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Pre-State Israel: The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence

by Mitchell Bard

The central figure in the Arab nationalist movement at the time of World War I was Hussein ibn 'Ali, who was appointed by the Turkish Committee of Union and Progress to the position of Sharif of Mecca in 1908. As Sharif, Hussein was responsible for the custody of Islam's shrines in the Hejaz and, consequently, was recognized as one of the Muslims’ spiritual leaders.

In July 1915, Hussein sent a letter to Sir Henry McMahon, the High Commissioner for Egypt, informing him of the terms for Arab participation in the war against the Turks.

The letters between Hussein and MacMahon that followed outlined the areas that Britain was prepared to cede to the Arabs. The Hussein-McMahon correspondence conspicuously fails to mention Palestine. The British argued the omission had been intentional, thereby justifying their refusal to grant the Arabs independence in Palestine after the war.1 MacMahon explained:

I feel it my duty to state, and I do so definitely and emphatically, that it was not intended by me in giving this pledge to King Hussein to include Palestine in the area in which Arab independence was promised. I also had every reason to believe at the time that the fact that Palestine was not included in my pledge was well understood by King Hussein.2

MacMahon Letter

Nevertheless, the Arabs held then, as now, that the letters constituted a promise of independence for the Arabs.

Text of Hussein-McMahon Letters

Sources: 1George Kirk, A Short History of the Middle East, (NY: Frederick Praeger Publishers, 1964), p. 314.
2London Times, (July 23, 1937).