100 years later: getting beyond Balfour

Portrait of Lord Balfour, along with his declaration. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.This November,
Palestinians and Israelis will be marking a short letter written one
hundred years ago by the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur
Balfour. For many Israelis, this is a key moment to celebrate in the
history of establishing the state of Israel; recognition and
affirmation by a global power of the Zionist quest for a Jewish
national home. For most Palestinians, it represents a moment of
betrayal and devastation at the loss of the homeland they assumed
would emerge with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. For the cause of
a just and viable peace, Balfour’s words have failed all.

The letter makes
the following declaration of sympathy with Zionist aspirations:

“His
Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine
of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best
endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being
clearly understood 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.”

There have been
many episodes since then that have helped toxify the relationship
between Palestinians and Israelis, but the Balfour Declaration is one
that demands us to reflect on how sovereignty and security for one
group of people can never be achieved at the expense of another. No
one has yet managed to secure a formula which will allow Israelis and
Palestinians to share this land as equals, but neither is going to
leave unless forced to, which must never be tolerated, and neither
deserves to continue burying their innocent loved ones.

History is replete with examples which demonstrate the moral bankruptcy and political failure that accompany occupation

Peace initiatives
and handshakes, not to mention aid and financial support, have
sustained a prolonged process that has not achieved its intended
outcome: two states for two peoples with Jerusalem as a shared
capital. In the long-term, there are no winners when one group
occupies and controls another against their will. History is replete
with examples which demonstrate the moral bankruptcy and political
failure that accompany occupation. But the latter has now become
normalised, for which Israel seems to have convinced itself there is
little alternative, regardless of its impact on Palestinian lives.

Currently there
appears to be neither the political will nor sufficient empathy to
adequately address the conflict. Critically, a long-term vision that
recognises how the security of Israelis and Palestinians is dependent
on the other, is absent. The situation in Israel/Palestine represents
a collective failure which is punctuated by regular bouts of
violence, land seizures and deepening poverty. If in doubt consider
the following:

No one can genuinely regard their future as secure, while others lead such insecure lives

While Israel presides over a successful hi-tech economy, Palestinians
are experiencing some of the highest levels of unemployment in the
world. In Gaza, Palestinians live in conditions that the UN predicts
by 2020 will be uninhabitable, with 80% now aid dependent. In the
West Bank, people exist in enclaves surrounded by expanding Israeli
settlements, their movement controlled by the Israeli army.
Palestinians in east Jerusalem live in fear that their right to live
in the city of their birth will be taken away. The spectre of forced
transfer is real, poverty is increasing and economic opportunity
diminishing.

Israelis, are
rightly determined that the persecution, pogroms and Holocaust which
dominate Jewish history, remain precisely that. For many Jews,
Zionism and Israel represent a guarantee that they will never again
be the victims of the virulent anti-Semitism that their ancestors
experienced.

No one can
genuinely regard their future as secure, while others lead such
insecure lives. A willingness for both to acknowledge the permanent
presence of the other and contemplate, with humility and humanity, a
more closely shared existence is essential. The Oslo paradigm has, so
far, failed. Many Palestinians believe that Israel has no intention
of withdrawing from their territory. Regular announcements by
Israel’s government of more settlement construction do nothing to
dispel that belief.

International
governments are quick to condemn illegal acts, including settlement
construction, but rarely, if ever, hold Israel’s occupation
meaningfully to account. Such paralysis has ensured that Israel
continues to dominate, with impunity, construction throughout the
West Bank at the expense of Palestinian economic development, as the
World Bank has regularly noted.

At the same time,
the Palestinian Authority, with no democratic mandate, and Hamas,
increasingly isolated, appear incapable of providing either essential
services or hope for their population. And spread, largely poor and
unwelcome across the Middle East region, are millions of Palestinian
refugees, clinging to the hope of returning to homes that mostly no
longer exist.

The Balfour
declaration has not provided long-term peace or security for anyone.
To suggest that civil and religious rights are sufficient for one,
while political rights, conferred by the establishment of a national
home, are right for the other, can do anything other than promote
prejudice, has proven tragically misguided. It is simple, but
essential, to condemn all the indiscriminate and callous violence
meted out against innocent civilians, whoever the perpetrator. But we
need to get beyond the condemnation, if we are genuinely to tackle
it.

International governments are quick to condemn illegal acts, including settlement construction, but rarely, if ever, hold Israel’s occupation meaningfully to account

The reality in
Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory includes:
discrimination, mistrust, anxiety and a lack of accountability.
Christian Aid’s Israeli and Palestinian partners are experiencing
pain, and risk personal attacks for exposing that reality as they
defend rights, challenge discriminatory laws and hold their
respective authorities to account.

We must listen to
them, and the myriad others, and respond
accordingly if we are to help Israelis and Palestinians build a
peaceful and viable future. To do otherwise is to reject the essence
of principled impartiality: the core of all peace-building.

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