From Balfour to the Nakba: Zionist Settler Colonialism

December 8, 2017

The imperial power, in this case Britain, granted the international legitimacy for Zionist settler colonialism and sowed the seeds for the future dispossession of the native, Palestinian, population.
A Palestinian woman from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah, disputes with a member of the Israeli security forces following a march against Jewish settlers and the nearby Jewish settlement of Hallamish on March 14, 2014. AFP

Zionism and settler colonialism

The late prominent scholar of settler colonialism, Patrick Wolfe, reminded us repeatedly that settler colonialism is not an event, it is a structure. By that he meant that although settler colonialism in many cases has a historical starting point, its original motivation still guides its maintenance in the present. Settler colonial projects, by and large, were motivated by what Wolfe defined as ‘the logic of the elimination of the native.’ This logic guided settler colonial projects once the settler community of Europeans, who fled the continent due to religious or cultural persecution, chose as their safe haven countries where other indigenous people lived.

The wish of settlers to create a new home, indeed a new homeland, clashed almost inevitably with the aspirations of the local native population. In some cases, the ‘logic of the elimination of the native’ as the main response to this clash indeed ended in physical elimination of the native – as can be seen from the genocides of the native Americans in north, central and south America and that of the aboriginals in Australia.  In others, the clash was solved by other means. In South Africa, for instance, the settlers enclaved the indigenous population in closed areas and later on imposed an Apartheid system on them.

There was another common feature to settler colonial movements – the European settlers needed the help of an Empire for the initial colonization but later developed their own agenda and collective identity that led them to rebel against that very Empire. This led to historical moments such as the American Revolution in 1776 and the Boer wars in South Africa in the late 19th century.

The principal premise of this article is that Zionism in Palestine is a settler colonial project and Israel is still today a settler colonial state. This depiction is now widely accepted in the scholarly world, but of course rejected by mainstream Israeli scholars. It is from within this perspective that I would like to revisit the Balfour declaration and ponder its significance today.

On November 2, 1917, Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, sent a letter to Lionel Rothschild, who was the nominal head of the Anglo-Jewish community. In the letter, the British government endorsed the idea of a ‘national home for the Jewish people,’ promising to do this without ‘prejudicing’ the ‘civil and religious rights’ of the ‘non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’

If one was unaware of the demographic, cultural and political realities in Palestine at the time, the letter sent would have you think that Jews were the native and majority population of Palestine, living next to small non-Jewish groups. The reality was very different. The Jews all in all were ten percent of the population and quite a few of them in 1917 regarded themselves as Arabs and not part of a new Jewish nation.

This misrepresentation of the Palestine reality in the Balfour Declaration is the first indication of how applicable the settler colonial paradigm is to the case of the Zionist movement in Palestine. The settler movement obtained the support of a colonial and imperial power, one which it would disown from 1942 onwards, and shared with the Empire the perception of the local population at best as a tolerated minority, and at worst as usurpers who took over land that had belonged to the settlers. The imperial power, in this case Britain, granted the international legitimacy for this act of colonization and sowed the seeds for the future dispossession of the native population.

The origins of the declaration

Most historians explain the Balfour Declaration in terms of British strategic thinking. It was part of an attempt to prevent a Muslim holy land as well as an apprehension that some other European powers might support Zionism. The Israeli scholar, Mayer Verete, whose very old article on the topic is still one of the best, highlighted also the misconception British policy makers had about the possible power Jews had both in the Bolshevik movement and the United States; asserting wrongly that the support for Zionism would satisfy these two Jewish communities and turn them into potential British allies in the future (Bolshevism had nothing do with Zionism and it took a while before American Jewry became a factor in American policy towards Palestine).

What Verte missed can be complemented by applying the settler colonial paradigm to his and others’ more recent comprehensive analysis of the origins of the Balfour declaration. The British support for making a Jewish homeland in Palestine had its roots in evangelical Christian Zionist dogma mushrooming on both sides of the Atlantic already in the early 19th century. Long before the Balfour Declaration, Christian settler colonialism penetrated North America and Africa, deeming these two continents as the new Zion and the holy land – these projects, like Zionism, relied first on British Imperialism and then rebelled against it. More importantly, the British branch of Christian Zionism focused more closely on the religious significance of a Jewish ‘return’ to Palestine. This ‘return’ in ecclesiastical terms was a precursor to the resurrection of the dead and the second coming of the Messiah. These millenarian ideologies were taken seriously and influenced important British politicians at the time of the Balfour Declaration, among them the then Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

Even before that in the mid-nineteenth century British consuls on the ground in Palestine, such as James Finn, associated this end of time scenario not only with the return of Jesus but also with the conversion of Jews to Christianity. Finn opened an office in Jerusalem for the conversion of Jews to Christianity and helped Jews to immigrate to Palestine long before the first Zionist settler arrived there.

Thus, the settler colonial paradigm highlights the theological connection between Christian elements in Britain and Zionism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the parallels between settler colonial projects supported by Britain in other parts of the world.

These obvious and more hidden connections between the Empire, other settler colonial projects and Zionism became even clearer in the years that followed the Balfour Declaration. While at the time the letter was not considered to be of immense importance, it became a crucial factor in the history of the country when it was integrated into the mandatory charter the League of Nations granted Britain over Palestine. Moreover, its importance was enhanced by the appointment of Herbert Samuel, a pro-Zionist Anglo-Jew as the first High Commissioner of Palestine.  Immediately upon his arrival to Palestine in 1920, Samuel put in place polices that allowed the settler colonial movement to bring in more settlers and to expand its foothold in the country by purchasing land mainly from absentee landlords.

