Why Palestine activists want a UK apology over Balfour

Critics of declaration that paved way for creation of Israel say Britain is culpable for ensuing Palestinian suffering.

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    Palestinians in Ramallah protest against the Balfour Declaration [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]
    Palestinians in Ramallah protest against the Balfour Declaration [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

    In the summer of 2014, an Israeli drone strike in Gaza ended Huda Mohammad's life, along with her two children, husband, and mother-in-law.

    News of her death during the 50-day-long bombardment of the besieged territory reached Adie Mormech a week later when a mutual friend told him on Facebook.

    Just two years earlier Mormech, a resident of the northern English city of Manchester, had counted Mohammad among his students while teaching English in the Gaza Strip.  

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    By the end of the bombing campaign, Israel had killed more than 2,200 people in the territory, of which at least 1,500 were civilians.

    That total included Mohammad and another of his students.

    For Mormech, the roots of the 2014 war and the ongoing and historic suffering the Palestinian people have been subjected to go back to the Balfour Declaration and Britain's role in establishing the state of Israel.

    In a letter dated November 2, 1917, to leading English Zionist Lord Walter Rothschild, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour promised his country's help in creating a "national home" for the Jewish people in Palestine.

    The letter would be the first step in the eventual establishment of Israel and the associated displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian people, many of whom now live in Gaza with their descendants.

    The British government refuses to apologise for its role and says it is proud of its part in creating Israel.

    I understood, and believe this government should apologise and take responsibility for the green light for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that took place right under the eyes of the 100,000 British soldiers stationed there

    Adie Mormech

     

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    "In Gaza so many people knew about Britain's role in Palestine and as I'm British they emphasised this role to me," Mormech said, relating his experiences during the two years he spent in the area between 2010 and 2012.

    He added it's a role the UK has still not taken responsibility for and that is why he will spend the days running up to the anniversary planning and taking part in protests against the declaration.

    "I understood, and believe this government should apologise and take responsibility for the green light for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that took place right under the eyes of the 100,000 British soldiers stationed there," he said.

    "It is why we have a duty to stand up and end this UK complicity in Israel's war crimes."

    'Brutal policies'

    Mormech's anger at Britain's role in displacing the Palestinians developed over time by seeking out alternative sources of reporting than mainstream outlets and was hardened by what he saw in the occupied Palestinian territories.

    For many Palestinians, the experience of the dispossession brought upon by Balfour is one they are born into.

    Dr Issam Hijjawi's father came from a small village near Nablus in what is now the occupied West Bank.

    From there he would travel to Jaffa, which has since been absorbed into the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, to trade organic fertiliser for the town's famous oranges. 

    Instead of helping the Palestinians obtain their state, Britain helped ensure their homeland was destroyed, and that they were brutally made refugees.

    Issam Hijjawi

    "Even today, as a Palestinian, I do not have freedom to go and follow the track my late father took on his journeys to Jaffa from our small village," he lamented, before railing against the British role in creating that reality.

    "From the very beginning, the actual policy of the British mandate in real terms was aimed at help the Zionist movement in creating Israel as a spearhead to control not only Palestine but the whole Middle East.

    "Instead of helping the Palestinians obtain their state, Britain helped ensure their homeland was destroyed, and that they were brutally made refugees."

    Manchester protests

    Mormech can usually be found selling books on a large stand between Manchester's two big universities, in an area that forms a hub for Palestinian activism in the city.

    Despite its reputation for pro-Palestinian activism, not far from his stall, at the University of Manchester's Whitworth Hall, pro-Israel groups had planned to host an event celebrating the Balfour Declaration. 

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    It's there that the activists from the Manchester Palestinian Solidarity Campaign scored what they consider their first "great victory" in the anti-Balfour Declaration campaign.

    Details of the venue were leaked and organisers were forced to relocate the event to another undisclosed venue fearing protests.

    "It was the targeted campaign and pressure from students and concerned individuals that managed to drive the Balfour celebrations off campus," the activists wrote in a statement.

    The celebratory tone stems from the symbolism of disrupting a celebration of the Balfour Declaration in the city the people behind it called home.

    Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel and the leading figure of Zionism before Israel, lived in Manchester when he co-wrote the first draft of the Declaration, and was arguably the most important figure in making sure Balfour went ahead with sending the letter.

    Despite the change of venue, activists in Manchester told Al Jazeera they would continue with their planned protest.

    New narratives

    While the protests are intended to serve as a source of pressure on the British government to change its policies towards Israel, for the activists taking part, there is also an educative element.

    Those Al Jazeera spoke to said they felt the commonly held notions surrounding the establishment of Israel were obscured to mask the suffering of Palestinian people.

    Hijjawi called on fellow Palestinian activists to keep up the pressure on the UK government after the centenary of the declaration passes.

    Mormech said the UK's role in worsening the suffering of Palestinians did not end with the Balfour Declaration, but continues to this day through arms sales to the Israeli government.

    "This is a battle to end activity that continues Balfour's legacy of British complicity in Israel's manufacture and development of killing machines that ruin so many families and destroy so many houses, school, hospitals and communities.

    "It has to stop." 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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