Britain’s role in Palestine and Ireland

105 years of the Balfour Declaration

Despite Britain’s current state of political turmoil, with three very different Conservative prime ministers in the same year, there seems to be one constant: they all give unwavering support to Israel in its attempts to crush the Palestinian people.

But that should be no surprise, given that it has been the position taken by the British state for over a century—a position driven by British imperialism’s strategic interests, just as has been the case in Ireland, as made clear at a meeting organised by the Palestinian Return Centre and Key 48 in the Cultúrlann, Belfast, last November (see

In 1917 the then Conservative foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, made his infamous “Declaration,” a commitment that ignited the barbarous Zionist colonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine still continuing today. The Balfour Declaration called for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” with no legitimate right, authority or consent for doing so.

Balfour sent the declaration, with the approval of the prime minister, David Lloyd George, to the prominent British Zionist Walter Rothschild. Both Balfour and Lloyd George were sympathetic to the Zionist cause; but, more important, it was British imperialism’s need for control in the region to ensure its access to Egypt and India.

The declaration was actually one of three conflicting promises made by Britain. It promised the French that the majority of Palestine would be under international administration, with the rest of the region split between the two colonial powers after the war. It also promised Arab nationalists a united country covering most of the Middle East. What actually happened after the war was that Palestine remained under British occupation.

Thirty years earlier, Balfour, when chief secretary for Ireland (1887–1891), earned the epithet “Bloody” because of the Mitchelstown Massacre in September 1887. Balfour ordered the RIC to break up a perfectly legal rally of rent-striking tenants, resulting in two protesters being shot, one bayoneted to death, and many others injured. Balfour enforced control in Ireland vigorously as one prong of his strategy of carrot (“Kill home rule with kindness”) and stick (draconian legislation), a strategy he clearly set out in 1913 in Nationality and Home Rule.

Balfour described the Irish system as “essentially and radically rotten.” He condemned greedy landowners, being particularly critical of absentee landlords, and his Land Act (1891) was the first step in curtailing their enormous power and influence. When prime minister of Britain (1902–1906) Balfour had a further Land Act passed (1903), which in effect abolished the existing landlord system in Ireland.

With the British mandate of Palestine (1918–1948) as spoils of the First World War, together with  Balfour’s Declaration, the stage was set for what was to become the modern apartheid state of Israel. In recent years an abundance of historical evidence has come to light exposing the inhumanity that the British inflicted upon Palestinians, from arbitrary killings to torture, their use as human shields, as well as bombings. This then turned into the British government, under both Conservative and Labour leaderships, giving unconditional support to Israel, turning a blind eye to atrocities Israel routinely commits against Palestinians, facilitating arms deals with Israel, and encroaching on British citizens’ civil liberties and human rights in defence of Israel.

The British government claims to be supporting peace between Palestine and Israel yet simultaneously has licensed more than £400 million worth of arms to Israeli forces, including aircraft, bombs, armoured vehicles, and ammunition, while witnessing Israeli forces using all such arms on unarmed Palestinian civilians.

The British government spends millions of pounds every year on buying “battle-tested” arms from Israeli companies. In 2016 the Israeli arms company Elbit Systems signed an £800 million arms contract with Thales UK, facilitated by the British government. Britain is the only country in the world that has consistently armed Israel through its 74-year-long existence.

The British government’s outright support for Israel also comes at a price to ordinary British citizens who wish to exercise their right to support the Palestinian people. From the moment the former prime minister Boris Johnson was elected in 2019 one of his first actions was working on passing legislation to undermine the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The bill, although not passed yet, would act to stop public bodies from imposing their own boycotts of foreign countries. It would mean that public bodies are banned from being able to support the peaceful BDS movement, which aims to pressure Israel to comply with international law and end its illegal occupation of the West Bank.

Despite indisputable responsibility, no British government will ever accept and rectify its role in Palestinian oppression; this can only be achieved through solidarity in the face of imperialism from the British and Irish peoples and from all those around the globe who wish to see an end to the longest military occupation in history, the 55-year-long Israeli military occupation of Palestine.