Britain’s historic responsibility to the people of Palestine, Gaza and Israel

John McHugo

Edited text of speech for the Balfour Project event The Tragedy of Gaza in Edinburgh 17 March 2018

My role is to explain why Britain carries a historic responsibility to the people of Palestine generally, to the people of Gaza in particular, and also, I must stress, to the people of Israel. I am going to do this by taking you through several texts. It all begins with the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 1917. I won’t go into the background to it or the motives of those who wrote it, but let’s just look, very carefully, at the wording of the Declaration in its entirety:


“Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet:
‘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.’

I should be grateful if you could bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.”


If you had read this text in your morning newspaper back in November 1917 you might have thought it a pretty fair document. At first glance, it seems almost motherhood and apple pie. The intention of establishing a Jewish national home is praiseworthy, and the words “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” seem to ensure that the rights of the indigenous people would be safeguarded.


Yet it is precisely those words that pose the problem. Palestine was over 90% Arabic speaking at the time, and the native Arabic speakers, Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, were Ottoman citizens. Adult males had votes for local councils and elections to the Ottoman parliament. Nationalism was beginning to stir among the Arabic speakers of the Ottoman Empire. By making its pledge to assist the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, Britain was giving itself a conflict of interest, as well as opening a divide between Arab Jews and other Palestinians.

The reference to “existing non-Jewish communities” in the Declaration glossed over and hid from view the fact that Palestine was a settled, Arabic-speaking country. So if you were a voter in Morningside or Manchester, a Jewish community leader or rabbi in Glasgow or Whitechapel, or a civil servant in the Colonial Office in Whitehall, you might have read the Balfour Declaration in the newspaper over breakfast and failed to notice that the words “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” were misleading. There may or may not have been an intention to mislead, but that is not the point. They deceived.


It is therefore not surprising that many people, and many Jews, read the Balfour Declaration and came to see Palestine as a land promised by Britain to the Jewish people, and saw this as a virtuous promise because nobody would suffer as a result. And this brings me to my second document.


 These two extracts from an editorial in the London based Jewish Chronicle on 11 November 1921, almost exactly four years after the Balfour Declaration was issued. It refers to the Haycraft Commission, an official British commission of enquiry which reported on riots in British administered Palestine which had taken place six months earlier. These had started with a disturbance at May Day demonstrations in Jaffa, but riots and a breakdown in law and order in other parts of the country followed. This took the form of attacks by Arabs on Jews, and a response by the security forces. By the time it was all over, 47 Jews and 48 Arabs were dead. The Haycraft Commission concluded that the riots had been started by Arabs, but had not been premeditated. Very importantly, it concluded that the anger behind the riots was opposition to Zionism, not hatred of Jews.


In London, the Jewish Chronicle did not want to accept the conclusions of the report. It wrote a sarcastic editorial to vent its spleen. It stated that the Mandate over Palestine that Britain was being granted by the League of Nations, was “chiefly a direction” to Britain “so to govern Palestine as to fulfil the promise of the Balfour Declaration and to establish in Palestine the Jewish National Home.” This instances, incidentally, the problem with the reference in the Balfour Declaration to “existing non-Jewish communities” that I have already highlighted. In fact, the Palestine Mandate had not yet officially begun, and Palestine was occupied territory which Britain should have been administering in accordance with international law. That meant that, at the time of the riots, it should not have been seeking to implement the Balfour Declaration.


In another passage, the editorial refers to the Arabs “in their tents”, a choice of expression which makes me wonder whether the writers of the editorial actually realised Palestine had a settled Arab population. But the main reason I have drawn it to your attention is the following, dehumanising wording about the Arab population, in which it compares the British authorities in Palestine to zoo-keepers who were entrusted to keep violent animals in their cages:


“Imagine the wild animals in a Zoological Gardens springing out of their cages and killing a number of spectators, and a commission appointed to enquire into the causes of the disaster reporting first and foremost that the animals were discontented with and hostile to the visitors who had come to see them! As if it were not the business of the keepers to keep; to know the habits and dispositions of the animals, and to be sure that the cages were secure!”


