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When Churchill Severed Transjordan From Palestine


The 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement envisioned the establishment of mandates for France (Lebanon and Syria) and Britain (Palestine and Iraq). As a reward for help in defeating the Ottomans, the son of Sharif Hussein of the Hashemite dynasty was installed by the British as the ruler of Syria. The French, however, expelled him in 1921 and the British made Faisal bin Hussein the king of Iraq the following year.

The Hashemites had earlier been expelled from the Hejaz, what is now Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis would fear for many years afterward they might try to return and expel the Wahhabis ruling the country.

According to Frank Jacobs, “Faisal bin Hussein was on his way to help his brother Abdullah in Syria when Winston Churchill implored him to renege, using the prospect of a crushing defeat by the French as stick, and the promise of Abdullah’s own dynasty as carrot.”

Winston Churchill said that “with the stroke of a pen one Sunday afternoon in Cairo” in 1921 he created the British mandate of Transjordan, now known as the Kingdom of Jordan. Apparently, having been drinking that day, the colonial secretary’s penmanship was wobbly, “allegedly producing a particularly erratic borderline.” The resulting zigzag that delineates the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia is sometimes referred to as “Winston’s Hiccup” or “Churchill’s Sneeze.”

“The British,” Jacobs notes, “saw Transjordan’s value mainly as a transit zone between Palestine and Iraq, but also as part of an air corridor (back when flights were relatively short and refuelings many) between Britain and India.” The location of the Eastern border between Transjordan and Iraq was also considered strategic with respect to the proposed construction of what became the Kirkuk–Haifa oil pipeline.

Transjordan, so-called because of its position on the east side of the Jordan River, was originally part of the British Mandate for Palestine created at the San Remo Conference in 1920. That mandate had recognized the Balfour Declaration, which envisioned that a Jewish national home would be created in all of Palestine.

A memo regarding Transjordan written on March 12, 1921, prior to the convening of the Middle East Conference held in Cairo, explains the British decision to alter the original mandate:

Distinction to be drawn between Palestine and Trans-Jordan under the Mandate. His Majesty’s Government are responsible under the terms of the Mandate for establishing in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people. They are also pledged by the assurances given to the Sherif of Mecca in 1915 to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in those portions of the (Turkish) vilayet of Damascus in which they are free to act without detriment to French interests. The western boundary of the Turkish vilayet of Damascus before the war was the River Jordan. Palestine and Trans-Jordan do not, therefore, stand upon quite the same footing. At the same time, the two areas are economically interdependent, and their development must be considered as a single problem. Further, His Majesty’s Government have been entrusted with the Mandate for “Palestine.” If they wish to assert their claim to Trans-Jordan and to avoid raising with other Powers the legal status of that area, they can only do so by proceeding upon the assumption that Trans-Jordan forms part of the area covered by the Palestine Mandate. In default of this assumption Trans-Jordan would be left, under article 132 of the Treaty of Sèvres, to the disposal of the principal Allied Powers. Some means must be found of giving effect in Trans-Jordan to the terms of the Mandate consistently with “recognition and support of the independence of the Arabs” (emphasis added).

On March 12, 1921, Churchill telegrammed the Colonial Office (paraphrased):

You will have gathered from private telegrams I am contemplating establishment of local administrations in Kurdistan and Trans-Jordania under authority of respective high commissioners on somewhat different lines from those to be established in Mesopotamia and Palestine. It has been questioned here whether or not these proposals will necessitate any special provisions being made in respective mandates. For example, in article 1 of Mesopotamia mandate framing of an organic law is provided for, and throughout mandate local authority is thenceforward referred to as Mesopotamian Government. As regards Palestine, Article 6 and 22 appear to present legal difficulties, as if my proposals are accepted certain of their provisions are in applicable to Trans-Jordania. Two high commissioners with which I have discussed question agree that it would be preferable in mandates themselves to make no reference at all to Kurdistan or Trans-Jordania. If it is absolutely necessary from a legal point of view that slight inconsistencies in our treatment of these areas should be authorized, they consider it would be better to specify areas affected without referring in detail to proposed difference in treatment. Please let me know without delay after consultation with legal advisors of Colonial Office and Foreign Office (1) whether any modification in terms of mandates is considered indispensable; (2) whether it would be possible to add to each month mandate a general clause leaving it to discretion of mandatory to interpret mandate in accordance with local conditions in specified areas.

