By Efraim Karsh, Middle East Quarterly

“100 years have passed since the notorious Balfour Declaration, by which Britain gave, without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people. This paved the road for the Nakba of Palestinian people and their dispossession and displacement from their land.”[1]

So Mahmoud Abbas claimed at last year’s annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in what constitutes the standard Palestinian indictment of the November 1917 British government’s pledge to facilitate “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” providing that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

It is an emotionally gripping claim, but it is also the inverse of truth. For one thing, Britain did consult its main war allies, notably U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, before issuing the declaration, which was quickly endorsed by the contemporary international community, including the leaders of the nascent pan-Arab movement. Furthermore, the declaration was used as a model by the Ottoman Empire for its own official communiqué.

For another thing, it was not the Balfour Declaration that paved the road to the displacement of many Palestinians but its rejection by the extremist Palestinian Arab leadership headed by the Jerusalem mufti Hajj Amin Husseini—this against the wishes of ordinary Palestinian Arabs who preferred to coexist with their Jewish neighbors and take advantage of opportunities created by the evolving Jewish national enterprise. Had this leadership not ignored the wishes of its subjects, and the will of the international community for that matter, there would have been no nakba.

The Historical Context

The end of World War I saw the ideal of national self-determination becoming the organizing principle of the international system as the victorious powers carved territorial states from the collapsed Ottoman, German, Habsburg, and Russian empires. This was done through a newly devised mandates system that placed the Afro-Asiatic territories of the defunct empires (the European lands were given immediate independence) under the control of respective mandatory powers, beholden to a new world organization—the League of Nations—which were charged with steering them from tutelage to independence.[2]