The Historical Background Of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (II)

Part I

The UK’s three promises about the Middle East during WWI

A Holy Land of Palestine became since the turn of the 20th century a battlefield of competing for territorial pretensions and political-national interests between two regional Semitic peoples – the Arab Palestinians and the Judaist Jews.[1] That was a time of a tremendous declination in power of the Ottoman Empire very much weakened after the lost 1911−1912 Libyan War against Italy followed by another lost war against the Balkan Christian Orthodox coalition in 1912−1913 when the Ottoman power was almost totally expelled from Europe.[2] At the same time, the European Great Powers, especially the UK, were strengthening their geopolitical position in the region of the Middle East including Palestine as well.

The British diplomacy in 1915 urged secretly the Ottoman governor of Mecca and Medina to lead an Arab uprising against the Ottoman authorities, which was during WWI a German political-military ally against the Entente. The Brits (Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt) promised as compensation to the Arabs if they would support the Brits in the war, London will support an idea of the creation of an independent Arab nation-state within the borders of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, including Palestine too. The Arab uprising against the Ottoman rule was led by Faysal, a son of Husayn (Hussein) ibn ‘Ali of Hashemite house[3] and T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”)[4] and was successful in defeating the Ottoman authorities and, therefore, the Brits were able to take control over much of the Ottoman Middle East until the end of WWI.[5]

palestine-population-1947However, the Albion at the same time during the war made and other promises that went to direct conflict with the previous one about the creation of an independent Arab state on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. On November 2nd, 1917, the British Foreign Minister Lord Arthur James Balfour signed a declaration known in history as the “Balfour Declaration” (authors were he, Walter Rothschild, and Leo Amery) by which he announced the UK’s Government’s support for the establishment of a “Jewish national home in Palestine”. That was, in fact, a letter addressed to the leading British Zionist Lord Rothschild in which the sender pledged that a Jewish home (not explicitly a nation-state) has to be created but without any prejudice to the civil or religious rights of the non-Jewish Arab people living in Palestine.[6] This statement from the Declaration, nevertheless, was a crucial contradiction in London’s diplomacy in the Middle East for the very reason as at the same time, the Albion pledged to recognize the leaders of the Arab uprising as rulers of Palestine. According to Jonathan Schneer, the Balfour Declaration laid the foundation for the origins of long and bloody Arab-Israeli conflict.[7]

The third British diplomatic promise at the time of WWI in regard to the Middle East it was a secret deal between the UK and France to divide the Ottoman Arab provinces between them and, therefore, to divide their own bilateral colonial control over the region that was finally realized after the war. This secret political deal was agreed in a form of the Sykes-Picot Agreement on January 3rd, 1916). The agreement was negotiated between the British and the French diplomats in the Middle East, Sir Mark Sykes, and Georges Picot. What they agreed, as a consequence of the Ottoman defeat in WWI, was:

  1. France was to be dominant in Syria with Lebanon, South Anatolia, and North Mesopotamia (Mosul).
  2. The UK would establish protectorates in South Mesopotamia (Baghdad and Basra), the Persian Gulf, Arabia and Hejaz, Palestine, and the valley of the River of Jordan.[8]

Therefore, according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Egypt would be connected with the focal British colony – the British Indian Empire while Russia will have free hands in Armenia and North Kurdistan.[9] The agreement together with the Balfour Declaration established the foundations of the Middle East’s settlement in 1920 by the League of Nations.

The 1916‒1918 Arab Uprising against the Ottoman Empire

An uprising against the Ottoman rule in the region of the Middle East started in 1916. In July 1915, Husayn ibn ‘Ali, a governor of Mecca negotiated with the Brits about the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire at that time an ally of Germany against the Entente. In return, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, promised the British support for Arab independence after the war in the case of the victory of the Entente. The Arab uprising started in June 1916 when the Arab army of circa 70.000 fighters, financed by London and led by Faisal (later Faisal I), moved against the Ottoman army. The rebels succeeded to take Aqabah and to cut the Hejaz railway which was a vital strategic connection in the Arab Peninsula as connecting Damascus with Medina. This military success gave open doors to the British troops to enter Palestine and Syria. The Ottoman power in the Middle East finished on October 1st, 1918 when they lost Damascus.[10] However, the Arabs have not been granted independence after WWI as it was promised by the Brits during the war.[11]

