Olive branches, a huge Palestinian flag carried by eight people, a large cardboard drawing of Lord Arthur Balfour and Theresa May cartoons were some of the creative props displayed during London’s lively march on Saturday, November 4th to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
The Justice Now: Make it Right for Palestine march and rally started outside the American Embassy and arrived some two hours later in Westminster’s Parliament Square. The mood among the 15,000-strong crowd was upbeat. Efforts of counter-demonstrators to disrupt the march and provoke people simply raised the voices of those calling for justice for Palestine.
The small group of around 30 Israel supporters managed to hold up the march for half an hour as the police tried to separate the two demonstrations. They waved Israeli flags and shouted: ‘Free Palestine for Hamas!’ ‘Terrorist sympathisers’ and ‘well done Balfour’. One held a placard entitled ‘Terrorist rally here’.
They ended up walking in front of the Palestine march, mostly separated by a barricade of police officers, causing one young demonstrator to comment: ‘Israel isn’t content with occupying Palestine, it occupies roads in London too’.
The march was organised and supported by groups such as Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Friends of Al Aqsa, Palestine Forum in Britain and Amos Trust.
Speakers included British filmmaker Ken Loach, Palestinian politician and activist Mustafa Barghouti, trade union leader Sally Hunt, young speaker British-Palestinian Leanne Mohamed, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn via video link and DJ and former Faithless band member Dave Randall.
Balfour’s continuing legacy
“I admire and greet everyone that came here today – please accept our appreciation, you have made the government’s celebration fail and you have shown that Balfour was a crime,” said Mustafa Barghouti, addressing the crowd outside parliament.
“Netanyahu spoke here in London and he related himself to all British colonialists, he’s proud of this, I say to you today that we are proud of our cooperation and alliance with you – the good British people,” added Barghouti.
The Balfour Declaration was a 67-word letter written by British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community.
Penned towards the end of World War 1, on 2 November 1917, the declaration came at a time of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and of Britain’s expanding Empire. Balfour stated the British government’s support for the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, without the consent of the Palestinians.
But Balfour hasn’t been consigned to the history books: it didn’t prevent the persecution of the Jews in Europe and it kick-started a chain of events leading to the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) in 1948 that continues today – as does the British support of Balfour.
“At this moment the Balfour declaration is being implemented in the streets of Jerusalem and Gaza and the West Bank and that’s why we have to stop it now,” said Barghouti.
Far from apologising, Theresa May’s Conservative government invited Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a five-day visit at the beginning of November to celebrate the anniversary.
Theresa May spoke proudly of the British role in creating a Jewish state at a private dinner on November 2nd that the press was banned from attending. It was hosted by the current Lord Rothschild and Lord Balfour.
While he called the Balfour Declaration a “great humanitarian gesture,” Lord Roderick Balfour remarked recently that the caveat stating that: “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing Non-Jewish communities in Palestine” is not being adhered to.
Despite the calls from Palestinians and activists for the government to apologize, the prime minister made the government’s position clear at the celebration dinner in London’s Lancaster House: “I say absolutely not. We are proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the State of Israel.”
Labour party leader and lifelong supporter of Palestine Jeremy Corbyn sent shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry to the event in his place. Claims that he was “snubbing” the event provoked headlines in the British right-wing press, such as one in The Telegraph on October 31st: ‘Jeremy Corbyn shows little sign of accepting Israel’s right to exist’.
‘We will not stay silent’
“It wasn’t the British people that signed Balfour, it was the British ruling class,” said filmmaker Ken Loach on Saturday, saying that the Balfour declaration is a monument to imperialist arrogance.
British advocacy organisation Palestinian Return Centre launched a petition in October 2016 that called on the British government to apologise for the Balfour Declaration, collecting almost 14,000 signatures before it was closed early because of June’s General Election.
Well-known figures and organisations that support Palestine such as Professor Ilan Pappe and rapper Lowkey were signatories in an open letter to Boris Johnson, taken out as a full-page advertisement in the Guardian newspaper on November 2nd. It called on the government to hold Israel accountable for its crimes under international law.
Also on the anniversary, activist solidarity group London Palestine Action covered Greater London’s transport network with a hundred signs containing the words ‘Decolonise Palestine’, in response to Transport For London banning Palestine Mission from displaying official advertisements about Balfour.
“We ourselves declare that our voices will not be censored, and we will not stay silent over any support and facilitation of the oppression, murder and expulsion of the Palestinian people,” read a statement on their Facebook page.
Voices of the march
Those on the march were also refusing to be silent.
“I call myself proud to be British – British Palestinian – but I think it’s abhorrent that we’ve got a government that are celebrating the [Balfour] centenary,” said Dalia el-Saleh from Bedford, near London, talking to Mondoweiss while taking part in the march with her family.
“This should be the opportunity for them to apologize following a hundred years of occupation and abuse of the Palestinian people. It’s time to be supporting Palestinians to have their own state and the right to return. And for a start, the government shouldn’t be inviting Netanyahu here to celebrate,” el-Saleh added.
Members of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign drove for 10 hours from Glasgow and Edinburgh to be there on Saturday.
“It’s a duty, we pilgrimage here once a year to make a very clear statement that the Balfour declaration was wrong and is not in our name, especially as I’m a Polish Jew who has the history of persecution,” said Jola Hadzic, who lives in Glasgow but is originally from Poland.
Speaking to Mondoweiss in Parliament Square, looking after a large Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign banner, Hadzic said that her family has opposed Zionism for three generations; for the past 120 years.
“It’s clear from thousands of times that the government doesn’t speak for the people, you know it’s a big contradiction, as we can see here. I think that point was very clearly made today. The world is watching, Palestine is watching,” added Hadzic.
The Balfour centenary is the latest in a series of devastating anniversaries that have been marked by Palestinians this year: June signalled 50 years of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Jerusalem and a decade since the siege on Gaza began. The next date to mark for Palestinians is in May 2018, 70 years since the Nakba of 1948.
But as recent demonstrations across Palestine and the world have shown, Palestinians remain steadfast in their demands for justice from the British government.
“We, the victims of the Balfour declaration demand, and will one day get, the apology for this crime, we will get the compensation for this crime,” said Mustafa Bougharati as he finished his speech at Saturday’s rally.
“And we will get the recognition of the Palestinian free state.”