The Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad (PCPA), the European Palestinian Conference (EPC), and a number of other groups have launched a campaign called “Balfour: A Colonial Project”, in the lead up to the November centenary of the infamous British document.
The campaign, which is intended to make Palestinian voices heard on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, is raising awareness about the document’s historic, political and legal meanings, and challenging the celebrations by Zionist groups.
Emphasising the Palestinians’ right to return and to freedom, the campaign also seeks to highlight Britain’s historical and political responsibility for the Balfour Declaration and its repercussions for Palestine.
Rawan Damen, the head of the committee overseeing the project, spoke to Middle East Monitor about the campaign, and its political context.
Why do you, as a Palestinian, want to mark the Balfour Declaration?
This year is the 100th anniversary of a declaration that we Palestinians see as a landmark in transforming Palestine into a Zionist state. The declaration itself may not be legally or historically of the greatest importance, but because it was part of the British Mandate approved by the League of Nations, we see Balfour’s letter in the context of imperial support for Zionism. For us Palestinians, the ethnic cleansing which happened to us later was the result of the Balfour Declaration. That is why we see it as important to mark the centenary. The Zionists also see it as important, and celebrate it as an achievement.
Do you think it is odd that Zionists would seek to draw attention to the fact that colonial support was a vital part of the project?
Yes, it’s strange in the context of public relations, or their efforts to portray Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East. In reality, though, these are the roots of the Zionist aspirations. There are contradictory elements here; on the one hand, they celebrate Balfour and British imperialism, and on the other hand, they claim Britain betrayed them, and so on. The Zionist narrative is at a very weak point now, after all these years. The myths they created have had to be largely abandoned, thanks to the partial opening of the archives and the work of the new historians. So, these days, for anyone who knows a bit about the subject, the Zionist slogans are a laughing matter.
In terms of the campaign, there are a lot of elements to it; for you, though, what is perhaps the most important or significant element, and why?
From a Palestinian point of view, the special aspect of this campaign is that it is one in which every Palestinian or Palestine solidarity activist can participate. This is a campaign different in its core spirit to campaigns that are based on institutions and their members. We are saying that any group or individual, anywhere, can be part of it; can organise an event for a specific audience and talk about Palestine and Balfour using the information and resources we provide. It is a chance to be part of so many events that are happening, connected to this campaign. For me, this is extremely important, because many people are frustrated with what is happening, and I want them to be encouraged to continue working. Everyone should highlight their work or projects, whether it’s in a church, a school, a theatre – wherever – so that Palestinians in historic Palestine and around the world can hear about it. We are translating every event into Arabic so people know the full picture, and understand that the Balfour centenary is not just a question of Zionist celebrations. We’re also not separating field events and the digital world, using the unified hashtag #Balfour100; it’s the same tag used by the Zionists, by the way. Often, Palestinian digital campaigns use one or more Arabic hashtags, which can create a kind of digital fatigue; this time we are using one unified hashtag for every event, from big to small, whether in Amman or in London.
As you’ve done your own research, has anything perhaps surprised you, or did you learn something that you, or maybe others, don’t know about?
Yes. In English and Arabic books on the Balfour Declaration, one of the commonest narratives is that the Zionist movement managed to secure British support through intelligent and strategic lobbying of key individuals, who they managed to convince. However, a different picture emerges when you dig a little deeper. In fact, British officials already had a project in mind for Palestine, as we see from the report “The Future of Palestine” presented in 1915 – two years before Balfour – by cabinet member Herbert Samuel. The document said there was an opportunity for a change “in the status of Palestine”, specifically recommending British support for a “Jewish centre” in Palestine. That’s the missing piece of the puzzle; it was a broader, colonisation project and not only for the British.
This was another myth I was surprised to discover the truth about; the then US President, Woodrow Wilson, also reviewed, and approved, the Balfour Declaration before it was published. Indeed, in the summer of 1917, the French government had issued their own declaration of support for “Jewish colonisation in Palestine” (lacking the “smarter” wording of the Balfour Declaration). In other words, this was a colonisation project that proceeded with support from the strongest Western imperial powers of the time.
Looking beyond the issues surrounding the declaration, what can countries like Britain do, today, to support the Palestinians?
Britain has strong connections to Israel nowadays, and can pressure Israel to get dignity and peace for Palestine and the Palestinians. In light of its historical role, Britain can and should work to correct what happened 100 years ago. Yes, there was a wider colonisation context, as I mentioned previously, but at the end of the day, it was British soldiers which made it happen, not American or French, and it was Britain which ultimately facilitated the Zionist colonisation of Palestine.