A victory of the 1917 Balfour Declaration

After WWI, the French and the UK’s diplomats managed to convince the newly formed League of Nations,[12] in which they have been the dominant Great Powers, to grant them colonial authority (mandates)[13] over former territories of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East at that time settled by the Arabs as overwhelming majority of the population. France received a mandate over Syria but carving out Lebanon as a separate territory with a slight Christian majority. The UK got a mandate over Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. The British colonial authority in 1921 divided the region of Jordan into two regions: 1) the Emirate of Transjordan (eastward of the River of Jordan) to be ruled by the Faysal’s house; and 2) the Palestine Mandate (westward from the River of Jordan). Nevertheless, it happened for the first time in modern history that Palestine was a unified political-administrative entity. However, the focal consequence of the British Mandate for Palestine given in 1920 was the Arab fatal dissatisfaction by the failure of London to realize in practice its promises to create an independent Arab nation-state and, therefore, the Arabs opposed both British and French Mandates as a blatant violation of the right of Arabs to self-determination – the right recognized to the Europeans during the Paris Peace Conference after WWI and based on W. Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”.

Israel Jerusalem 1967
Jerusalem in 1967

During the British and French Mandates, the political complications were more serious in Palestine in comparison to other Arab-populated territories for the very reason that London promised during WWI to support the creation of a Jewish national home (nation-state, in fact, propagated by the Zionists).

The 1917 Balfour Declaration was confirmed by the Allies, and after the war became the focal foundation for the British Mandate for Palestine given by the newly formed League of Nations in 1920. Subsequent British policy to reconcile the promises to the Zionist movement by the Balfour Declaration with Albion’s promises at the same time to the Arabs became the root of the UK’s problems during the Mandate for Palestine.[14] In one word, the 1917 Balfour Declaration directly contradicted the British promises to the Arabs in 1915 to support the creation of an independent Arab nation-state as the Declaration assumed the British commitment to support the foundation of, in fact, an independent state of the Jews in Palestine. Before the end of WWI, the British army already occupied the whole territory of Palestine and, therefore, the post-war destiny of Palestine was already decided. Subsequently, the San Remo Conference held on April 24th, 1920 just formally decided to assign the Mandate of Palestine under the umbrella of the League of Nations to the Brits. It was formally ratified by voting in the League of Nations on July 22nd, 1922 what was just confirmation of already accomplished act.[15]

PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI-CONFLICT-UNREST
A Palestinian boy looks up during a rain storm while walking through a neighbourhood destroyed during the 50 day conflict between Israel and Hamas, in the Shejaiya neighbourhood of Gaza City on October 19, 2014

As a matter of very historical fact, the Mandate document was for the Zionist Jews a pure diplomatic victory as it was the first international document in which the right of the Jews to have their own national home (state) was officially recognized, signed and ratified by the most influential Allied Great Powers who have been acting within the framework of the League of Nations as a superior international security body. In fact, what was recognized by the Mandate in 1920 was the 1917 Balfour Declaration which became incorporated into the Mandate document getting the status of a treaty.

The British military administration was soon replaced by a civil one over the British Mandate in Palestine. To which direction the mandate will go became quite clear when on the post of High Commissioner of Palestine was appointed Sir Herbert Samuel, a well-known British Jew, and Zionist. As a respected Jew, he was regarded by the Zionists as a kind of new Messiah who is going to lead the Jews back to their ancient land under the British flag through the massive Jewish immigration to Palestine followed by the purchasing of the land.[16]

To be continued

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.

 Endnotes:

[1] About the history of Palestine, see in [James Parkes, A History of Palestine from 135 A.D. to Modern Times, London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1949].

[2] See [Борислав Ратковић, Митар Ђуришић, Саво Скоко, Србија и Црна Гора у Балканским ратовима 1912−1913, Београд: БИГЗ, 1972].

[3] Husayn (Hussein) ibn ‘Ali (1853−1931) was King of the Hejaz in 1916−1925. He was a member of the Hashemite family. As an Ottoman governor of Mecca and Medina since 1908, he led in June 1916 the Arab Uprising against the Ottoman Empire proclaiming himself as King of the Hejaz and, from November of the same year, King of the Arabs. One of his sons was King of Transjordan in 1920−1951, while another was made King of Syria in 1920 and later of Iraq in 1921−1933 as Faisal I [Haifa Alanqari, The Struggle for Power in Arabia: Ibn Saud, Hussein and Great Britain, 1914−1924, Ithaca Press, 1998].

