an evil act was made possible by the largest, longest, most comprehensive, pre-meditated and still continuous ethnic-cleansing operation in modern history, constituting one hundred years of violating every article in human rights and international law without remedy or recourse. This hundred-year period culminated in the only colonial, racist and Apartheid project in existence in the world today.

The irony is that Palestine was not intended to be a colony at all. After the First World War, Britain was entrusted to build government institutions in Palestine and Iraq, both League of Nations Mandates. It was supposed to set up a democratic and independent country serving the Palestinian people in fulfillment of the “Sacred Trust of Civilisation” under the Charter of the League of Nations.

Instead, Palestine was converted into a colonial project for the benefit of European Jewish colonists who were not inhabitants of the country. It was the worst case of political treachery in the history of European colonialism and even worse than a standard colonial project.

Unlike other colonial projects, this one ended with the mass expulsion of the majority of the population, the confiscation of their land and property, the destruction of their landscape and the erasure of their geography and history. It was the most tragic event in Palestine’s 5,000-year history.

This treachery was intended. In 1916, while Allied planes were dropping leaflets on the Arabs exhorting them to join the fight against the then Ottoman Empire and gain their independence and freedom, Britain’s Mark Sykes and France’s Georges Picot sat in a closed room with a map of the Middle East, planning how to carve it up between them.

One year later, Arthur James Balfour, Britain’s foreign secretary at the time, concluded a secret agreement with European Jews to facilitate the establishment of “a Jewish national home,” not a state, in, and not of, Palestine. He kept this agreement under lock and key. Meanwhile, British forces entered Palestine in the spring of 1917 and bombarded Gaza using poison gas shells and destroyed most of its ancient buildings, but were defeated twice at the gates of Gaza.

On the evening of 31 October 1917, the forces of British general Allenby captured the town of Beer Sheba in a surprise attack from the east, forcing open the gates of Palestine. Allenby sent a cable to London on 1 November, saying “we captured Beer Sheba. Jerusalem will be your Christmas present.” Balfour opened his drawer and made public his secret agreement on 2 November 1917.

Balfour was not ashamed of his deed and plainly stated his position. “For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes [not rights] of the present population of the county,” he said. If these were expedient political statements, subsequent British actions in Palestine put these words into action.

The first act was to select a Zionist British minister, Herbert Samuel, to be the first High Commissioner of Palestine whose official task was to bring to Palestine independence and a working government. However, Samuel did the opposite and created the roots for the rise of Israel. During his tenure from 1920 to 1925, legally from 1922, Samuel laid the foundations of the future state of Israel.

He promulgated dozens of laws that facilitated Jewish acquisition of Palestinian land, recognised Hebrew as an official language, established separate Jewish institutions, including a banking system, education system, labour union (Histadrut), public works administration (Soleh Boneh), and power generation company (Rosenberg). But the most critical laws for the elimination of Palestine were the creation of a separate Jewish legislative council and separate Jewish armed forces (Haganah), which eventually conquered Palestine. In today’s legal language, Samuel laid the foundations of Apartheid Israel.

Samuel issued many of these laws without authority either from the League of Nations, which approved the Mandate on 24 July 1922, or from the British colonial office in London which often rejected Samuel’s formulations.

The flood of European Jewish settlers to Palestine later reached its peak about the middle of the 1930s. At the end of 1936, the total Jewish immigrant population had risen to 384,000, or 28 per cent of the whole population, from nine per cent at the beginning of the Mandate. This ignited the Palestinian Arab Revolt of 1936-1939.

 

BRITISH BRUTALITY: The Revolt was met with the utmost British brutality. The British Royal Air Force bombed villages indiscriminately, and the rising numbers of casualties among civilians enraged the population and increased the number of those who joined the ranks of the rebels (called “bandits” by the British).

British forces attacked their villages, destroyed their supplies and held men in cages for days without food or water. Collective punishment was widely used. Political parties were dissolved. Leaders were imprisoned or deported.

The British forces at this time (some 25,000 to 50,000 soldiers) were assisted by Jewish armed forces, notably 20,000 Jewish policemen, supernumeraries and settlement guards who also provided intelligence information. That was in addition to the Haganah, which was trained and equipped with arms and uniforms by the British army.

A minimum estimate of Palestinian casualties from 1936 to 1939 is 5,000 people killed, 15,000 wounded and a similar number jailed. More than 100 men were executed, including leaders such as 80-year-old sheikh Farhan Al-Saadi, who was hanged while fasting in Ramadan on 22 November 1937. About 50 per cent of all adult males in the mountainous region of Palestine, corresponding roughly to the West Bank today, where the revolt was particularly active, were wounded or jailed by the British.

By 1939, Palestinian society had been dismembered and had been rendered defenceless and leaderless. The year of 1939 can be identified as that of the British-inflicted Nakba (catastrophe). Almost ten years later, the Jewish leader David ben Gurion, one of the founders of Israel, carried out the Zionist-inflicted Nakba of 1948, using British training and British laws against Palestinians and British intelligence files.

However, the Zionists under ben Gurion then decided to dump the British and adopt the Americans instead. In May 1942, 600 Zionist leaders met in the Biltmore Hotel in New York and decided to take over all of Palestine, demanding “that Palestine be established as a Jewish commonwealth.”

The Haganah started a massive intelligence project called “Village Files” that was intended to record minute information about every Palestinian village. It used British survey maps and aerial photographs, with these being a primary factor in the conquest, occupation and depopulation of over 500 Palestinian villages. The files were used to turn captive Palestinian villagers, sometimes as young as 10 years old, to Israeli-run concentrations camps where Israel used them as forced labour.   