The Colonial Office responded (paraphrased):

The following is from Shuckburgh. Your telegram of the 21st March No. YZ86. Mandates for Mesopotamia in Palestine in relation to Kurdistan and TransJordania. Informal consultation has taken place between Colonial Office legal advisor and assistant legal adviser to Foreign Office. On the assumption that the arrangements for Kurdistan sanctioned by cabinet in Foreign Office telegram No. 193 to Cairo stand, and that provision is made in some way and final political arrangements as regards Trans-Jordania for its inclusion within the boundaries of Palestine as eventually fixed, but under a form of administration different from that of Palestine, however undesirable it may be for His Majesty’s Government themselves to propose alterations of the mandates at this stage, they were inclined to view that when the “A” mandates come to be considered by the Council of the League it would be wise in this case to propose that the body the insertion in the Mesopotamian and Palestine mandates respectively of the following clauses:
  1. (To be inserted after article 15 of the Mesopotamian mandate):

“Nothing in this mandate shall prevent the mandatory from establishing such an autonomous region system of administration for the predominantly Kurdish areas in the northern portion of Mesopotamia as he may consider suitable.”

  1. (To be inserted after article 24 of the Palestine mandate):

“In in the territories lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine as ultimately determined, the mandatory shall be entitled to postpone or withhold application of such provisions of this mandate as he may consider inapplicable to the existing local conditions, and to make such provision for the administration of the territories as he may consider suitable to those conditions, provided no action shall be taken which is inconsistent with the provisions of articles 15, 16 and 18.” 

These proposals have been made in an official letter to the Foreign Office, but we shall not get a reply until after the Easter Holidays, as Lord Curzon is away. Meanwhile you may wish to discuss suggestions informally with Sir Herbert Samuel.

To create the kingdom for Abdullah, Churchill’s “stroke of the pen” severed Transjordan, roughly three-fourths of Palestine, from the original British mandate established in San Remo in 1920. Churchill and Abdullah subsequently agreed that Transjordan would be accepted into the mandatory area as an Arab country apart from Palestine and that it would not form part of the Jewish national home to be established west of the Jordan River. Abdullah was then appointed Emir of the Transjordania region in April 1921. Britain administered the part west of the Jordan River as Palestine, and the part east of the Jordan as Transjordan.

In August 1922, the British government presented a memorandum to the League of Nations stating that Transjordan would be excluded from all the provisions dealing with Jewish settlement, and this memorandum was approved by the League on August 12. This angered the Zionists because it reduced the area available for a future Jewish state, which they had expected to encompass all of Palestine; that is, both sides of the Jordan River.

Ironically, it was Lord Arthur Balfour, whose letter to Lord Walter Rothschild in 1917 had promised the Jews a national home in Palestine, who told the League on September 16, 1922, that Britain wished to modify the mandate for the purpose of withdrawing Transjordan from the area intended to provide a national home for the Jews west of the Jordan.

Minutes from discussion of Palestine during the meeting
of the League of Nations (September 16, 1922) - Click graphic to enlarge


Later, the Peel Commission, appointed by the British Government to investigate the cause of the 1936 Arab riots, wrote that at the time of the Balfour Declaration it was understood that the Jewish National Home was to be established in the whole of historic Palestine, including Transjordan.

On June 17, 1946, Transjordan became an independent nation.

When King Abdullah annexed the West Bank in 1948, the country was renamed Jordan.

Sources: Kingdom of Jordan;
Frank Jacobs, “Winston’s Hiccup,” New York Times, (March 6, 2012);
“Emirate of Transjordan,” Wikipedia;
Maurice Ostroff, “The 1967 map is less relevant to Israel's future borders than the 1920 map,” Jerusalem Post, (March 31, 2014).