Almost 100 years ago, Britain decided to introduce a system of racial and religious discrimination in Palestine.
Arthur James Balfour, then foreign secretary, signed a pledge to support the key goals of the Zionist movement. As the world’s pre-eminent power, Britain would help establish a ‘Jewish national home’ -- a euphemism for a Jewish state - in Palestine, despite how its population was mostly Arab. Jews the world over were, in effect, treated as a nation. No such status was accorded to Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants.
The Balfour Declaration, as that November 1917 letter became known, was later enshrined in the League of Nations mandate under which Britain ruled Palestine between the two world wars.
During that period, Britain’s administration for Palestine helped entrench a form of ‘economic apartheid’, a term used by Norman Bentwich, its chief legal officer. Incoming settlers were favoured in access to land and employment; Palestinians were frequently dispossessed.
Not surprisingly, the British encountered much resistance.
Faced with unrest in the early 1920s, Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, recommended that a ‘picked force of white gendarmerie’ should be formed. It would be comprised of men who had previously served in the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries -- crown forces based in Ireland.
The Black and Tans and Auxiliaries had resorted to large scale arson during Ireland’s war of independence, as well as sometimes operating as death squads. Their members and other British forces behaved with similar ruthlessness in Palestine.
In the 1930s, the civil administration in Jerusalem effectively put the military in charge of suppressing a Palestinian revolt against Britain and its support for Zionist colonisation.
Among the tactics Britain employed were the imposition of collective penalties on towns and villages that refused to obey their oppressors, the demolition of entire neighbourhoods and erecting a huge barbed-wire fence, complete with the most advanced surveillance technology of that era, along part of Palestine’s frontier.
State archives even refer to how Britain established a concentration camp -- the precise term used -- near Sarafand al-Amar, a village on Palestine’s coastal plain. The camp was used for the mass incarceration of those alleged to have taken part in the rebellion.
As part of efforts to crush that revolt, Britain knowingly recruited members of the Haganah, the largest Zionist militia in Palestine and a forerunner of today’s Israeli army. The result was that many of the forces who drove around 750,000 Palestinians from their homes a decade later had received British training. Britain had, therefore, prepared the groundwork for the Nakba (‘catastrophe’ in Arabic) -- the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Relations between Britain and the Zionist movement have sometimes been fractious. Two armed Zionist groups, the Irgun and the Lehi, came to regard Britain as a bitter foe. They waged a campaign of guerilla warfare against Britain in the 1940s.
Britain has nonetheless continued to embrace the Zionist project. A number of British politicians have argued that they are duty-bound to support Israel, given that the Balfour Declaration led to that state’s inception. That does not mean they romanticize Israel. On the contrary, British governments have tended to view Israel as a vehicle for advancing their interests in the Middle East, even to do their dirty work.
That was dramatically so in 1956, when Britain and France persuaded Israel to attack Egypt over how Gamal Abdel Nasser, a staunch opponent of Western imperialism, had nationalised the Suez Canal. The offensive involved Israeli massacres in Gaza that have been omitted from many books on the Suez affair.
Israel was to declare war against Egypt once more in 1967. It did so by making heavy use of British weapons, notably battle tanks. The British embassy in Tel Aviv was pleased at feedback from Israeli generals about how those tanks had performed much better than was expected.
The June 1967 war ushered in a military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights that persists to this day. Marking the 50th anniversary of that occupation earlier this year, the London media was mostly silent about how Britain enabled it.
Britain’s policies on the Middle East have become increasingly shaped by the US in recent decades. Ronald Reagan resorted to the kind of duplicity that subsequent American presidents have replicated. He boosted military aid to Israel, while portraying Palestinians as the obstacle to peace. Margaret Thatcher echoed him by branding all armed opposition to Israel as terrorism.
Tony Blair has been demonstrably worse. Despite harping on about justice and statehood for Palestinians, Blair has proven to be a hardcore apologist for Israel.
While in Downing Street, Blair vigorously promoted ‘security cooperation’ between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. One effect of this cooperation is that the Palestinian Authority now boasts of locking up young Palestinians without charge or trial - in order to keep Israel happy.
Blair’s endorsement of Israel’s 2006 attack on Lebanon caused great anger within the Labour Party and the wider public. Yet it did not prevent him from being appointed as what British newspapers called a ‘peace envoy’ for the Middle East on the same day that he stepped down as prime minister. Blair used that position to sanitise the medieval siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza.
Largely unnoticed by the media, the bonds between the arms industries of Britain and Israel have been bolstered in recent times.
The British Army used Israeli cluster bombs during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The army has flown Israeli drones over both Iraq and Afghanistan, too.
The British embassy in Tel Aviv has even set up a technology centre staffed by Israeli weapons innovators. Along with trying to increase business with Israel, Britain has sought to smear Palestine solidarity activists. Theresa May’s government has invoked a contentious definition of anti-Semitism to muzzle some of Israel’s critics in British universities.
Earlier this year, May signalled that clinching a free trade deal with Israel would be a priority once Britain leaves the European Union. She has identified the right-wing coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu as a key ally.
May has praised the Balfour Declaration as ‘one of the most important letters in history’ and pledged to mark its centenary with ‘pride’. She appears unfazed by how Britain set in train a process that would deny Palestinians their basic rights. One hundred years later, Britain is trying to perpetuate the injustice it has caused.
•First published on the Pluto Press blog, November 2017.