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Protests and celebrations mark Balfour centenary as letter still stirs controversy

Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in London to celebrate the declaration, while Palestinians take to streets
Palestinians throw shoes at an effigy depicting Arthur Balfour during a protest in the West Bank city of Bethlehem (Reuters)

Protests in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza and a celebratory banquet in London, attended by Israel's and the UK's prime ministers, are the contrasting ways in which the centenary of the controversial Balfour declaration supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine is being marked.

As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, British counterpart Theresa May and other dignitaries dined at London's Lancaster House mansion on Thursday evening, protesters in Palestine and the UK have called for the British government to acknowledge more fully the suffering that the declaration caused for the Palestinian people, and to recognise Palestinian statehood.

In London, Netanyahu criticised the British government for what he said was a failure to fully implement Balfour's promise by keeping parts of historical Palestine -- the West Bank and Gaza -- under Arab control.

"I don't forget for a second that the British backtracked from the decision, but I am doubtful that without it we would have received international recognition of our right on the land. But it is clear to me that without defence and settlements, we wouldn't have received a nation," Haaretz quoted him as saying.

Protesters took to the streets of Gaza City, the main city in the Gaza Strip which has been besieged and blockaded by Israel since 2007, on Thursday morning, waving Palestinian flags and tearing up copies of the declaration. Some carried placards reading "Balfour declaration 100" with the faces of Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary who signed the letter, and May obscured by red crosses.

Hundreds of people also took part in Palestinian Authority-organised demonstrations in Ramallah, the political capital of the occupied West Bank, with some carrying signs which read: "The promise of he who doesn't own to those who don't deserve," the AFP news agency reported.

Some protesters also held black flags calling for Palestinian refugees to be granted the right to return, as they marched from Ramallah's Arafat Square to a nearby British cultural office.

"Balfour promised to establish the Israeli entity and its result is everything the Palestinian people still suffer from today, such as displacement, destruction and pain," said Abu Haitham Amro, 70, who was carrying a Palestinian flag.

Balfour effigy

In Bethlehem in the West Bank, protesters threw shoes at an effigy of Balfour as Israeli security forces stood guard next to a watch tower in the wall separating Palestinian territory from Israel.

In occupied East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state, scuffles broke out between protesters and Israeli security forces outside the British consulate.

In Jordan, home to about 2.4 million Palestinians descended from refugees who fled or were forced out of their homes in 1948, protesters gathered outside the British embassy.

"This is a message to the British government that what they did before, 100 years [ago], will never pass and we will never forget and we are going back for sure," Hisham Abdo told the Reuters news agency.

'This is a message to the British government that what they did before, 100 years [ago], will never pass'

- Hisham Abdo, protester in Jordan

Speaking with Netanyahu in Downing Street on Thursday, May raised the issue of settlement building.

"Britain remains committed to a two-state solution. I'm sure we will want to be talking about the peace process in the Middle East," she said.

"I also want to talk about what we see as some of the barriers and some of the difficulties like the illegal settlements in relation to that peace process."

Netanyahu claimed that Israel is committed to peace.

"A hundred years after Balfour, the Palestinians should finally accept a Jewish national home and finally accept a Jewish state. And when they do, the road to peace will be infinitely closer. In my opinion peace will be achievable," he said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and British Prime Minister Theresa May met at Downing Street on Thursday (AFP)
The Balfour declaration, which is dated 7 November 1917, is a 67-word letter from Balfour, the foreign secretary of Lloyd George’s British government, to Walter Rothschild, the leader of the British Jewish community, which is considered by Zionists to indicate British support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, which was then under the control of the Ottoman Empire.

While Israel reveres Arthur Balfour, naming streets and a Tel Aviv school after him, Palestinians decry his declaration as a promise by Britain to hand over land it did not own which led to the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the eviction of many Palestinians from their lands.

Critics point out that Balfour's promise included the caveat that the establishment of a Jewish homeland should not prejudice the "civil and religious rights" of "existing non-Jewish communities".

Research by Palestinian historian Basheer Nafi also suggests that Balfour himself had misgivings about any interpretation of his letter which resulted in the creation of a Jewish government in Palestine.

In a letter to Lord Curzon, his successor as foreign secretary, in 1920, Balfour wrote: "Such a claim is in my opinion certainly inadmissible, and personally I do not think we should go further than the original declaration which I made to Lord Rothschild."

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Britain controlled Palestine, under a United Nations mandate, from 1922 until after the end of World War Two.

Israel declared independence in 1948, at the end of British Mandatory rule and after the UN General Assembly voted in 1947 in favour of a plan, rejected by Palestinian representatives, to partition Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state.

The ensuing regional conflict, played out over a series of wars between Israel and its Arab neighbours, has left the Palestinians seeking to establish an independent state in territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

Britain's foreign minister, Boris Johnson, on Monday praised the declaration for helping to create a "great nation", but he also said the spirit of the declaration had not been fully honoured.

"The vital caveat in the Balfour Declaration - intended to safeguard other communities - has not been fully realised," he said.

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In an article in the Guardian newspaper on Wednesday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said: "The Balfour declaration is not something to be celebrated – certainly not while one of the peoples affected continues to suffer such injustice. The creation of a homeland for one people resulted in the dispossession and continuing persecution of another – now a deep imbalance between occupier and occupied.

"The balance must be redressed, and Britain bears a great deal of responsibility in leading the way. Celebrations must wait for the day when everyone in this land has freedom, dignity and equality."

Recognising Palestine?

In Israel, the Knesset was set to hold a special commemorative session, while the parliament's foreign affairs and defence committee will hold what was described as a "special celebratory meeting" entitled "100 years since the Balfour Declaration, to independence, to becoming a regional superpower".

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Britain has refused previous Palestinian demands for an apology and does not officially recognise Palestine as a state. Johnson said on Monday Britain would be willing to do so, but wanted to time it to give maximum impetus to peace efforts.

"We certainly will do it - we want to do it - but now is not yet the time," he said. "That on its own will not end the occupation or bring peace."

May called for a solution that would ensure lasting peace.

"Sadly, Balfour remains unfinished business – as his fundamental vision of peaceful co-existence has not yet been fulfilled," May said at the dinner on Thursday evening, according to a copy of her speech distributed by her office.

"I believe it demands of us today a renewed resolve to support a lasting peace that is in the interests of both Israelis and Palestinians – and in the interests of us all."

In an interview with Middle East Eye, Emily Thornberry, foreign affairs spokesperson for the main opposition Labour Party, said the centenary of Balfour was an appropriate moment for the British government to recognise Palestine.

“I don’t think we celebrate the Balfour Declaration but I think we have to mark it because I think it was a turning point in the history of that area and I think the most important way of marking it is to recognise Palestine. The British government have said they will do, it’s just a question of when the time is right and it seems to me this is the time,” Thornberry said.

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