For decades, the seemingly interminable strife between Palestinians and Israelis has destabilised the Middle East. Despite popular perceptions, however, that conflict was not borne from some ancestral feud dating back to the days of Abraham, but rather the geopolitical realities of the early 20th Century. For years, the British Empire attempted to placate the various groups in the (ironically named) Promised Land, by pledging everything to everyone. While this tactic enabled Britain to acquire Palestine and bought the Empire some time in power, it was a costly purchase that continues to haunt the region today.
Britain’s bizarre policy came about largely due to self-interest, driven by the exigencies of war. Once the terror of Christendom, the Ottoman Empire had, by the late 19th Century, come to be mocked as the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ on account of its imperial impotence; though they had controlled the Eastern Mediterranean for half a millennium, their state had shrunk over the last century to merely Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia and parts of Arabia. During this decline, the Young Turks, a cabal of military officers, had seized power and subsequently allied with the Kaiser’s Germany. Accordingly, when the First World War erupted, the Ottomans were brought into the struggle on the side of the Central Powers. On 2 November 1914, Russia declared war on the Turks, and was joined three days later by Britain and France.
At this time, both Britain and France had globe-spanning empires, and were ever eager to increase them. Accordingly, both hungrily eyed the Ottoman Empire – the only Central Power with substantial lands outside of Europe that might make future colonies. Russia too had been chipping away at the Sultan’s state for decades, and was keen to expand its influence in the Middle East. In May 1916, Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot met to discuss the spoils of war and geographically define Anglo-French ambitions in the region known to Europeans as the Promised Land.
Following its construction in 1869, the Suez Canal had become the artery of the British Empire, largely because it provided the quickest route to India. Accordingly, London was fixated on ensuring a protective buffer zone surrounding Suez, and had therefore established de facto control over Egypt. Now, Britain wished to acquire an additional buffer on the eastern side of Suez in Palestine. France also had interests in Ottoman lands; French capitalists had spent millions of francs in the years preceding the war funding the creation of railways, factories and mines in the Upper Levant. Paris was keen to protect their investments, as well as acquire valuable Syrian oil reserves.
With Britain having a stake in the southernmost regions and France laying claim to Syria, discussions therefore centred on how to split the lower Levant. Eventually, Sykes settled the matter by drawing a line between the ‘e’ in Acre and the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk, awarding Syria, Lebanon and Northern Iraq to France, whilst Britain acquired Transjordan and Southern Iraq. Palestine was to be ruled by an ‘international administration’ the nature of which was left undetermined. In this way, the promised land was split by a line in the sand – a line not determined by any geographical, ethnic or cultural fault, but by the labels on a map.
Yet the French were not the only party the British had promised that land to. On 14 November 1914, the religious leader Sheik-ul-Islam had declared jihad against the Allies on behalf of the Ottoman Empire. Conscious of the harm that an Islamic holy war could do its possessions in Egypt and India, the British government had tried to limit the impacts of such a jihad by striking a compromise with the highly influential Hussein Bim Ali, the Sharif of Mecca. From July 1915 to March 1916, the British High Commissioner to Egypt, Sir Henry MacMahon, had been corresponding by letter with Hussein. As the Sharif of Mecca (Islam’s holiest city), Hussein held substantial spiritual authority in the Muslim world, and was perceived to be the most likely candidate to head a unified Arab nation, if ever one emerged.
Through a combination of promises of support and threats that he would align with Germany, Hussein was able to coax McMahon into loosely promising recognition of such an independent Arab state. Yet the promised area of Arab independence infringed upon both the French and British spheres of influence proposed by Sykes-Picot. Furthermore, the idea of an Arab nation was – by definition – antithetical to the ideology of imperialism that both Britain and France then championed. This utterly contradictory policy can partially be explained by the fact that the correspondence was not regarded by the British government as a formal treaty, yet Hussein utterly believed McMahon’s words to be an official promise from His Majesty’s Government. He was to be sorely disappointed, for there was one other party Britain had offered the promised land too.
By this time, the United States was the wealthiest and industrially powerful state on the planet, but its President, Woodrow Wilson, had favoured neutrality in the First World War. Britain was desperate to acquire the US as an ally, but none of its overtures had met with success. Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, two prominent Jewish leaders in London, managed to convince the British government that Zionist interests aligned with its own, and that the furthering of such interests would tip American public opinion towards Britain. The British saw in this offer an opportunity to kill a small flock of birds with a single stone. Not only would backing Weizmann’s claims endear the British to America’s sizeable Jewish population, but it also offered Britain a Trojan horse with which to violate the Sykes-Picot agreement. By claiming to act on behalf of Zionist interests, Britain could deny the French much of their promised lands, acquire the region for themselves and avoid any accusations of land-grabbing in the process.
