According to a common anti-Zionist refrain, Great Britain stole the land of Israel from the Palestinian Arabs and then, without permission, gave it to the Jews—blatantly disregarding Arab interests and national aspirations. But, writes Douglas Feith, the reality was very different:
The Balfour Declaration, like Israel’s recent nation-state law, distinguished between a people’s national rights and the civil and religious rights of individuals. After endorsing “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the Balfour Declaration said, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
[The British government] didn’t consider Palestine in isolation. It was a small part of a vast region that British forces were conquering from Ottoman empire. Though most Arabs had fought for the Turks, the Allies would put the Arab people on the path to independence and national self-determination throughout that vast region. But the tiny Holy Land had a unique status. It was territory in which Christians and Jews worldwide had profound interests.
That the Arabs composed a single people was a basic principle of the Arab nationalist movement. In February 1919, for example, the first Palestinian Congress took pains to explain why Palestine was not a country. Its resolutions said that Palestine had never been divided from Syria. It declared that Palestinians and Syrians were one people connected “by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic, and geographical bonds.” Palestine’s Arabs were not viewed—either by British officials or by their own leaders—as a separate nation. (This changed later, of course, but that was later.)
The idea that a small segment of the Arab people—the Palestinian Arabs—would someday live in a Jewish-majority country was not thought of as a unique problem. There were similar issues [throughout] Europe. . . . The Arab people would eventually rule themselves in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Arabia. They were going to end up in control of virtually all the land they claimed for themselves. They naturally wanted to be the majority everywhere. But then, the Jews could be the majority nowhere. The victorious Allies did not consider that just.