Each year the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration passes by quietly in Israel with hardly any notice, but this year it is being celebrated because it is its 100th anniversary.
However, this is not true of the Palestinian Authority. Ever since Palestinian Media Watch has been monitoring the PA, the date of the Balfour Declaration was among the most important days on the PA calendar.
Each year, PA schools would have special sessions discussing Balfour. In 2011, for example, the authority organized a letter-writing campaign from schoolchildren to the queen of England “to mark the 94th anniversary of the cursed Balfour promise.” [Official PA daily, Al-Hayat al-Jadida
, November 3, 2011]
Why is it that Israelis, who are the direct beneficiaries of the Balfour Declaration, have been ignoring it, while for Palestinians it is so important?
For Israelis, the declaration was just one step in a series of significant events that had started decades before Lord Balfour and continued after him, all contributing to the Jewish people’s return to the Land of Israel. The first wave of immigrants started in 1882, 35 years before Balfour’s declaration and long before the First Zionist Congress in 1897.
Israelis today see the return to their land as something so normal and inevitable that no single event except for the declaration of statehood itself is regularly celebrated. But why do the Palestinians focus on Balfour? They should be mourning the first aliya in 1882 or the First Zionist Congress, rather than the declaration that was Britain’s response to an already active Zionist movement.
For the PA, the Balfour Declaration is a necessary component of the Palestinian narrative. The two foundations of Palestinian ideology, both fictitious, are that a Palestinian nation existed for thousands of years and that there never had been a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel.
But this left one problem: The PA needed to explain to its people why millions of Jews had immigrated from Europe and all over the world, if they had no connection to the land. The PA’s answer is colonialism and Balfour is the “proof.”
According to the PA’s adjusted narrative, Balfour and Britain’s support were not one step in the growing Zionist movement, but were the beginning of all Jewish history in the land. The PA says the Jews were chosen by Britain only because the Jews were so “evil” that Europe was looking for a way to be rid of them.
A documentary that has been broadcast five times on PA and Fatah TV since 2013 explains: “Faced with the Jews’ schemes, Europe could not bear their character traits, monopolies, corruption... The European nations felt that they had suffered a tragedy by providing refuge for the Jews. Later the Jews obtained the Balfour Declaration, and Europe saw it as an ideal solution to get rid of them.”
PA Ambassador to France Salman al-Harfi recently echoed this: “The [Balfour] Promise stemmed from the desire to solve what was called ‘the Jewish problem’ in Europe... so that Europe would be rid of the problem of its Jews.” [Al-Hayat al-Jadida
, October 11, 2016]
Defining Israel as a European colony is a fundamental and essential component of PA myth building and has been part of the PA narrative since the authority’s early years. Already in 1998, the official PA daily presented Hitler and Balfour as trying to achieve the same goals: “The difference between Hitler and Balfour was simple: the former did not have colonies to send the Jews to so he destroyed them, whereas Balfour... [turned] Palestine into his colony and sent the Jews.
“Balfour is Hitler with colonies, while Hitler is Balfour without colonies. They both wanted to get rid of the Jews... Zionism was crucial to the defense of the West’s interests in the region, [by] ridding Europe of the burden of its Jews.” [Al-Hayat al-Jadida
, December 6, 1998]
Already in grade school, Palestinian children are taught to see Jews in Israel as a foreign colonial implant whom Europeans wanted to be “rid of.” In a lesson titled “Colonialism and Zionism” in a PA schoolbook just published in August 2017, children learn: “Zionism is defined as a colonialist political movement... the Balfour Promise issued by Britain was a type of solution to get rid of the Jews by allocating to them the land of Palestine.” [Geography of Palestine and Contemporary Modern History
, for grade 10]
The PA goes even further in its historical rewriting. Not only did Balfour create Jewish nationalism in the land, but he even brought about the Jewish religious connection to the land: “There is no documentation that the Jews made the Western Wall a place of worship at any time, except after the Balfour Promise,” claimed official PA TV in March of this year.
This message comes from the top. “Mahmoud al-Habbash [PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s personal adviser on religious affairs] made clear... that no person besides Muslims ever used it [the Western Wall] as a place of worship throughout all of history, until the ominous Balfour Declaration in 1917.” [Al-Hayat al-Jadida
, December 18, 2012]
The PA needs the Balfour Declaration in 2017 as much as the Zionist movement needed it in 1917. For Zionism in 1917 it meant international recognition of the Jews’ historic right as an indigenous people to return to their homeland. For the PA in 2017, it is used to deny the Jews’ historic right as an indigenous people in their land.
An ancient Palestinian history is fabricated by the PA to fill the vacuum created by the erasure of actual Jewish history in the land. The Balfour Declaration is the document the Palestinians wave to their people to brandish this myth.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of this important document, the PA decided to make the Balfour Declaration and denial of Israel’s right to exist its primary messaging this year. Abbas took the lead with public statements such as: “It must be emphasized that the historical injustice that was caused to our people, and which continues to accumulate, began in fact with the ominous Balfour Promise.
“Therefore, we call on the government of Britain to bear its historical and moral responsibility and not mark and celebrate the 100th anniversary of this invalid promise. Instead, it must submit an apology to our Palestinian people.” [Al-Hayat al-Jadida
, May 16, 2017]
PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said that Abbas “intends to submit a lawsuit... if Britain insists on celebrating the 100th anniversary of the ominous Balfour Promise.” [PA TV News, October 22, 2017]
Fatah has called it the “Balfour crime of the century” and “the most inhuman terrorist crime... creating a Zionist illegal state.” [Fatah Facebook, October 27, 2017] Fatah spokesman Osama al-Qawasmi went so far as to declare that the Balfour Declaration was “the most horrible crime in the history of mankind.” [Al-Hayat al-Jadida
, October 15, 2017]
The PA has transformed the Balfour Declaration from a recognition of Jewish history in the land into the starting point of Jewish history in the land. Without Balfour, the PA has no hook upon which to anchor its warped reality. Had there been no Balfour Declaration, the PA would have had to invent it.The writer is the director of Palestinian Media Watch (www.palwatch.org).