From the killing fields of Flanders to the recurrent Israeli attacks on Gaza: A century later, WWI continues to echo in the Middle East
By Peter Larson
Almost every city and town in today’s Israel has a “Balfour Street”, named after Britain’s foreign secretary during WWI.
It is a poignant reminder of the fact that while WWI was fought mostly in Europe, it had profound consequences around the globe, and its effects still shape today’s world, particularly in the Middle East.
Lord Arthur James Balfour was a proud imperialist willing to shed blood to protect and expand the British Empire. He was also a staunch Christian, a member of the Church of England. Like many Anglicans of his day, Balfour took the bible rather literally, and appears to have accepted the Christian Zionist notion that God had promised Palestine to the Jewish people.
At the time, Palestine was part of the decaying Ottoman Empire. But in 1917, at the height of WWI, Balfour issued a now famous declaration in which he stated that Britain sympathised with Zionist aspirations and promised it would support the creation of a “Jewish homeland” in Palestine.
The promise was made in response to intense lobbying from British Zionists. But it also seems to have been supported by the British cabinet which had ambitions of replacing the Ottomans in the Middle East and saw advantage in supporting the creation of a colony of pro-British Jews in the region.
(In those colonial times, it did not seem to strike many people as unusual to give part of somebody else’s country to a third party without any consultation whatsoever. What would happen today if Obama were to offer, say Prince Edward Island, to Syrian or Iraqi refugees?)
At the end of the war, Britain successfully convinced the League of Nations to give it a “mandate” to govern Palestine, Iraq and Jordan and quickly moved to take over.
It named Viscount Herbert Samuel, a Jewish Zionist, as the first governor of Palestine.
In short order, Hebrew was made an official language and Jewish firms were given privileges, including for example the monopoly on electricity distribution. With British approval, European Zionists began buying huge tracts of land, often from absentee landlords. The new owners expelled thousands of Palestinian serfs from lands they had been working for generations, to be replaced by a flood of European Jewish immigrants.
It took the Palestinians several years to understand that life under the British mandate was going to be different from the 400 years they had spent under the Ottoman Empire. That Britain’s Zionist objective was to take their country from them.
However, in 1936, the Palestinians revolted against British colonial rule with a massive general strike. It began as peaceful resistance. Stores were closed and ports were shut down. But when the strike was violently suppressed by the colonial police, it evolved into a full-scale insurrection against British colonial rule. The British then enrolled Jewish militias to help them put down the revolt. By 1939, thousands of Palestinian leaders had been killed, jailed, assassinated or exiled. The Palestinian resistance was effectively broken.
Lord Balfour’s project of turning historic Palestine into “national home for the Jewish people” was nearing completion. But it took the horrors of the Holocaust to provide a rationale for the final step, the ethnic cleansing of the area by the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and the creation of the State of Israel.
Many of the Palestinians fled to Gaza, where they and their descendants are still today. For 65 years, Gaza has remained a festering sore, full of refugees from Israel who can’t return to their homes and farms. They are not welcome in the Jewish State because they are not Jewish.
Lord Balfour could not have imagined that the pain and misery he would create for the Palestinians would continue a century later. But as a Christian Zionist, and a British imperialist, he probably wouldn’t have lost any sleep over it either.
Lord Balfour’s famous declaration noted that the creation of a Jewish homeland should not “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” (i.e. Palestinians). It’s not clear whether he really believed that was possible. But Britain did not intervene when Zionist militias expelled over 750,000 Palestinian peasants in 1947/48 to create the “Jewish State of Israel’. Many fled to Gaza where they have remained stuck ever since.
Peter Larson is the Chair of the National Education Committee on Israel/Palestine, a Canadian organization whose mission is to educate Canadians about the complex Israel/Palestine conflict. Our objective is to have Canada take a fair and balanced policy aimed at promoting reconciliation between the parties based on a realistic understanding of historic and current events.