Thus, on 2 November 1917, the Balfour Declaration was published. The British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, wrote in a letter to Lionel Rothschild – a leading figure of the Anglo-Jewish community – that the British government was in favour of the (breathtakingly vaguely defined) “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Britain’s gambit had worked, and it now had a claim on the Promised Land in trust for the Zionist community. Palestine was now promised to four different groups; Britain, France, the Arabs and the Jews were all sure that, following the conclusion of the First World War, they would receive the region. The British could just keep these factions content as long as the extent of their double dealings remained unknown, but, twenty-four days after the Balfour Declaration, the Sykes-Picot agreement was publicised in the Manchester Guardian. Understandably, all groups were somewhat dismayed.
After the surrender of the Ottoman Empire, it came time to at last determine who would receive Palestine. In 1922, the region was awarded to Britain, albeit not as a colony but as a League of Nations mandate. The implicit idea was that being a mandate was a temporary status and that, eventually, there would one day exist an independent Palestinian state. Effectively, Britain was once again kicking the Middle Eastern can down the road. The crucial development, however, was that now she had to rule a land populated by two peoples that Britain’s senior general noted were “hating each other like hell.” London had acquired for itself a second Ireland. What followed was a desperate attempt to satisfy two groups whose interests were essentially diametrically opposed.
To satisfy the Zionists, the Balfour declaration was incorporated into the mandate for Palestine, committing the British to establishing a Jewish community in the region. While there was no mention of the 700,000 Arabs living in the land, there was an implicit assumption the governing power could not rule too harshly against a group that made up 90% of Palestine’s population. Throughout the 1920s, Britain managed to just about satisfy the two groups, though the perceived threat of Jewish immigration and land purchase triggered Arab riots in 1921 and 1929, both of which were suppressed.
From 1933, however, the situation became increasingly impossible to contain. The rise of Hitler led to a massive exodus from Europe, and many Jews sought refuge in the Holy Land. This immigration infuriated much of the Arab population, and so Britain attempted to limit the number of Jews entering Palestine. The situation became so complex that, when the Second World War came, there were Jewish and Arab factions supporting both colonial Britain and Nazi Germany. Many in Britain felt that the Nazi’s antisemitic atrocities meant the Empire had a moral obligation to offer concessions to its Jewish citizens, but again fears of an Arab uprising – prompted by a 1941 Iraq rebellion – meant Britain refused to relax its immigration laws, much to the annoyance of her eventual American ally.
While Britain final emerged victorious from the Second World War, it did so bankrupt and exhausted; the Empire simply lacked the energy and the means to counter the rise of Zionist terrorism, which was relentless in its attacks on British rule. Letter bombs were constantly sent to almost all the senior figures in Mandatory Palestine. On 22 July 1946, the King David Hotel was bombed, killing ninety-one. A year later, two British sergeants were abducted, murdered and had their bodies rigged with an explosive trap. When the British attempted to fortify their bases, trucks laden with explosives were driven into army officers’ messing halls. Every attempt to crack down on Zionist terrorism failed, and only invited further attacks. It didn’t take long for Britain to realise that the battle for Palestine had already been lost.
Britain eventually elected to leave Palestine, and tasked the newly formed UN with finding a way to satisfy all parties. By this point, the British had grown so weary of Palestine that they refused to admit UN agents into the country, on the grounds that soldiers would be needed to protect them. The final consequence of Britain’s complex history of imperial double dealings was revealed in 1948, when, following the mandate’s official expiration, conflict broke out between the newly declared states of Israel and Palestine. A legacy of false hope and broken promises had festered and inflamed what had already been a tense situation. By 1948, neither side had much interest in drawing any more lines in the sand than those drawn by blood. Arabs and Jews both began forcibly driving out the other from the lands they had been assigned, and, the day after David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the new state of Israel, formal war began. That war marked the beginning of a struggle that still continues to wreak havoc in the Promised Land to this day.
Barr, J., 2012. A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle That Shaped the Middle East. Simon & Schuster
Bunton, M., 2013. The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. Oxford University Press