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Pre-State Israel: Palestine During World War I

(1914 - 1922)

On the eve of World War I, the anticipated break-up of the enfeebled Ottoman Empire raised hopes among both Zionists and Arab nationalists. The Zionists hoped to attain support from one of the Great Powers for increased Jewish immigration and eventual sovereignty in Palestine, whereas the Arab nationalists wanted an independent Arab state covering all the Ottoman Arab domains. From a purely demographic standpoint, the Zionist argument was not very strong — in 1914 they comprised only 12 percent of the total population of Palestine. The nationalist ideal, however, was weak among the Arabs, and even among articulate Arabs competing visions of Arab nationalism — Islamic, pan-Arab, and statism — inhibited coordinated efforts to achieve independence.

A major asset to Zionism was that its chief spokesman, Chaim Weizmann, was an astute statesman and a scientist widely respected in Britain and he was well versed in European diplomacy. Weizmann understood better than the Arab leaders at the time that the future map of the Middle East would be determined less by the desires of its inhabitants than by Great Power rivalries, European strategic thinking, and domestic British politics. Britain, in possession of the Suez Canal and playing a dominant role in India and Egypt, attached great strategic importance to the region. British Middle East policy, however, espoused conflicting objectives, and as a result London became involved in three distinct and contradictory negotiations concerning the fate of the region.

The earliest British discussions of the Middle East question revolved around Sharif Husayn ibn Ali, scion of the Hashemite family that claimed descent from the Prophet and acted as the traditional guardians of Islam's most holy sites of Mecca and Medina in the Arabian province of Hijaz. In February 1914, Amir Abdullah, son of Sharif Husayn, went to Cairo to visit Lord Kitchener, British agent and consul general in Egypt, where he inquired about the possibility of British support should his father stage a revolt against Turkey. Turkey and Germany were not yet formally allied, and Germany and Britain were not yet at war; Kitchener's reply was, therefore, noncommittal.

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Kitchener was recalled to London as secretary of state for war. By 1915, as British military fortunes in the Middle East deteriorated, Kitchener saw the usefulness of transferring the Islamic caliphate — the caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad, was the traditional leader of the Islamic world — to an Arab candidate indebted to Britain, and he energetically sought Arab support for the war against Turkey. In Cairo Sir Henry McMahon, the first British high commissioner in Egypt, conducted an extensive correspondence from July 1915 to January 1916 with Husayn, two of whose sons — Abdullah, later king of Jordan, and Faysal, later king of Syria (ejected by the French in 1920) and of Iraq (1921-33) — were to figure prominently in subsequent events.

In a letter to McMahon enclosed with a letter dated July 14, 1915, from Abdullah, Husayn specified an area for Arab independence under the "Sharifian Arab Government" consisting of the Arabian Peninsula (except Aden) and the Fertile Crescent of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. In his letter of October 24, 1915, to Husayn, McMahon, on behalf of the British government, declared British support for postwar Arab independence, subject to certain reservations and exclusions of territory not entirely Arab or concerning which Britain was not free "to act without detriment to the interests of her ally, France." The territories assessed by the British as not purely Arab included: "The districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo." As with the later Balfour Declaration, the exact meaning was not clear, although Arab spokesmen since then have usually maintained that Palestine was within the pledged area of independence. Although the Husayn- McMahon correspondence was not legally binding on either side, on June 5, 1916, Husayn launched the Arab Revolt against Turkey and in October declared himself "King of the Arabs."

While Husayn and McMahon corresponded over the fate of the Middle East, the British were conducting negotiations with the French over the same territory. Following the British military defeat at the Dardanelles in 1915, the Foreign Office sought a new offensive in the Middle East, which it thought could only be carried out by reassuring the French of Britain's intentions in the region. In February 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement (officially the "Asia Minor Agreement") was signed, which, contrary to the contents of the Husayn-McMahon correspondence, proposed to partition the Middle East into French and British zones of control and interest. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Palestine was to be administered by an international "condominium" of the British, French, and Russians (also signatories to the agreement).

