The horrors and futility of the battles of Gallipoli and Passchendaele, their human cost and consequences have been examined exhaustively as their centenaries have arrived.

We are reminded of Aucklanders who died in overseas wars by the mighty presence of the Auckland War Memorial Museum erected in 1929 on a hill known by Māori as Pukekawa or "hill of bitter memories".

Battles, or countries in which New Zealanders fought, are engraved around the building. On the eastern wall is a striking inscription of the Gallipoli conflict and equally prominent on the western side is a memorial fountain which commemorates the campaign in Palestine.

New Zealanders fought and died in places with very familiar names - Jerusalem, Gaza, Jericho, Beersheba. Where is matching commentary about the role we played there and the wisdom of contributing to the catastrophic consequences of imperial power, manipulation and conquest which reverberate to this day?


November 2017 heralds the centenary of two significant events linked to the defeat of the declining Ottoman empire by allied forces in Palestine - the Balfour Declaration and the Russian Revolution.

The Balfour Declaration was one of three agreements that Britain negotiated simultaneously.

They were purposeful exercises in colonial occupation to the exclusive benefit of its imperial interests, formulated with total disregard for the political rights of the majority of the indigenous population.

First, in an age of rampant nationalism, Britain fostered an agreement with the Arabs promising them an independent kingdom provided they revolted against their Ottoman overlords who had sided with Germany.

Britain was motivated by the Gallipoli calamity of 1915, which failed to defeat the Turks and endangered Britain's hold of the Suez Canal, vital for its access to India and distant colonies.

Britain was also motivated to protect its control of the Persian Gulf for the exploitation (in modern Iran and Iraq) of the newly important resource and key military asset, oil.

At the very same time Britain made this pledge to the Arabs, another pact was being devised: a 1916 clandestine agreement along with France and Russia to apportion the Ottoman Empire amongst themselves to the exclusion of the Arabs. Known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the scandalous plan was exposed by the Bolsheviks on November 23, 1917, after the Russian Revolution. Lenin called it "the agreement of the colonial thieves".

The third agreement was influenced by the development of Zionism, a political movement which emerged in 19th century Europe to counter horrifying anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe with the objective to establish a Jewish homeland.


The Balfour Declaration promised the Jews their own ethno-state within the borders of Palestine. Robert Fisk has described it as "the most mendacious, deceitful and hypocritical document in British history".

The Balfour Declaration took the form of a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, who represented the British Jewish community, and pledged British support for a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine.

It was deeply ironic that, as Prime Minister, Balfour had earlier presided over the introduction of the Aliens Act 1905, legislation designed to limit entry to the UK of Jews suffering persecution in Eastern Europe.

His commitment to establishing a Jewish state in a land that was already populated by a thriving indigenous people was a cold calculation of British imperial interests and intended to enlist the support of influential Zionist leaders in Britain's war effort. It was also a means of diverting Jewish immigration from Britain to Palestine.

From the outset, the Balfour Declaration was controversial. While the Zionist movement in Britain was intimately involved in the drafting of the declaration, no indigenous Palestinians were consulted. At that time, Jews constituted 10 per cent of the population of Palestine: 60,000 Jews and just over 600,000 Christian and Muslim Arabs.

Britain chose to recognise the right to national self-determination of the minority over the rights of the existing majority population of Palestine. In the words of the Jewish writer Arthur Koestler: here was one nation promising another nation the land of a third nation.

The centenary provides an opportunity to explore New Zealand's role in supporting the expansion of empire and its legacy of colonisation and the betrayal of indigenous Palestinians which extends to this day.

Some of this legacy is carved in the walls of the Auckland Museum and evidenced in our own history of settler colonialism, by the subjugation of Pukekawa.

• Janfrie Wakim is an Auckland campaigner for human rights in Palestine.