The Jewish kingdom, in one form or another, lasted for roughly four-hundred years, that is, from
around 1,000 B.C. to 586. Roman occupations followed. Jewish rebellions against Roman rule (66-73 A.D.) and (132-135 A.D.), in both cases, ended in defeat for the Jews. The Diaspora followed after
135 A.D.3 Thus, for nearly two thousand years, the Jewish people did not occupy their ancient “homeland.”
Thus, Muslim rule was dominant in Palestine for thirteen centuries, except for the period (1089-1187) when the European Crusaders captured Jerusalem.4 It should be noted that Palestine was not an “independent nation” under Muslim rule.
Further complicating matters, in 1517, the Ottoman Empire conquered the Egyptian Mamluks, who had ruled Syria for over one hundred and fifty years.5 The result was that the Arab Muslims (and Arab Christians) in Palestine were ruled by the Ottoman Turks for over four hundred years.
It might be pointed out that there were always some Jews in Palestine despite the fact that the last period of Jewish rule occurred 1,800 years earlier.
In the latter part of the 19 century, Western European incursions, most notably by the British and the French, into Ottoman territory increased rapidly.
For example, in 1875 the British bought half-interest in the Suez Canal. Six years later the British invaded Egypt to protect the canal, since it was the lifeline of the Empire to India.th Traditionally, the British had given support to the Ottoman Empire. One reason for this was that a stronger Ottoman Empire could act as a barrier to possible Russian penetration of the Dardanelles. In this way, Russia was blocked from Mediterranean Sea and thus could not able to menace British shipping to India with its fleet.6
World War I significantly impacted control over the Middle East. Initially, England, France, Czarist Russia, and Italy reached agreement on how to divide up the areas of control over the areas of the Ottoman Empire.7
For the Arabs in Palestine and Syria, however, much more important was the secret negotiations between the English and the French about how to treat Arabs in Palestine. The Sykes-Picot agreement gave Syria and Lebanon to France while the British would gain control over Jordan, Iraq (Baghdad to Basra), and Palestine.8 During the same time that the British-French negotiations were going on over the division of the Ottoman Empire, the British were also negotiating with Sharif Husayn of Mecca. Basically, the British wanted the Arabs under the authority of Husayn to “revolt” against the Ottoman Empire, and, in return, the British would then recognize the Hashemite Caliph in Mecca as well as protect and support Husayn’s claims to land and territory in greater Syria and Jordan.9
Henry McMahon, the British negotiator in the McMahon-Husayn correspondence, was careful to not get tied down to specific boundaries and to let Husayn know that their negotiations were also subject to the needs of their ally, France.10
Another key point that must be overlooked is the historic Arab contention that “independence” was offered to them if they helped overthrow the Ottoman Empire.
The second note does include the phrase independence but only within certain boundaries and also included numerous exceptions, as listed by the British.
Below is McMahon’s Second Note to Sharif Hasayn (October 24, 1915):
“The districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to
the west of the districts of Demascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo cannot
be said to be purely Arab, and must on that account be excepted from
the proposed delimitation.
Subject to that modification, and without prejudice to the treaties
concluded between us and certain Arab Chiefs, we accept that
As for the regions lying within the proposed frontiers, in which Great
Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally
France, I am authorized to give you the following pledges on behalf of
the Government of Great Britain, and to reply as follows to your note:
That subject to modifications stated above, Great Britain is prepared
to recognize and uphold the independence of the Arabs in all the regions
lying within the frontiers proposed by the Sharif of Mecca;
That Great Britain will guarantee the Holy Places against all external
aggression, and will recognize the obligation of preserving them from
That, when circumstances permit, Great Britain will help the Arabs
with her advice and assist them in the establishment of governments to
suit those diverse regions;
That it is understood that the Arabs have already decided to seek the
counsels and advice of Great Britain exclusively; and that such European
advisers and officials as may be needed to establish a sound system of
administration shall be British;
This note is very telling. While the word, “independence,” is mentioned in clause one, there are numerous references to Arabs seeking British advisers and officials to set up British “administration” (clause four). That is, British assistance is called for the establishment of Arab governments (clause three). Clearly, these Arab leaders or the Arab people are not calling for complete independence. Specific Arab leaders, Sharif Husayn, in this instance, is appears to be making a deal with the leading great power, Great Britain, to back his position of authority in the Middle East. Putting his two sons positions of authority in Jordan and Iraq (after a short stint in Syria) were also supported by the British. In addition, Clause 1 of the above note specifically mentions, “independence of the Arabs” and not independence of a particular Arab nation-state.
