UK kicks off Balfour centennial celebrations amid Palestinian protests
First in series of commemorations held for 1917 document by British foreign secretary that paved way to Israel’s creation
Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.
The first in a series of events to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration was held in the British Parliament on Tuesday evening, amid Palestinian objections to commemorating the document that paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel.
Tuesday’s event in London saw the start of a host of year-long programs and events to mark the centenary of the 1917 declaration issued by then-foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour, which enshrined British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The document 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 event at the Houses of Parliament was attended by a number of British lawmakers, Israeli Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev and former Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold.
Regev, opening the session, called the Balfour Declaration “a crucial milestone in developing an independent Jewish state,” while Gold said the UK “should have great pride in helping launch the Jewish commonwealth.”
Ambassador Alan Baker, a veteran Israeli diplomat, noted that the Balfour Declaration was issued “after serious, detailed consideration of the 3,000 year history of Jewish people and its indigenous link to the land.”
Another speaker, former Conservative prime ministerial candidate, MP Michael Gove urged his government to move the British embassy to Jerusalem.”
Palestinian officials have long branded the Balfour Declaration a “crime,” and earlier this year officials in Ramallah announced plans to sue the British government over the 99-year-declaration.
In a September address to the United Nations, PA President Mahmoud Abbas castigated what he called a “notorious” document, which he said Britain gave “without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people.”
Abbas called on London to “bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibilities for the consequences of this Declaration,” and demanded the UK apologize to the Palestinian people for the “catastrophes, miseries and injustices that it created, and to act to rectify this historic catastrophe and remedy its consequences, including by recognition of the State of Palestine.”
Palestine Liberation Organization chief Saeb Erekat earlier this month called the declaration a “grave insult to world justice,” and urged the UK to apologize for it, while PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki has accused London of being responsible for “all Israeli crimes” committed since the end of the British Mandate in 1948.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed the PA over the planned lawsuit, characterizing it as another example of Palestinians refusing to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
“That’s almost 100 years ago,” Netanyahu said at the UN in September. “Talk about being stuck in the past! The Palestinians might as well sue Iran for the Cyrus declarations, or file a class action suit against Abraham, for buying land in Hebron,” he added, referencing the Biblical patriarch and a Persian edict from 539 BCE allowing Jews to return to Judea.
“This conflict is not about the settlements, it never was,” he said. “It’s always been about the existence of a Jewish state.”
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.