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100 years and counting: Britain, Balfour, and the cultural repression of Palestinians (Part I)

Nov. 4, 2016 12:59 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 7, 2016 3:19 P.M.)
By: Al-Shabaka

Al-Shabaka is an independent non-profit organization whose mission is to educate and foster public debate on Palestinian human rights and self-determination within the framework of international law.

In this Al-Shabaka policy brief, Aimee Shalan analyzes the legacy of the Balfour Declaration on Palestinian-British relations in the occupied Palestinian territory and the United Kingdom, particularly regarding the repressing of Palestinian cultural voices. The second part of this brief will be published on Saturday.

If Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour passes over the perimeter of her home’s driveway in her village of Reineh in the Galilee, an alarm will sound at the British multinational security firm G4S and the Israeli authorities will be alerted. Israeli police arrested Tatour in the early hours of Oct. 11, 2015 for her poem, “Qawem ya sha‘abi qawemhum” (Resist My People, Resist Them), which was posted to her YouTube account earlier that month. On Nov. 2, Israel charged her with incitement to violence and support for a terrorist organization.

In January, after three months in prison, Tatour was placed under house arrest near Tel Aviv, far from her village. After a lengthy struggle, the prosecution conceded in July that she could be held in her family’s home. While Tatour’s trial proceeds, she will remain under house arrest and will continue to be monitored by G4S as a “threat” to Israel’s security.

Such British complicity in the cultural repression of Palestinians is not a recent phenomenon. One can argue that it has its roots in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which, by calling for the establishment of a nation for the Jewish people while all but disregarding the existence of the Palestinians inhabiting the land in question, set in motion the process of dispossession, exile, and social and cultural fragmentation that continues to the present day. And this was but the beginning of a British approach to the Palestinian people that has suppressed their culture and history.

Indeed, today, as Israel funnels substantial financial resources into promoting its cultural output internationally, the United Kingdom (UK) is taking measures to censor Palestinian cultural expression and creativity. From the involvement of private companies such as G4S in the house arrest of Tatour to ministerial moves to block the cultural boycott and stifle academic debate, while UK visas are frequently denied to Palestinian artists and educators, Britain’s repressive actions are aiding Israel by supporting its one-sided narrative -- a narrative that helps Israel continue its occupation of Palestinian territory and deepen its apartheid regime.

There will likely be much scholarly and policy analysis of the fallout from the Balfour Declaration for Palestine and the surrounding countries over the past 100 years (including by think tanks such as Al-Shabaka.) This commentary makes the case for a focus on the cultural dimension and provides the background and arguments for such a focus by examining the British role, then and now.

Balfour and the Origins of Cultural Repression

Despite its devastating impact on Palestinians, the Balfour Declaration means little to most people in Britain. If you were to ask the average person on a UK street what it was, they would most likely know next to nothing about the document.

However, the British government is planning to commemorate the centenary of the declaration in November 2017. Earlier this year, former British Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted the UK government to mark the anniversary together with the Jewish community “in the most appropriate way.” At the time, it was not altogether clear what he meant by “appropriate.” Today, we are none the wiser, but plans to mark the occasion are nonetheless still rumored to be in the pipeline, though now under the auspices of Britain’s controversial new foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.

In his brief but fateful 1917 declaration, then Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour proclaimed the British government would “use their best endeavors” to facilitate “the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people.” Thus, even before the British Mandate had officially begun, Balfour promised Palestine to the Zionist Federation without the consent of its Palestinian inhabitants. His concise erasure of Palestinian culture and history is found within the very vocabulary he used, referring to the indigenous, majority population only as “non-Jewish.”

Though Balfour did acknowledge Palestine’s inhabitants two years later, he assigned their lives less value than the Jewish people who would take possession of the land. He announced in a memorandum, “Zionism be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in an age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

The logical outcome of this denial of Palestinian culture and history was the eventual dispossession and dispersal of the Palestinian population in 1948, followed by the demolition or Judaization of towns and villages emptied of their inhabitants.

The prejudicial sentiment expressed by Balfour underscores the UK’s relations with Israel to this day. It therefore comes as little surprise that the government did not consult with the UK’s Palestinian community before announcing its intention to mark the centenary.

Nevertheless, Palestinians are already mobilizing to take action against the UK for its historic role in the purloining of Palestine. Last year, Egypt’s “Popular Palestinian Campaign to sue the United Kingdom” initiated a case to “restore the right of the Palestinian people to their land.” In addition, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently announced that he intends to sue the UK government over the Balfour Declaration. He also accused Britain of supporting “Israeli crimes” since the end of its mandate over Palestine and called on the Arab League to help the Palestinian Authority launch its lawsuit.

The legacy of Balfour and the British Mandate includes a long history of Israel repressing Palestinian expression, from the plundering of Palestinian libraries and the imprisonment of Palestinian writers to the banning of Palestinian cultural activities and the obliteration of cultural sites and schools in Gaza.

Immediately after the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, Palestinians who remained within the borders of what then became “Israel” were forbidden to study their cultural inheritance or to remember their immediate past.

An obituary of Mahmoud Darwish in 2008 recalled how, when he was eight years old, the young poet recited a poem at his school’s annual celebration of Israel’s birth about the inequality he noticed between the lives of Arab boys and Jewish boys. Afterward, the Israeli military governor summoned him. “If you go on writing such poetry” he said, “I’ll stop your father working in the quarry.” The utterance of the simplest of truths by a Palestinian child clearly frightened the Israeli military governor enough to threaten the livelihood of his family.

Then, as now, the Israeli authorities could not countenance the cultural expression of a Palestinian consciousness. Darwish went on to be imprisoned five times by the Israeli authorities, mostly charged with reciting poetry thought to be seditious and detrimental to Israel’s status and stability.

Attempts to stifle Darwish’s voice have continued beyond his death. In July 2016, Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, went so far as to equate the poet’s work to Mein Kampf after Israeli army radio unexpectedly broadcast Darwish’s poem, “ID Card.” Lieberman’s comments came after the Israeli culture minister, Miri Regev, called on him to stop funding the radio station on the grounds that it had “gone off the rails” and was providing a platform for the Palestinian narrative.

It would thus seem that very little has changed since the early days of Israel’s establishment. And recent moves by the UK to block the cultural boycott and stifle academic debate show a significant rise in the extent to which Britain has become openly involved in the censorship of those speaking out against Israel.

Originally published in full on Al-Shabaka's website on October 26, 2016.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect Ma'an News Agency's editorial policy.
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