[4] Lawrence of Arabia was, in fact, Lawrence Thomas Edward (1888−1935). He was a British author and soldier. He joined the British army in 1915 in Cairo (the British Military Intelligence Department). There in Egypt, he participated in Henry McMahon’s negotiations with an Ottoman governor of Mecca and Medina, Husayn ibn ‘Ali aiming to get Arab support in the British war against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. Lawrence Thomas Edward, as a British adviser to the Arab paramilitary forces, took an active part in the 1916−1918 Arab Uprising. He was captured and tortured before he succeeded to escape. He participated in the British occupation of Damascus in October 1918. However, he failed to secure Arab self-government for Syria and Iraq during the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. In 1926, he wrote an autobiography (about his role in the Arab Uprising) under the title: Seven Pillars of Wisdom [Philip Walker, Behind the Lawrence Legend: The Forgotten Few Who Shaped the Arab Revolt, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018].

[5] About the Allied occupation of the Ottoman territories in the Middle East during the last weeks of the war, see in [Joseph von Hammer, Historija Turskog/Osmanskog/ Carstva, III, Zagreb: Ognjen Prica, 1979, 540−545].

[6] See more in [John Tiffany, A Short History of the Balfour Declaration, The Barnes Review, 2017].

[7] Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of The Arab-Israeli Conflict, New York: Random House Trade Paperback, 2012.

[8] Alfonsas Eidintas, Donatas Eidintas, Žydai, Izraelis ir palestiniečiai, Vilnius: Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidibos institutas, 2007, 100‒101.

[9] However, the text of the agreement became publically known when a copy of it was published by the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution and Civil War causing immediately international dismay and Arab anger, as it was the British promise to support an idea of Arab independence after WWI which, basically, led to the 1916 Arab Uprising against the Ottoman authorities in the Middle East [Michael D. Berdine, Redrawing of the Middle East: Sir Mark Sykes, Imperialism and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, London‒New York: I.B.Tauris, 2018].

[10] See [David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, New York: An Owl Book Henry Holt and Company, 1989].

[11] About the Arab Uprising in 1916‒1918, see more in [David Murphy, The Arab Revolt 1916‒1918: Lawrence Sets Arabia Ablaze, Osprey Publishing, 2008].

[12] The League of Nations was an international security organization of originally 45 member-states. It was established at the Paris Peace Conference on April 24th, 1919 with the focal purpose to enable collective (international) security, arbitration of different international disputes and conflicts and to deal with the question of disarmament. The creation of the League of Nations was inspired by the failure of the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907 and the US’ President Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”. However, from the very start of its existence and diplomatic activities, the League has been crucially weakened by the refusal of an isolationist US’ Congress to ratify the membership of the USA. The first duties of the League of Nations were supervising the administrations of the French and the British Mandates in the Middle East, and the City of Danzig as well as the Saarland [George Scott, The Rise and Fall of the League of Nations, Macmillan, 1974].

[13] Mandate was introduced after WWI by the League of Nations as a form of a protectorate under which the pre-war German colonies and former Ottoman non-Turkish provinces were administered by the UK, France, and South Africa. All territories under the mandates have been classified into three categories:

  1. A-Mandates (Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, and Syria). Those territories were to be prepared for a certain kind of independence through self-government.
  2. B-Mandates (Cameroon, Ruanda-Urundi, Togo, and Tanganyika). They have been understood not to fit for having independence and, therefore, those territories were to be administered as classic colonies.
  3. C-Mandates (South-West Africa and ex-Germany’s Pacific territories). They have to be administered as an integral part of the administering country. As a result, for instance, Papua New Guinea became independent only in 1975, and Namibia (former South-West Africa) even later, in 1990.

[14] Bernard Regan, The Balfour Declaration: Empire, the Mandate and Resistance in Palestine, Verso, 2017.

[15] Ahron Bregman, A History of Israel, London‒New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, 21.

[16] The biggest number of Jewish immigrants to Palestine during the mandate was from Soviet Russia as a new Bolshevik Government started in 1920 a struggle against the “Hebrew nationalism”. The rest of the immigrants arrived from Poland, Lithuania, Romania and some West European states [Giedrius Drukteinis (sudarytojas), Izraelis, žydų valstybė, Vilnius: Sofoklis, 2017, 194‒195]. See more in [Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, London: Orion Books, 1993; Antony Polonsky, Žydai Lietuvoje, Lenkijoje ir Rusijoje, Vilnius: Versus aureus, 2015].

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