The Palestinian national movement was organized enough to resist the settler colonial project in Palestine by popular and violent means. In the early years the vulnerable Jewish colony was saved and protected by the British army. The British were particularly important during the most significant Palestinian attempt to shake off the pro-Zionist British policy in 1936. For three years, Palestinian guerrillas waged a revolt against this policy. It was brutally crashed with all the might the British Empire could master. This resulted in the destruction of the Palestinian military and political elite: many of its members were either killed, wounded or expelled. This left Palestinian society defenseless and leaderless when it was needed most in 1948.

The Balfour Declaration and the Nakba

There is a direct line connecting the vague British promise given to the Zionist movement one hundred years ago and the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people in 1948. Few British policy makers must have felt that they were wrong in giving the declaration and developed second thoughts about its validity. At times, as in 1930, they even pondered the repudiation of the Balfour Declaration but retracted quickly from such a dramatic U-turn. In 1939, the British policy makers tried to restrict Jewish immigration and purchase of land, but were castigated later for this policy due to the rise of Nazism and Fascism which turned Palestine to one of the few safe havens for Jews escaping from Europe. This condemnation one should say came from a hypocritical western world that did very little to save the Jews during the Holocaust or open its gates to its survivors immediately after the war. The British had to accept an international verdict that the Jews of Europe should be compensated by allowing the Zionist movement to further colonize Palestine. They also became the enemies of the Zionist movement, as happened in the case of the American and South African settlers respectively, Zionism began its war of independence against the British Empire.

These pressures, together with the transformation of Britain from a world power to second grade actor on the international scene, led to its decision in February 1947 to refer the question of Palestine to the United Nations. Britain was still responsible for law and order between February 1947 – May 1948 and within this responsibility it witnessed, remained indifferent and at times, an accomplice to the final and disastrous outcome of the Balfour Declaration: the 1948 ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians.

The British decision promoted the military and political leadership of the Jewish community to devise their own version of ‘the logic of the elimination of the native.’ While conducting an effective diplomatic effort to obtain international legitimacy for the idea of a Jewish State (even at the price, as transpired later on, that such legitimacy would be granted to only part of Palestine), this leadership also contemplated the removal of the Palestinian community from any part which would form the future Jewish State.

It was during the beginning of March 1948 that this leadership produced Plan D, or Plan Dalet. In my view and that of many other historians, although there is also a view that challenges our interpretation, this was a clear blueprint for the systematic removal of the Palestinians from Palestine. The Plan itself, which was a document of several pages was less important by itself – it significance lay in the way it was translated into a set of operative commands that were dispatched to the Jewish forces in March, April and May 1948. The essence of these orders was to occupy villages, towns and neighborhoods, expel their people and in the case of the villages detonate the houses so as to prevent any return.

The British were already retreating from some parts of Palestine when this ethnic cleansing commenced. However, they were present in the urban space of Palestine and it was there that the main ethnic cleansing effort took place. They were present when Palestinians were expelled from Haifa, Jaffa and Acre, all together more than 100,000 people. They watched and mediated in order to facilitate the transfer (as in the case of Haifa) but did not intervene when the people who began to leave under an agreement were shelled by the Jewish forces while proceeding to the harbor. This was a shameful chapter that even some British politicians at the time recognized but the British government in general did not show much regret. It was as shameful as the declaration itself. When the ethnic cleansing ended, half of Palestine’s population was expelled, half of its villages demolished and most of its towns were depopulated. On their ruins, Israel built Kibbutzim, development towns and planted European pine trees in order to try and erase the Arab nature of Palestine.

Britain was quick to recognize the Jewish state and contributed further to the Palestinian disaster by supporting the partition of post-mandatory Palestine between Jordan and Israel. The Israeli-Jordanian understanding about this arrangement was concluded before the 1948 war and implemented with the help of the senior officers of the Jordanian army – all of which were British. This was a non-written understanding of the gist of which accorded to Jordan, without a fight, the West Bank. In return, the Jordanian army, the best trained and effective in the Arab world, played only a limited role in the 1948 fighting.

The British government in London was fully aware of this understanding and supported it. Moreover, the British did all they could to prevent the making of a Palestinian state even part of Palestine. They called such a state a Mufti State, namely one headed by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem whom they accused of collaborating with the Nazis in the Second World War. Thus, adding 20 percent of Palestine to Jordan and recognizing the Jewish state, stretching over 78 percent of the country (2 percent was the Egyptian controlled Gaza Strip), completed the ruination of Palestine which became the inevitable consequence of the Balfour Declaration.

However, the settler colonial project of Zionism is not as successful as the American or the Australian one and may still have a similar ending to the one in South Africa. It is too early to tell, but what is clear is that through this prism one can understand better why there is a conflict between Israel and Palestine and what, at least in principle, should be the way forward for solving it.

Ilan Pappé is a professor at the University of Exeter. He was formerly a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa. He is the author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, The Modern Middle East, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples, and Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

Pappé is described as one of Israel’s “New Historians” who, since the release of pertinent British and Israeli government documents in the early 1980s, have been rewriting the history of Israel’s creation in 1948.