Various issues can be raised on these tangled agreements. For example, can the McMahon-Husayn correspondence binding under international law at that time? That is, can correspondence between parties be considered as creating a binding bilateral agreement? Furthermore, was Sharif Husayn the legitimate representative of the people in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine and/or Saudi Arabia? Also, since this unit were not independent states at that time, and since treaties and executive are normally viewed as binding upon “states,” does that reduce these agreements to “political moves” for advantage, outside the realm of international law?
Further, since the Arab people had been divided into sanjuks for administrative purposes under the Ottoman Empire, it is hard to ascertain who had a legitimate claim to represent the Arab people, if anyone. Husayn obviously recognized that he was not strong enough to rule Arab lands, without the help of a major power, nonetheless, he represented a prominent family/clan (Hashemites) that could trace their ancestry to the prophet Mohammed.
Traditional Western ideas of representation, democracy, legitimacy and international law appear not to be applicable to the essentially tribal and feudal-like state of affairs in the Arab Middle East at this time. Most of the people lived in a rural setting. Industrialization, especially on the Arab side, was very little or non-existent.
Under customary international law during World War I, acquisition of territory by
conquest was allowed. The Kellogg-Briand Treaty (1928) and the United Nations Charter (1945), both of which appear to legally outlaw acquisition of territory by force and occupation, did not apply in this time period.
Subsequent agreements, such as the League of Nations and its mandate system, appear will be more legally relevant than the McMahon-Hasayn correspondence.
It appears that most, if not all, of the Arab world in the Middle East at that time was too weak militarily to challenge a great power such as Great Britain or France.
The Second Note is full of “exceptions” so that British rule was paramount even in the areas of Arab “independence.” As noted above, British officials, advisers etc., are listed as needed to set up governments and help administer them. From this perspective, there was no real expectation of true independence for Syria, Iraq, Jordan or Palestine at the time. (The British Army did not even liberate these areas from the Ottoman Empire until 1917).
We can also look at one other earlier diplomatic interaction between the British and the Arabs. Lord Kitchener, Secretary of War in the British Cabinet, made a proclamation to Abdullah Husayn, second son of Sharif Husayn, in November of 1914. In the proclamation, Lord Kitchener used the phrase, “freedom of the Arabs,” which may not the same as creating an independent nation.11 One might accuse the British of using clever semantics to create an argument for saying that they did not grant or promise independence to the Arab people.
It appears that all sides in these negotiations were looking out for their own self-
interest with little concern for issues of international law. Kitchener clearly wanted Arab help against the Ottoman Empire. In return, the British promised to help and protect Sharif Husayn. Politics often makes strange bedfellows. Thus, both the Arabs and the British viewed the Ottoman Empire as the “enemy” and they entered into agreements to protect their interests in the Middle East.
In this connection, the interests of the Palestinian people were not a primary concern of either. The essentials of the McMahon-Husayn correspondence are about political boundaries; there was not a word about the Palestinians.
In addition to the “promises” made to Sharif Husayn, the British also made promises to the Jewish community. In the Balfour Declaration, the British government indicated would be in favor of establishing a “national home” for Jews in Palestine. The declaration also had a dependent clause that guaranteed that this document would not hurt the rights of the non-Jewish population in Palestine.
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine
of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use its best endeavors to
facilitate the achievement of this object, 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.”12
The Balfour Declaration in itself is a significant document but it is not considered a treaty with another nation or nations. It is only a statement of policy that a major world power saying what it will strive to accomplish. More important is the fact that the Balfour Declaration received general international sanction and support.
First, Article 22 of the Covenant of the League was adopted and ratified in January, 1920. Article 22 created the mandate system for certain colonies and territories lost by the losing side in World War I, especially the Ottoman Empire.13 The mandate for Palestine was awarded to the British on July 24, 1922 and the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the mandate.14 In addition, the Mandate
for Palestine included specific language promoting and supporting Jewish
immigration to Palestine. This duty was to be performed by the mandatory power,
“Article 6. The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and
positions of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate
Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in
co-operation with the Jewish Agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement
by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for
public purpose. …” 15
Thus, the British were not the only ones supporting Jewish immigration into Palestine. As it turned out, some of the Palestinians’ worst enemies are not necessarily Jews but prominent Arab landowners, leaders, and rulers. For example, Amir Faysal signed an agreement with Chaim Weizman that called for a large Jewish immigration into Palestine. Faysal had dealings with the British and had a strong interest in Syria and Palestine while Weizman was the long-time head of the World Zionist Organization.