This wording demonstrates what is perhaps the saddest aspect of the 1921 riots. They showed how a divide was now opening between Jews, including indigenous, Arabic speaking Jews and recent incomers who were chiefly from central and eastern Europe on the one hand, and Palestinian Muslims and Christians on the other. As Menachem Klein demonstrates in his book Lives in Common, lives between the different religious communities in Palestine had not been free of tensions and inequalities, but they had been fairly harmonious before Britain appeared. Now this was changing. The divide was cemented by further and far worse disturbances in 1929. Make no mistake – it was the actions of Britain in attempting to implement the Balfour Declaration that led to this.


The League of Nations mandate which entrusted Britain with the administration of Palestine officially began in 1923. Its text certainly does show the intention was that Britain should fulfil the promise of establishing the Jewish national home, but it is premised on Article 22 of the Covenant of the League. Article 22 was a vital, legally binding document. It is all too often forgotten today. Here are some critical extracts from it.


“To those colonies and communities which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of States which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the wellbeing and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation…
“Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognised….”


Palestine, and its people, were covered by this. At the time there was no general doctrine of self-determination in international law, but Article 22 imposed a

“sacred trust of civilisation” on Britain to advance Palestinian “well-being and development”
and implied the recognition of the Palestinians as a people “whose existence” as a separate nation could be “provisionally recognised”. Article 22 was a commitment to bring them to independence, and this was an undertaking that Britain failed to fulfil. Britain’s actions aimed at establishing the Jewish national home should have respected the undertaking. Yet because of the promise to implement the Balfour Declaration, Britain did not grant Palestine representative institutions, including an elected parliament and a government made up of native Palestinians that commanded a majority in that Parliament.
The failure to grant these institutions was a major betrayal. It contrasted sharply with all the other mandated territories that had been Turkish and are implicitly referred to (although not mentioned) in Article 22: Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and also Jordan (which was technically part of the Palestine mandate).


Britain perfected its betrayal of the Palestinian people at the end of the mandate. After the Second World War, Palestine became ungovernable as a result of terrorism aimed at driving Britain out and at establishing an ethnically Jewish state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Britain gave up and renounced its mandate, which it handed back to the UN. This led to a UN General Assembly resolution to partition Palestine which was rejected by the representatives of the Palestinian Arabs.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of that resolution, the most important thing about it was that it was never implemented. Instead, the passing of the resolution led to civil war between the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine. Britain did not seriously try to prevent this during the final months of its mandate, although it still had responsibility for security in Palestine. The partition resolution had envisaged the Jewish and Arab states coming into existence simultaneously. That never occurred, and in any event would have been impossible in the chaos that erupted once Britain stopped trying to maintain law and order.


When Ben Gurion proclaimed the independent state of Israel on 14 May 1948, at the moment when the mandate ended, he was not, therefore, acting in accordance with the partition plan, although many people are still under the impression that he was. Despite the noble sentiments contained in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, it was unilateral. Britain’s departure left the Palestinians at the mercy of the new Israeli state. Nor did the intervention by Arab armies that followed – and was ostensibly intended to safeguard Palestinian rights and prevent the establishment of Israel – lead to a Palestinian homeland in which the rights of the Jewish population would have been recognised. The reality was that the governments that sent those armies into Palestine each had their own, private agenda which was much more important to them than bringing freedom and independence to Palestine.


In the fighting in 1948 and the war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence, Gaza became the tiny strip of territory that it is today. It was flooded by refugees from other parts of Palestine who were evicted by the militias that became Israeli army, or fled in terror at their approach. Israel has always refused to acknowledge any responsibility towards them.
Today Israel is a sovereign state and member of the UN. The existence of Israel is an indisputable fact. No good can come from denying its existence or its legitimate rights. But the Palestinians have not yet been able to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination, to which they are still entitled over all the Palestinian territory that Israel did not take in 1947-9, including Gaza.


As I have explained, Britain had denied them self-determination while it held the Palestine mandate. That denial is ultimately what has led us to the situation in Gaza today, and is one of the factors that has made the Middle East such an unstable place in the seven decades since Britain’s mandate ended. Britain carries a responsibility towards the Palestinians who live in Gaza, who are victims of its betrayal of its sacred trust – a historic responsibility that our government should acknowledge now.

On the subject of Sacred Trust see also the article by Professor John Dugard Britain’s betrayal of the sacred trust in Palestine

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