What Was the Balfour Declaration and How Has It Shaped Middle Eastern Politics?

Laura Mackenzie

3 mins

05 Jun 2018

The Balfour Declaration was the British government’s statement of support in November 1917 for the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine”.

Communicated in a letter by the then British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lionel Walter Rothschild, an active Zionist and leader of the British Jewish community, the declaration is generally viewed as one of the main catalysts of the creation of the state of Israel — and of a conflict that is still ongoing in the Middle East today.

At just 67 words long, it is difficult to believe that this declaration could have had the huge ramifications it did. But what the statement lacked in length it made up for in significance. For it signalled the first proclamation of diplomatic support for the Zionist movement’s goal of establishing a home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Lionel Walter Rothschild was an active Zionist and leader of the British Jewish community. Credit: Helgen KM, Portela Miguez R, Kohen J, Helgen L

At the time the letter was sent, the area of Palestine was under Ottoman rule. But the Ottomans were on the losing side of World War One and their empire was collapsing. Just a month after the Balfour Declaration was written, British forces had captured Jerusalem.

The Palestine Mandate

In 1922, amid the fallout from World War One, the League of Nations gave Britain the so-called “mandate” to administer Palestine.

This mandate was given as part of a wider mandate system set up by the Allied powers who won the war, under which they would administer territories previously controlled by the war’s losers with the intention of moving them towards independence.

But in the case of Palestine, the terms of the mandate were unique. The League of Nations, citing the Balfour Declaration, required the British government to create the conditions for “the establishment of the Jewish national home”, thereby turning the 1917 statement into international law.

To this end, the mandate required that Britain “facilitate Jewish immigration” to Palestine and encourage “close settlement by Jews on the land” — though with the caveat that “the rights and position of other sections of the population [should not be] prejudiced”.

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No mention of Palestine’s overwhelming Arab majority was ever made in the mandate, however.

War comes to the Holy Land

Over the next 26 years, tensions between Palestine’s Jewish and Arab communities increased and eventually descended into all-out civil war.

On 14 May 1948, Jewish leaders made a declaration of their own: proclaiming the establishment of the state of Israel. A coalition of Arab states then sent forces to join Palestine’s Arab fighters and the civil war was transformed into an international one.

The following year, Israel signed armistices with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria to formally end hostilities. But this was not to be the end of the issue, or to violence in the region.

More than 700,000 Palestinian Arab refugees were displaced by the conflict and, to this day, they and their descendants continue to fight for their right to return home — all the while with many living in poverty and reliant on aid.

Meanwhile, Palestinians continue to be without a state of their own, Israel continues to occupy Palestinian territories, and violence between the two sides occurs on an almost daily basis.

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The declaration’s legacy

The cause of Palestinian nationalism has been taken up by Arab and Muslim leaders and groups across the region, ensuring that that the issue has remained one of the main sources of tension and conflict in the Middle East. It has played a part in many of the region’s wars, including the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973 and the 1982 Lebanon war, and is at the centre of much foreign policy making and rhetoric.

But although the Balfour Declaration may have ultimately led to the creation of Israel, Lord Balfour’s letter never specifically mentioned the establishment of a Jewish state of any kind, including one in Palestine. The document’s wording is ambiguous and over the decades has been interpreted in many different ways.

To some extent, however, the ambiguity over what the British government was actually declaring its support for does not really matter now. The consequences of the Balfour Declaration cannot be undone and its imprint will be left on the Middle East forever.