To politically link the Battle of Beersheba with the Balfour Declaration , in an attempt to join Australian lives to the future dispossession of Arab peoples in the creation of Israel, is an outrageous re-write of history and a discourtesy to young Australians who lost their lives for other reasons, including the freeing of Arabs from Ottoman control. Dispossession cannot, and should not, ever be normalised.
On 31 October 1917, soldiers of the Australian Light Horse Brigade conducted a successful charge against Ottoman entrenchments at Beersheba, clearing the way for the capture of Jerusalem six weeks later. In its publication Australia and Israel: A Pictorial History the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade celebrates the battle by noting that
On the day Beersheba was captured, the British War Cabinet approved the text of a declaration of sympathy for Zionist aspirations to be made by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, which was published two days later.
In this statement the Department of Foreign Affairs, intentionally or otherwise, infers a link between the Battle of Beersheba with the future establishment of Israel. This is a re-write of history and a discourtesy to fallen Australian soldiers. That they happen a few days apart is true, however, this linkage in time has nothing to do with the unfolding of history some decades later, but everything to do with strategies devised to make it more likely that the Allies could eventually win the war.
First, the Battle of Beersheba 31 October 1917. The Battle has antecedents in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915, 1916. McMahon was the British High Commissioner to Egypt, Hussein the Sharif of Mecca. In a series of ten letters the British Government promises autonomy to the Arabs between the Mediterranean and Arabian seas if they will rise up against the Ottomans. Students of the 1WW will be familiar with the significance of the “Arab Uprising” in the defeat of the Ottomans. Thus the battle of Beersheba is fought in the context of a promise to local Arabs that their cooperation will be rewarded with sovereignty. Arabs have every reason to feel betrayed, the betrayal demonstrated first in Britain and France’s decision to carve up a substantial part of Arab lands between them after the war, and secondly in the support of the international community for the establishment of Israel and dispossession of Palestinians. Australians who fought in the Battle of Beersheba were fighting first and foremost for King and Empire. Secondly they were fighting against the Ottomans in a campaign which freed Arabs of Ottoman control.
Second the Balfour Declaration 2 November 1917. The Balfour declaration is a statement made by British Foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild a leader of the British Zionist movement indicating that Britain would be favorably disposed to the creation of a homeland for Jews in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration stands in contradiction to the promise already made to the Arabs. This contradiction is implied in the text of the declaration. Having affirmed British sympathy for a Jewish homeland, the text goes on to say:
… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
How did Britain come to make two contradictory promises? The answer lies in the stalemate the war had fallen into. The Allies desperately need to defeat the Ottomans to safeguard Suez and in the process free up oil for the emerging energy needs of a transiting navy. The Arab uprising and the promise of autonomy was considered crucial in securing this outcome.
Britain was also desperate to achieve technological advantage over the Germans, and even more desperate to drag the reluctant president Woodrow Wilson into the war. Chaim Weizmann, a leading Zionist, invented a fermentation process for the production of acetone a vital ingredient in the war effort. Weizmann later went on to be the first President of Israel. Britain needed to secure this invention, but even more importantly wanted to use the influence of world Jewry to bring America into the war. The Balfour declaration was drafted with these dual aims in mind.
Modern day Israel is founded upon the dispossession of the Arab people of Palestine- what they call the Nakbah, in contravention of the promise made by Britain to the Arabs. Not only was dispossession, the means of creating modern day Israel, condoned by the international community, but in the subsequent 70 years modern Israel has completely ignored the requirement of the Balfour Declaration that demands the civil and religious rights of pre-existing Arab communities be respected.
Any Beersheba commemoration that celebrates the Balfour Declaration and ignores the crucial Arab role in supporting the British advance in Palestine would be a distortion of history that glorifies the worst aspects of British imperialism and normalises the discrimination suffered by Palestinians today.
I fear the commemoration of Beersheba will be less about remembering and more about forgetting. If the sacrifices of the Arabs, their subsequent betrayal and the current suffering of the Palestinians are all airbrushed from history in favour of a triumphalist Zionist narrative, then the Israeli and Australian governments will be using the commemoration to whitewash a hundred years of colonialism, displacement and apartheid.