Palestinian lawyers on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the British government for the 1917 declaration setting out London’s support for a national home for the Jewish people in ancient Palestine.
The Balfour Declaration, signed by the then-British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour, is seen as a precursor to Israel’s creation in 1948, and is viewed by Israelis as one of the most consequential events of the Jewish state’s establishment.
Palestinians share that view, though with far less positivity.
The lawyers filed the complaint at a court in the West Bank town of Nablus and claimed “the suffering of the Palestinians” stemmed from the document.
As well as the trade unions group, Thursday’s complaint was filed on behalf of the International Commission to Support Palestinian People’s Rights and the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate.
The Balfour Declaration was published on November 2, 1917, a year before the end of World War I.
It announced the British government’s backing for the establishment within Palestine, then a region of the Ottoman Empire, of “a national home for the Jewish people.”
The lawsuit, long threatened by Palestinian officials, appeared to be mostly a symbolic move.
Businessman Munib al-Masri, one of the initiators, said the suit would be taken to regional and international courts as well as to London, as part of an effort to hold Britain accountable for its “illegal” promise.
“The British mandate is at the root of the suffering of the Palestinian people and has paved the way for the violation of their rights and the plunder of their land,” al-Masri, head of the Federation of Independent and Democratic Trade Unions, told a news conference in Ramallah.
Mohammad Barakeh, head of the High Follow-Up Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel, asserted that the Palestinian judiciary had the authority to consider the case against Britain.
He added that Britain, “as responsible for the crimes committed against the Palestinians as a result of the Balfour Declaration, should be prosecuted through all means available to Palestine.”
Al-Masri added that the declaration “gave the Jews all political rights at the expense of the Palestinian people.”
The declaration did not, in fact, do so. It was a non-binding precursor to the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which would have seen the land divided between Jews and Arabs in two states existing side by side. The Jewish population accepted the plan, while the region’s Arabs rejected it and attacked the Jews, leading to Israel’s War of Independence.
Still, the declaration was a shock to the Arab world, which had not been consulted and had received vague promises of independence of its own in the post-war break up of the defeated Ottoman Empire.
The Palestinians have always condemned the declaration, which they refer to as the “Balfour promise,” saying Britain was giving away land it did not own.
With the Balfour Declaration, London was seeking Jewish support for its war efforts, and the Zionist push for a homeland for Jews was an emerging political force.
The British Mandate for Palestine was later set up in the wake of World War I, and governed the lands that today make up Israel and the West Bank until Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948.