The Faysal-Weizman Agreement (January 3, 1919), Article IV:
“All necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration
of Jews into Palestine on a large scale, and as quickly as possible to settle
Jewish immigrants upon the land through closer settlement and intensive
cultivation of the soil. In taking such measures the Arab peasant and tenant
farmers shall be assisted in forwarding their economic development.”16
The Faysal-Weizman agreement also had a provision for British arbitration for any
disputes relating to the agreement along with an escape clause for Faysal so as not to be bound by the agreement if the British government did not recognize Arab independence, as outlined in Faysal’s January 4, 1919 memorandum to the British Foreign Office.17
The results of all these political dealings included the setting up of the Hashemite
Kingdom of Transjordan. Article 25 of the Mandate for Palestine indicates the
mandatory power (Great Britain) would not control territory in Palestine east of the Jordan River.18 This was part of the British dealings with Sharif Husayn whereby his second son, Abdullah, would rule over Transjordan while the oldest son, Faysal, would rule over Syria, and then later, Iraq. At that time, both Iraq and Transjordan were heavily dependent on Great Britain, both economically and militarily. In this connection, the British mandate for Palestine was not approved by the League of Nations until July, 1922. 19 In both cases, the British maintained overall control of both Palestine and Iraq, since the British Army had been the Entente power that had liberated the Middle East from the Ottoman Empire.
The French mandate was over Syria and the French ran it like a colonial possession, even though, though the purpose of the mandate was to train and educate the Syrians to move toward self-government.
Jewish immigration to Palestine continued during the years of the British
Mandate. Jewish immigration was often affected by the world situation. From 1904 to 1914, many Russian Jews migrated, some, of which, were disillusioned about the failure of the 1905 revolt against Czarist Russia.
Later, the rise of Hitler to power in Germany, from 1933 on, stimulated additional Jewish migration to Palestine. Many of the leading figures in the history of the
modern state of Israel, including the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, were among those that had migrated.
Overall, the Jewish population of Palestine increased eightfold, during the British Mandate so that by 1939, three out of every ten residents of Palestine were Jewish.
While the Jewish population increased rapidly, the Arab population of Palestine was also increasing as well, due to a high Arab birth rate. Thus, both populations grew, in absolute terms, roughly by the same amount during the Mandate period.
Over the years the Arab leaders have refused to accept a number of partition plans for Palestine. In this connection, the United Nation’s decision to partition Palestine in November 1947 was not the first plan in this regard. The United Kingdom, as the mandatory power under the League of Nations created the Peel Commission investigate Palestine situation and also suggested a partition plan.
The Commission investigated the causes of the Arab Revolt (1936-1939) and issued its report in 1937. Under the plan, the Arab Palestinians would receive a majority of the land, though the Jews would get the most productive land along the coastal plain and in Galilee. These terms were more favorable for the Arabs, in terms of land, then what was proposed later. In addition, the Arab part of the partition would have been linked to the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan. The British, however, would remain to control Jerusalem and the holy sites and a corridor leading to the sea. Moderate Jewish elements accepted the partition while the Arab Higher Committee rejected it out of hand.
Smith (2001) points out:
“The commission published its findings in July 1937 (see Document 4.2) and
concluded that the Palestinian Mandate was not viable. Its terms were impossible
to sustain in themselves but especially in the face of the unyielding mutual
hostility found in the conflicting demands for statehood made by the Arabs and
the Jews. According to the stipulations of the mandate, Arab objections to
Jewish immigration and land purchases were unwarranted, but since Jewish
statehood could come about only by imposing it on a hostile Arab population,
it too was contrary to the mandate, which was supposed to guard Arab as well as
It was, in the end, a case of “right against right,” a situation that the Peel Report
believed could be resolved only through partition of Palestine into separate
independent Arab and Jewish states. Great Britain would remain as a mandatory
power in a zone including the holy places (see Map 4.1). The Peel Commission
awarded to the proposed Jewish state about 20 percent of Palestine, comprising
the northern region of the Galillee and the Jezreel Plain (Esdraelon) south of
Nazareth, and the coastal plain from the Lebanese border to the point south of
Jaffa, which itself would remain Arab. The Arabs were granted the remainder
of the area, which meant central Palestine from slightly below Nazareth, and
the Negev. The commission envisaged Arab Palestine being united with
Transjordan, presumably under the rule of Amir Abdullah. Jerusalem and Bethlahem
would be under British mandatory control, with access to the sea.”20
Thus, the Peel Commission report indicated that the mandate was unworkable and that the two cultures, Arab and Jewish, were so different economically, culturally, as well as in the level, type, and amount of educational training, that partition was the best solution. It must be noted that the Arabs would receive approximately 80% of Palestine, while constituting 70% of the total population. The Jews would get the fertile agricultural land along the coast while the Arabs would get all nearly all of the West Bank, Gaza, and the Negev. Nonetheless, the Arabs took up a stance in total opposition to the creation of a Jewish state, which was a forerunner of Arab attitudes to Israel for several generations.