The final British pledge, and the one that formally committed the British to the Zionist cause, was the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. Before the emergence of David Lloyd George as prime minister and Arthur James Balfour as foreign secretary in December 1916, the Liberal Herbert Asquith government had viewed a Jewish entity in Palestine as detrimental to British strategic aims in the Middle East. Lloyd George and his Tory supporters, however, saw British control over Palestine as much more attractive than the proposed British-French condominium. Since the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Palestine had taken on increased strategic importance because of its proximity to the Suez Canal, where the British garrison had reached 300,000 men, and because of a planned British attack on Ottoman Syria originating from Egypt. Lloyd George was determined, as early as March 1917, that Palestine should become British and that he would rely on its conquest by British troops to obtain the abrogation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

In the new British strategic thinking, the Zionists appeared as a potential ally capable of safeguarding British imperial interests in the region. Furthermore, as British war prospects dimmed throughout 1917, the War Cabinet calculated that supporting a Jewish entity in Palestine would mobilize America's influential Jewish community to support United States intervention in the war and sway the large number of Jewish Bolsheviks who participated in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution to keep Russia in the war. Fears were also voiced in the Foreign Office that if Britain did not come out in favor of a Jewish entity in Palestine the Germans would preempt them. Finally, both Lloyd George and Balfour were devout churchgoers who attached great religious significance to the proposed reinstatement of the Jews in their ancient homeland.

The negotiations for a Jewish entity were carried out by Weizmann, who greatly impressed Balfour and maintained important links with the British media. In support of the Zionist cause, his protracted and skillful negotiations with the Foreign Office were climaxed on November 2, 1917, by the letter from the foreign secretary to Lord Rothschild, which became known as the Balfour Declaration. This document declared the British government's "sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations," viewed with favor "the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People," and announced an intent to facilitate the achievement of this objective. The letter added the provision of "it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

The Balfour Declaration radically changed the status of the Zionist movement. It promised support from a major world power and gave the Zionists international recognition. Zionism was transformed by the British pledge from a quixotic dream into a legitimate and achievable undertaking. For these reasons, the Balfour Declaration was widely criticized throughout the Arab world, and especially in Palestine, as contrary to the spirit of British pledges contained in the Husayn-McMahon correspondence. The wording of the document itself, although painstakingly devised, was interpreted differently by different people, according to their interests. Ultimately, it was found to contain two incompatible undertakings: establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jews and preservation of the rights of existing non-Jewish communities, i.e., the Arabs. The incompatibility sharpened over the succeeding years and became irreconcilable.

On December 9, 1917, five weeks after the Balfour Declaration, British troops led by General Sir Edmund Allenby took Jerusalem from the Turks; Turkish forces in Syria were subsequently defeated; an armistice was concluded with Turkey on October 31, 1918; and all of Palestine came under British military rule. British policy in the Arab lands of the now moribund Ottoman Empire was guided by a need to reduce military commitments, hold down expenditures, prevent a renewal of Turkish hegemony in the region, and safeguard Britain's strategic interest in the Suez Canal. The conflicting promises issued between 1915 and 1918 complicated the attainment of these objectives.

Between January 1919 and January 1920, the Allied Powers met in Paris to negotiate peace treaties with the Central Powers. At the conference, Amir Faysal, representing the Arabs, and Weizmann, representing the Zionists, presented their cases. Although Weizmann and Faysal reached a separate agreement on January 3, 1919, pledging the two parties to cordial cooperation, the latter wrote a proviso on the document in Arabic that his signature was tied to Allied war pledges regarding Arab independence. Since these pledges were not fulfilled to Arab satisfaction after the war, most Arab leaders and spokesmen have not considered the Faysal-Weizmann agreement as binding.

The conferees faced the nearly impossible task of finding a compromise between the generally accepted idea of self- determination, wartime promises, and plans for a division of the spoils. They ultimately decided upon a mandate system whose details were laid out at the San Remo Conference of April 1920. The terms of the British Mandate were approved by the League of Nations Council on July 24, 1922, although they were technically not official until September 29, 1923. The United States was not a member of the League of Nations, but a joint resolution of the United States Congress on June 30, 1922, endorsed the concept of the Jewish national home.

