The British government has emphatically refused to apologize for the publication, a century ago, of a document that legitimized the creation of a future Jewish state, saying instead that it is proud of the role Britain played in establishing Israel.
In February, the Balfour Apology Campaign, run by the Palestinian Return Center rights group, launched a petition on the British parliament website calling on Britain to “openly apologise to the Palestinian people for issuing the Balfour Declaration. The colonial policy of Britain between 1917-1948 led to mass displacement of the Palestinian nation.”
Last week the UK Foreign Office posted a response to the petition, which has so far gained some 13,400 online signatures. If the petition passes 100,000 signatures by May 3 it will debated in parliament.
“The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG (her Majesty’s Government) does not intend to apologise,” the response began. “We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”
Signed on November 2, 1917 by the UK’s then foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, the declaration announced his government’s intention to establish “a national home for the Jewish people” in the Land of Israel.
It was seen as giving the Zionist movement official recognition and backing on the part of a major power, on the eve of the British conquest of the then-Ottoman territory of Palestine.
“The Declaration was written in a world of competing imperial powers, in the midst of the First World War and in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire,” the statement continued. “In that context, establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.
“Much has happened since 1917. We recognise that the Declaration should have called for the protection of political rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine, particularly their right to self-determination. However, the important thing now is to look forward and establish security and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians through a lasting peace.”
The response reaffirmed Britain’s support for a two-state solution with Jerusalem “as the shared capital of both states, and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees.”
In October, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported the start of a year-long campaign to commemorate 100 years since the “crime” of the Balfour Declaration.
Calling the declaration a “colonialist project,” Taysir Khalid, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said the new Palestinian effort was intended “to remind the world and particularly Britain that they should face their historic responsibility and to atone for the big crime Britain had committed against the Palestinian people.”
Addressing the United Nations in September, Netanyahu attacked the PA over the plan, characterizing it as another example of Palestinians refusing to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
The first in a series of events to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration was held in the British Houses of Parliament in November and was attended by a number of British lawmakers, Israeli Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev and former Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, in a September greeting ahead of the Jewish New Year, hailed the Balfour Declaration as an expression of the “UK’s support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.