Smith (2001) also indicates:
“Neighboring Arab governments joined the Arab Higher Committee in condemning
the proposals, and an Arab congress was held in Bludan, Syria, in September 1937
to call for united Arab resistance to world Jewry and its efforts to establish a state
The Arab backlash to the Peel Commission report and the looming war in Europe led to a 1939 British “White Paper.” The strategic importance of Palestine and possible friendly Arab states in the Middle East played a major role in the findings of the report. Great Britain wanted to support the Arabs, in part, so that it could keep its oil lifeline and its link to India open. With war looming, Great Britain attempted to secure its Middle East base. In this connection, the White Paper backtracked on promises made in the Balfour Declaration as well as those stipulated in the League of Nations mandate. That is, the White Paper now limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 75,000 over five years.22 Future Jewish immigration to Palestine, after the five-year period, was now effectively eliminated as the Arab population of Palestine was given veto power over Jewish immigration.23 The High Commissioner would also be able to prohibit Jewish land purchases.24 Thus, the whole political situation had rapidly been altered. The Arab community could see that by taking a hard-line regarding the Peel Commission report (and its recommendation for partition) it had gained in the long run, since the British had now acquiesced to their demands. In five years Jewish immigration would be a thing of the past.
With Jewish immigration put on hold, with the Arab veto, it looked like that the Jews would have to accept minority status under what would eventually become an Arab state. Therefore, the significance of Jewish land purchases in the Middle East, with the side effect of leaving some Arab peasants landless, without land to farm, would be reduced. Thus, the Arabs could look to the future, with increased confidence that with their growing numbers, they would be control much of the Middle East once again.
Circumstances did not work out the in the way that many Arab leaders had hoped for. First, the Arab opposition to the Jews was disorganized and frequently split by internal infighting. In addition, the Arab Higher Committee, formed during the Arab Revolt, had disbanded by 1939.25 Second, many of the Arab leaders had fled Palestine to escape the British in their crackdown on the Arab Revolt. Thus, many of the Arab leaders were now in exile.26 The leading Arab family in Jerusalem, the al-Husayni family, was not immune to these pressures. For example, the mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, had fled from Palestine in 1937 and was living in exile in Iraq. The British then banned him from Palestine, after he escaped. Third, some of the top Arab leaders in Palestine, took the side of German totalitarianism and openly backed the fascists. In this connection, the mufti had his picture taken with Hitler, and made anti-Semitic and anti-British radio broadcasts that were transmitted by the Germans into Palestine in 1941 and 1942.27 Fourth, while the mufti was siding with Nazi Germany, a number of Jewish soldiers enlisted in the British Army and gained valuable combat training, military organizational skills and weapons training in the process. Finally, world events, outside Arab control, helped undermine their efforts to prevent the rise of a Jewish state. The United States was beginning to ascend as a pre-eminent world power resulting in the relative decline Great Britain and the British Empire. This greatly affected Arab calculations, since as the 1939 White Paper was solely a British document. During and after WWII, the British were heavily dependent on American financial assistance. Thus, the United States would have a greater role in determining political outcomes in the Middle East. In addition, the estimated six million deaths of Jews in Europe, at the hands of the Nazis, appeared to create a moral obligation for the UN to find a homeland for the Jews. In this connection, the actions of Hajj Amin al-Husayni, especially his very negative remarks about Jews and his open support for Hitler, undercut Arab aspirations in general, and the Arab Palestinian leadership in particular.