The Mandate's terms recognized the "historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine," called upon the mandatory power to "secure establishment of the Jewish National Home," and recognized "an appropriate Jewish agency" for advice and cooperation to that end. The WZO, which was specifically recognized as the appropriate vehicle, formally established the Jewish Agency in 1929. Jewish immigration was to be facilitated, while ensuring that the "rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced." English, Arabic, and Hebrew were all to be official languages. At the San Remo Conference, the French also were assured of a mandate over Syria. They drove Faysal out of Damascus in the summer; the British provided him with a throne in Iraq a year later. In March 1921, Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, established Abdullah as ruler of Transjordan under a separate British mandate.

To the WZO, which by 1921 had a worldwide membership of about 770,000, the recognition in the Mandate was seen as a welcome first step. Although not all Zionists and not all Jews were committed at that time to conversion of the Jewish national home into a separate political state, this conversion became firm Zionist policy during the next twenty-five years. The patterns developed during these years strongly influenced the State of Israel proclaimed in 1948.

Arab spokesmen, such as Husayn and his sons, opposed the Mandate's terms because the Covenant of the League of Nations had endorsed popular determination and thereby, they maintained, supported the cause of the Arab majority in Palestine. Further, the covenant specifically declared that all other obligations and understandings inconsistent with it were abrogated. Therefore, Arab argument held that both the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement were null and void. Arab leaders particularly objected to the Mandate's numerous references to the "Jewish community," whereas the Arab people, then constituting about 88 percent of the Palestinian population, were acknowledged only as "the other sections."

Prior to the Paris Peace Conference, Palestinian Arab nationalists had worked for a Greater Syria under Faysal. The British military occupation authority in Palestine, fearing an Arab rebellion, published an Anglo-French Joint Declaration, issued after the armistice with Turkey in November 1918, which called for self-determination for the indigenous people of the region. By the end of 1919, the British had withdrawn from Syria (exclusive of Palestine), but the French had not yet entered (except in Lebanon) and Faysal had not been explicitly repudiated by Britain. In March 1920, a General Syrian Congress meeting in Damascus elected Faysal king of a united Syria, which included Palestine. This raised the hope of the Palestinian Arab population that the Balfour Declaration would be rescinded, setting off a feverish series of demonstrations in Palestine in the spring of 1920. From April 4 to 8, Arab rioters attacked the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. Faysal's ouster by the French in the summer of 1920 led to further rioting in Jaffa (contemporary Yafo) as a large number of Palestinian Arabs who had been with Faysal returned to Palestine to fight against the establishment of a Jewish nation.

The end of Faysal's Greater Syria experiment and the application of the mandate system, which artificially carved up the Arab East into new nation-states, had a profound effect on the history of the region in general and Palestine in particular. The mandate system created an identity crisis among Arab nationalists that led to the growth of competing nationalisms: Arab versus Islamic versus the more parochial nationalisms of the newly created states. It also created a serious legitimacy problem for the new Arab elites, whose authority ultimately rested with their European benefactors. The combination of narrowly based leadership and the emergence of competing nationalisms stymied the Arab response to the Zionist challenge in Palestine.

To British authorities, burdened with heavy responsibilities and commitments after World War I, the objective of the Mandate administration was peaceful accommodation and development of Palestine by Arabs and Jews under British control. Sir Herbert Samuels, the first high commissioner of Palestine, was responsible for keeping some semblance of order between the two antagonistic communities. In pursuit of this goal, Samuels, a Jew, was guided by two contradictory principles: liberalism and Zionism. He called for open Jewish immigration and land acquisition, which enabled thousands of highly committed and well-trained socialist Zionists to enter Palestine between 1919 and 1923. The Third Aliyah, as it was called, made important contributions to the development of Jewish agriculture, especially collective farming. Samuels, however, also promised representative institutions, which, if they had emerged in the 1920s, would have had as their first objective the curtailment of Jewish immigration. According to the census of 1922, the Jews numbered only 84,000, or 11 percent of the population of Palestine. The Zionists, moreover, could not openly oppose the establishment of democratic structures, which was clearly in accordance with the Covenant of the League of Nations and the mandatory system.

The Arabs of Palestine, however, believing that participation in Mandate-sanctioned institutions would signify their acquiescence to the Mandate and thus to the Balfour Declaration, refused to participate. As a result, Samuels's proposals for a legislative council, an advisory council, and an Arab agency envisioned as similar to the Jewish Agency, were all rejected by the Arabs. After the collapse of the bid for representative institutions, any possibility of joint consultation between the two communities ended.

Source: Library of Congress