The Balfour Declaration – “The Pandora’s Box” of the Middle East (Part 1 of the Israel-Palestine conflict)

The Israel-Palestine conflict has been an ongoing conflict for several decades. To fully understand the conflict, however, its significance from pre-biblical times must be considered. 

A majority of the knowledge about ancient Israel is sourced from the Bible. The founder of the region of Israel was Abraham, a Biblical figure who is considered the “Father of Judaism” and a patriarch of Islam, through his son Ismael. Jerusalem in particular, was considered to have several sites of great religious significance to Jews, Muslims and Christians, leading to its nuanced history riddled with conflicts.  

In brief, post Biblical times, this region of Israel was taken over and conquered by several groups such as the Persians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Fatimids, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Egyptians, Mamluks and others for its religious significance. 

The real cause of the Israel-Palestine conflict today, however, dates back to the start of the 19th century. Israel and a majority of the Middle East was under the long standing control of the Ottoman Empire (1517-1917). During this time, the religious composition in Israel was predominantly Muslim, while approximately 13 percent of people were Christians and Jews. This, however, did not affect the relationship between the communities who coexisted even in Jerusalem. 

In 1896, however, a man named Theodor Herzl began to push and propagate the cause of a “Jewish Homeland” in the Palestine region, a concept that soon went on to be referred to as Zionism. He published a book called “Der Judenstaat”, calling for the establishment of a “Jewish State”. This idea was extremely popular and went on to gain the attention of Jews in several parts of the world such as Europe, where, at the time there were strong anti-semitist sentiments. These sentiments were the cause of discrimination and even the creation of pogroms (“the organised massacre of Jews” by the Russian empire”), prompting the Jews to be drawn towards the idea of Zionism further. 

Then later, in the year 1917, the British gained control of Palestine from the Ottoman empire. The idea of Zionism was given an impetus by the British Empire, who had made an official announcement known as the Balfour Declaration. 

The declaration was an attempt to gain Jewish participation and support in the First World War. It assured the Jews of the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish People” in Palestine- “a land where the natives made up more than 90 percent of the population”. It however, also attempted to prevent further conflict between the Jews and Arabs by stating 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.” 

The controversial nature of the declaration stemmed from the series of assurances that were made to stakeholders which aggravated the situation. To begin with, two years prior to the announcement of the declaration the British had assured Sharif Hussein (Ruler of Mecca) of Arab independence from the Ottoman Empire via the “Hussein-McMahon correspondence”. Simultaneously, the British had formed an international agreement known as the  “Sykes-Picot treaty” with the French that assured them that Palestine would be divided between the two colonial powers after the First World War. British ratification of this treaty suggested that the Palestinan Arabs wouldn’t gain independence after all and would remain under British control. The term “ a national home” for the Jewish people used in the declaration as opposed to the term “a state” also left it open to interpretation.

For decades the intentions of this declaration have been deliberated upon by historians and experts. Many say that the British government at the time consisted of Zionists while others believe the declaration arose from anti-Semetic reasoning, trying to find a solution to the “Jewish problem”. In order to gain the support of Jews in the United States and Russia so that their governments could stay in power, Britain had to side with the Zionists until they were victorious in the war. Other reasons have also been detailed by historians. Some suggest that having control over the region of Palestine was important to Britain’s sphere of influence, especially Egypt and the Suez Canal. The British sentiment swayed in favour of the Jews owing to the persecution and suffering of Jews in Europe.

The controversy caused by the declaration was massive. Historians believe that it acted as an important precursor to the “Palestian Nakba” when Zionist forces “expelled more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland”. In hindsight, administrators thought that this was a predicted outcome of the declaration, but it was issued nonetheless. 

Citations:

https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/11/2/more-than-a-century-on-the-balfour-declaration-explained

https://www.history.com/topics/middle-east/history-of-israel#:~:text=The%20nation%20of%20Israel%E2%80%94with,periods%20of%20peace%20and%20conflict

https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/palestineremix/timeline_main.html#tl-1

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29123668

https://byjus.com/free-ias-prep/israel-palestine-conflict/

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