11/02/2017, 18.05
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Balfour Declaration, a century of protests and celebrations

In 1917 Britain’s foreign secretary promised a "a national homeland” for the Jews as long as the rights of non-Jewish communities were respected. Israel’s Netanyahu is in London for the anniversary, but for Palestinian President Abbas, the declaration was a "catastrophe". Now recognising Palestine as a state would compensate the suffering. For Netanyahu: the only tragedy is the refusal to accept the declaration.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A hundred years after Lord Balfour's declaration of support for a ‘Jewish national home’, which paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel, British Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed her Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, to London for the centennial celebration of the pledge.

Like every year, the commemoration of the Balfour Declaration is a source of tensions between Israelis who celebrate it and Palestinians who protests what they consider an historical injustice.

On 2 November 1917, then Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, expressing the support of the United Kingdom for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, so long as it did not "prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities".

The centenary has generated opposing feelings in Israel and Palestine. Among Palestinians and their supporters, protests and demonstrations are organised every year.

Marches, each drawing about 1,000 demonstrators, were held in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Nablus and in Gaza. In Bethlehem, a group of protesters southern to northern ends of the city until they reached Israel’s separation wall.

Protesters set up an effigy of Arthur Balfour, the author of the declaration, beating and throwing shoes at the figure while burning a copy of the declaration. Israeli forces quickly suppressed the protest, using live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas.

Today’s commemoration in London will culminate in a dinner hosted by descendants of Balfour and Rothschild. For its part, the Israeli parliament plans a special commemorative session next week.

In an attempt to strike a diplomatic balance, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said that the spirit of the declaration had not been fully realised, referring to a clause in the document which said nothing should prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities, an aspect usually ignored by Israeli authorities.

Balfour's letter was made public in 1920, when the United Kingdom was given a mandate over Palestine and Iraq. In the colonial context of the time, London had pledged support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland to secure Jewish support in the Middle East and safeguard its economic and trade interests in the Suez Canal.

The statement is controversial because at the time it was made, the Jewish community in Palestine represented less than 10 per cent of the population. As Hungarian-Jewish writer Arthur Koestler put it, “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third”.

Balfour's pledge contradicted another made to the Arabs in 1915 of an independent state as a reward for their contribution in the defeat of the Ottomans during the First World War.

Today, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on the United Kingdom to recognise Palestine as a state to compensate for the suffering of the Palestinians caused by  the letter, a "catastrophe" that began the process that resulted in the birth of Israel and the expulsion of 750,000 Arabs.

For Benjamin Netanyahu, "The Palestinians say that the Balfour Declaration was a tragedy. It wasn't a tragedy. What's been tragic is their refusal to accept this 100 years later.”

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