These Israeli-run concentration camps were opened in Palestine only three years after the concentration camps were closed in Nazi Germany. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva today houses volumes of ICRC reports of visits to five concentration camps in Israel, these having been established by the British for their purposes and then turned over to the Haganah before their departure.

I personally copied 500 documents from the ICRC archives and studied them. I also interviewed about two dozen survivors of the Israeli-run concentration camps of Palestinian civilians. To my surprise, I found that Israel had set up another 17 concentration camps not seen by the Red Cross.

The Zionists returned the British favours with a special kind of gratitude. At the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945, they rewarded Britain for its support by starting a terror campaign against their erstwhile benefactors. They bombed the British HQ in Jerusalem, hanged British soldiers and kidnapped British judges.

In 1945, Britain had to fly its 6th Airborne Division to Palestine in order to fight Zionist terrorism. Its aim was not to save Palestine, but to save its soldiers from their Zionist “beneficiaries”. The Zionists also assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN mediator appointed to bring peace to Palestine, at the same time. The Jewish actions were described as “terrorism” by the UN Security Council in its Resolution 57 of 1948.

In March 1948, the UN decided that its proposal for partitioning Palestine was not workable without bloodshed, so it was dropped in favour of proposed UN trusteeship over Palestine. That would have killed the Zionist plans to take over Palestine, so they decided to act alone.

 

BRITISH COLLUSION: During the remaining six weeks of the British Mandate, the Zionists attacked and depopulated 220 Palestinians villages and committed massacres, the most infamous being that at Deir Yassin.

The task of the British was to protect the Palestinians, but they did not intervene when over a dozen massacres were committed against Palestinian villages. Deir Yassin was just a few km from the British police headquarters in Jerusalem, but the British police did nothing. The expulsion of the Palestinians from Tiberias was also assisted by the British providing transport for the expelled population. In the massive evacuation of Haifa’s Palestinian population, the British forces did not defend that population, but assisted its departure.

The fall of Haifa speaks volumes about the failure of the British general Stockwell to discharge his duties and protect the population. The charges against him and his “cooperation” with the invading Zionists remains a black spot on his record.

One of the documents that I have studied in detail is a handwritten book of signals between British patrols along the Jaffa-Jerusalem road and their HQ during the critical period of April to May 1948. This is a damning record of the British collusion and of British failure to honour their obligations.

In the wireless log (No. 129) of the duty troops (April and May 1948), there are frequent entries showing the refusal of the British army to rescue Palestinian villagers being attacked by Jews. The army was ordered to watch, report, but not to interfere. However, when the Jews asked for help, the troops were ordered to rescue them.

According to the log, the village of Deir Muheisen was burning under the mortars of the Jewish Haganah and its people were screaming for help, while the British forces were watching and doing nothing. Their reports derided the Palestinians by calling them wogs.

The unceremonious departure of the British from Palestine left the country in a state of chaos and despair. It was the most disgraceful British departure from any location in the former British Empire. Britain did not hand over a functioning government to the Palestinians, as its duty under the Mandate system dictated. Instead, the British left Palestine in the hands of European Jewish settlers who were admitted to the country by Britain, trained by Britain, and armed by Britain. The settlers’ first task was to terrorise the British themselves and chase them out of Palestine.

It is indeed a sorry reflection on British policy that instead of standing by its obligations to protect the Palestinians and to deliver a free and democratic Palestine, Britain, one year after the Nakba, and with full knowledge of the Zionist massacres and ethnic cleansing, joined together with the United States and France in issuing the Tripartite Declaration of 1950 against any attempt to change the status quo in Palestine.

But what was this status quo? It was the destruction of Palestine and the expulsion of its people.

Israel then surpassed its early benefactor. It reactivated British laws (Defence (Emergency) Regulations) against Jewish terrorism and applied them against Palestinian inhabitants remaining in Palestine. Israel is still using British “collective punishments regulations” against Palestinians resisting occupation to this day.

The British kept up a consulate in Haifa during the early years of Israel. Its consul sent regular reports about ethnic cleansing and the depopulation of the Palestinians, the looting of their homes and the application of brutal measures against those remaining. Yet, the British did nothing, instead eventually recognising Israel and actively working against the foundation of an independent and free Palestine.

The history of the last 70 years and up until the tenure of current British Prime Minister Theresa May and her unashamed suppression of freedom of speech about Israel’s atrocities and attempts at legitimation of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement shows that Balfour’s legacy is still alive and well in 10 Downing Street. The British government still raises the banner of Balfour’s evil legacy and this year even plans to celebrate it with “pride”.

After 100 years of Palestinian suffering, the Palestinians are entitled today to appeal to all people of good conscience across the world to join them in demanding of the British government that it :

- Apologise to the Palestinian people for their suffering during a century of death and destruction, still with no end in sight, due to its wilfully or carelessly failing to undertake its duties and obligations.

- Pay full compensation for all direct and consequential losses and damages to the Palestinian people.

- Adhere and implement international law, its covenants and UN Resolutions regarding Palestinian inalienable rights.

- Make amends by assisting, as required for the purpose, in the establishment of a free and democratic Palestine, by means such as:

- Correcting its policies within the United Kingdom and in the international arena such that inalienable Palestinian rights are fully realised.

- Helping, as a primary actor, in the rebuilding of Palestine and the repatriation of its people.

- Reflecting Palestinian history and the suffering of its people in school curricula and in the media.

And any other means necessary to achieve the aim of a free and independent Palestine.

On all of the above the Palestinians call on all people of conscience in the world today to demand that Britain erase the traces of Balfour’s shameful legacy and work to restore Palestine to its people in justice and freedom.  


The writer is the president of the Palestine Land Society.

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