World War I

World War I

On the eve of World War I, the anticipated break-up of the enfeebled Ottoman Empire raised hopes among Arab nationalists. The Arab nationalists wanted an independent Arab state covering all the Ottoman Arab domains. The nationalist ideal, however, was not very unified; even among articulate Arabs, competing visions of Arab nationalism--Islamic, pan-Arab, and statist--inhibited coordinated efforts at independence.

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; as a result, London became involved in three distinct and contradictory negotiations concerning the fate of the region.

In February 1914, Abdullah visited Cairo, where he held talks with Lord Kitchener, the senior British official in Egypt. Abdullah inquired about the possibility of British support should his father raise a revolt against the Turks. Kitchener's reply was necessarily noncommittal because Britain then considered the Ottoman Empire a friendly power. War broke out in August, however, and by November the Ottoman Empire had aligned with Germany against Britain and its allies. Kitchener was by then British secretary of state for war and, in the changed circumstances, sought Arab support against the Turks. In Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, British high commissioner and Kitchener's successor in Egypt, carried on an extensive correspondence with Hussein.

In a letter to McMahon in July 1915, Hussein specified that the area under his independent "Sharifian Arab Government" should consist of the Arabian Peninsula (except Aden, a British colony), Palestine, Lebanon, Syria (including present-day Jordan), and Iraq. In October McMahon replied on behalf of the British government. McMahon 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 of the McMahon pledge was unclear, although Arab spokesmen have usually maintained that Palestine was within the area guaranteed independence as an Arab state. In June 1916, Hussein launched the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire and in October proclaimed himself "king of the Arabs," although the Allies recognized him only as king of the Hijaz, a title rejected by most peninsular Arabs. Britain provided supplies and money for the Arab forces led by Abdullah and Faisal. British military advisers also were detailed from Cairo to assist the Arab army that the brothers were organizing. Of these advisers, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was to become the best known.

While Hussein and McMahon corresponded over the fate of the Middle East, the British were conducting secret negotiations with the French and the Russians 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 Hussein-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, whereas Transjordan would come under British influence.

The final British pledge, and the one that formally committed Britain to the Zionist cause, was the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. The Balfour Declaration stated that Britain viewed with favor "the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People." After 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 the planned British attack from Egypt on Ottoman Syria. As early as March 1917, Lloyd George was determined that Palestine should become British and he thought that its conquest by British troops would abrogate the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The new British strategic thinking viewed the Zionists as a potential ally capable of safeguarding British imperial interests in the region.

The British pledge transformed Zionism 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 British pledges contained in the Hussein-MacMahon correspondence. The wording of the document itself, although painstakingly devised, was interpreted differently by different people. 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. The incompatibility of these two goals sharpened over the succeeding years and became irreconcilable.

In November 1917, the contents of the Sykes-Picot Agreement were revealed by the Bolshevik government in Russia. Arab consternation at the agreement was palliated by British and French reassurances that their commitments to the Arabs would be honored and by the fact that Allied military operations were progressing favorably. Hussein had driven the Turkish garrison out of Mecca in the opening weeks of the Arab Revolt. Faisal's forces captured Al Aqabah in July 1917, and the British expeditionary force under General Sir (later Field Marshal Viscount) Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem in December. Faisal accepted the military subordination of his army to overall British command, but for him the fighting was essentially a war of liberation in which Britain was actively cooperating with the Arabs. The British command, however, considered the Arab army an adjunct to the Allied offensive in Palestine, intended primarily to draw Turkish attention to the East Bank while Allenby mopped up resistance in Galilee and prepared for a strike at Damascus. In September 1918, the British army decisively defeated the Turks at Megiddo (in contemporary Israel), and an Arab force under Lawrence captured Daraa, thus opening the way for the advance into Syria. Faisal entered Damascus on October 2, and the Ottoman government consented to an armistice on October 31, bringing the war in that theater to a close.

Between January 1919 and January 1920, the Allied Powers met in Paris to negotiate peace treaties with the Central Powers. At the conference, Amir Faisal (representing the Arabs) and Chaim Weizmann (representing the Zionists) set forth their cases. Weizmann and Faisal reached a separate agreement on January 3, 1919, pledging the two parties to cordial cooperation; however, Faisal wrote a proviso on the document in Arabic that his signature depended upon 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 Faisal-Weizmann agreement as binding.

President Woodrow Wilson appointed an American panel, the King- Crane Commission, to investigate the disposition of Ottoman territories and the assigning of mandates. After extensive surveys in Palestine and Syria, the commission reported intense opposition to the Balfour Declaration among the Arab majority in Palestine and advised against permitting unlimited Jewish immigration or the creation of a separate Jewish state. The commission's report in August 1919 was not officially considered by the conference, however, and was not made public until 1922.

Mandate allocations making Britain the mandatory power for Palestine (including the East Bank and all of present-day Jordan) and Iraq, and making France the mandatory power for the area of Syria and Lebanon, were confirmed in April 1920 at a meeting of the Supreme Allied Council at San Remo, Italy. The terms of the Palestine Mandate reaffirmed the Balfour Declaration, called on the mandatory power to "secure establishment of the Jewish national home," and recognized "an appropriate Jewish agency" to advise and cooperate with British authorities toward that end. The Zionist Organization was specifically recognized as that agency. Hussein and his sons opposed the mandate's terms on the ground that Article 22 of the League of Nations Covenant adopted at Versailles had endorsed the Wilsonian principle of self-determination of peoples and thereby, they maintained, logically and necessarily supported the cause of the Arab majority in Palestine.

For the British government, pressed with heavy responsibilities and commitments after World War I, the objective of mandate administration was the peaceful development of Palestine by Arabs and Jews under British control. To Hussein, cooperation with the Zionists had meant no more than providing a refuge for Jews within his intended Arab kingdom. To Zionist leaders, the recognition in the mandate was simply a welcome step on the way to attainment of a separate Jewish national state. A conflict of interests between Arabs and Jews and between both sides and the British developed early in Palestine and continued thereafter at a rising tempo throughout the mandate period.

After the armistice, the Allies organized the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration to provide an interim government for Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. In July 1919, the General Syrian Congress convened in Damascus and called for Allied recognition of an independent Syria, including Palestine, with Faisal as its king. When no action was taken on the proposal, the congress in March 1920 unilaterally proclaimed Syria independent and confirmed Faisal as king. Iraqi representatives similarly announced their country's independence as a monarchy under Abdullah. The League of Nations Council rejected both pronouncements, and in April the San Remo Conference decided on enforcing the Allied mandates in the Middle East. French troops occupied Damascus in July, and Faisal was served with a French ultimatum to withdraw from Syria. He went into exile, but the next year was installed by the British as king of Iraq.

At the same time, Abdullah was organizing resistance against the French in Syria, arousing both French ire and British consternation. Assembling a motley force of about 2,000 tribesmen, he moved north from Mecca, halting in Amman in March 1920. In October the British high commissioner for Palestine called a meeting of East Bank shaykhs at As Salt to discuss the future of the region, whose security was threatened by the incursion of Wahhabi sectarians (adherents of a puritanical Muslim sect who stressed the unity of God) from Najd in the Arabian Peninsula. It became clear to the British that Abdullah, who remained in Amman, could be accepted as a ruler by the beduin tribes and in that way be dissuaded from involving himself in Syria.

In March 1921, Winston Churchill, then British colonial secretary, convened a high-level conference in Cairo to consider Middle East policy. As a result of these deliberations, Britain subdivided the Palestine Mandate along the Jordan River-Gulf of Aqaba line. The eastern portion--called Transjordan--was to have a separate Arab administration operating under the general supervision of the commissioner for Palestine, with Abdullah appointed as amir. At a follow-up meeting in Jerusalem with Churchill, High Commissioner Herbert Samuel, and Lawrence, Abdullah agreed to abandon his Syrian project in return for the amirate and a substantial British subsidy.

A British government memorandum in September 1922, approved by the League of Nations Council, specifically excluded Jewish settlement from the Transjordan area of the Palestine Mandate. The whole process was aimed at satisfying wartime pledges made to the Arabs and at carrying out British responsibilities under the mandate.

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