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United Nations: I. The Beginnings Of The Palestine Issue
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Posted on December 17, 2001

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire

By the turn of the century, the "Eastern question" was a predominant concern of European diplomacy, as the Great Powers manoeuvred to establish control or spheres of influence over territories of the declining Ottoman Empire. "The dynamics of the Eastern question thus lay in Europe" 1/ and the issue finally was resolved by the defeat of Turkey in the First World War.

While the war was at its height and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire became clearly imminent, the Entente Powers already were negotiating over rival territorial ambitions. In 1916 negotiations between Britain, France and Russia, later also including Italy, led to the secret Sykes-Picot agreement on the allocation of Ottoman Arab territories to spheres of influence of the European Powers (Annex I). Since places sacred to three world religions were located there, an international régime was initially envisaged for Palestine which, however, eventually was to come under British control.

Although the European Powers sought to establish spheres of influence, they recognized that sovereignty would rest with the rulers and people of the Arab territories, and the Sykes-Picot agreement specified recognition of an "independent Arab State" or "confederation of Arab States". This reflected the recognition of regional realities, since the force of emergent Arab nationalism constituted a major challenge to the supra-national Ottoman Empire. Arab nationalism sought manifestation in the form of sovereign, independent national States on the European model. Great Britain's aims in the war linked with these Arab national aspirations and led to assurances of sovereign independence for the Arab peoples after the defeat of the Axis Powers.

Anglo-Arab understandings on Arab independence

These assurances appear in correspondence 2/ during 1915-1916 between Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, and Sherif Husain, Emir of Mecca, who held the special status of the Keeper of Islam's most holy cities. He thus acted as a representative of the Arab peoples, although not exercising formal political suzerainty over them all.

In the course of the protracted correspondence, the Sherif unequivocally demanded "independence of the Arab countries", specifying in detail the boundaries of the territories in question, which clearly included Palestine. McMahon confirmed that "Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca".

To assuage Arab apprehensions aroused by the revelation of the Sykes-Picot agreement by the Soviet Government after the 1917 revolution, and by certain conflicting statements of British policy (see section II ), further assurances followed concerning the future of Arab territories.

A special message (of 4 January 1918) from the British Government, carried personally by Commander David George Hogarth to Sherif Husain, stated that "the Entente Powers are determined that the Arab race shall be given full opportunity of once again forming a nation in the world ... So far as Palestine is concerned, we are determined that no people shall be subject to another". 3/

Six months after General Allenby's forces had occupied Jerusalem, another declaration, referring to "areas formerly under Ottoman dominion, occupied by the Allied Forces during the present war", announced "... the wish and desire of His Majesty's Government that the future government of these regions should be based upon the principle of the consent of the governed, and this policy has and will continue to have support of His Majesty's Government". 4/

A joint Anglo-French declaration (7 November 1918) was more exhaustive and specific, affecting both British and French spheres of interest (the term "Syria" still being considered to include Lebanon and Palestine):

"The object aimed at by France and Great Britain in prosecuting in the East the War let loose by the ambition of Germany is the complete and definite emancipation of the [Arab] peoples and the establishment of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the initiative and free choice of the indigenous populations.

"In order to carry out these intentions, France and Great Britain are at one in encouraging and assisting the establishment of the indigenous governments and administrations in Syria and Mesopotamia now liberated by the Allies, and in the territories the liberation of which they are engaged in securing, and recognizing these as soon as they are actually established." 5/

The Committee on the Husain-McMahon correspondence

While these British assurances of independence to the Arabs were in unequivocal terms, the British position, since the end of the war, had been that Palestine had been excluded, an assertion contested by Palestinian and Arab leaders.

During the Husain-McMahon correspondence, the British made a determined effort to exclude certain areas from the territories to achieve independence, on the grounds that "the interests of our ally, France, are involved". Sherif Husain reluctantly agreed to suspend, but not surrender, Arab claims for independence to that area, stating that "the eminent minister should be sure that, at the first opportunity after this war is finished, we shall ask you (from what we avert our eyes today) for what we now leave to France in Beirut and its coasts".

The area in question had been described by McMahon as "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo". This would appear to correspond to the coastal areas of present-day Syria and the northern part of Lebanon (map at Annex II), where French interests converge. Prima facie it does not appear to cover Palestine, a known, identifiable land with an ancient history, sacred to the three great monotheistic religions, and which, under the Ottomans, approximated to the independent sanjak of Jerusalem and the sanjaks of Acre and Balqa (map at Annex III).

In 1939, shortly after the Husain-McMahon papers were made public, a committee consisting of both British and Arab representatives was set up to consider this specific issue. Both sides reiterated their respective interpretations of the Husain-McMahon letters and were unable to reach an agreed view, but the British delegation conceded that the Arab

"... contentions relating to the meaning of the phrase 'portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Aleppo' have greater force than has appeared hitherto ... they agree that Palestine was included in the area claimed by the Sherif of Mecca in his letter of 14 July 1915, and that unless Palestine was excluded from that area later in the correspondence it must be regarded as having been included in the area which Great Britain was to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs. They maintain that on a proper construction of the correspondence Palestine was in fact excluded. But they agree that the language in which its exclusion was expressed was not so specific and unmistakable as it was thought to be at the time". 6/

Behind the diplomatic language there appears recognition that Palestine was not unequivocally excluded from the British pledges of independence. The report, referring to the Husain-McMahon papers as well as the British and Anglo-French declaration to the Arabs after the issue of the Balfour Declaration, concludes:

"In the opinion of the Committee it is, however, evident from these statements that His Majesty's Government were not free to dispose of Palestine without regard to the wishes and interests of the inhabitants of Palestine, and that these statements must all be taken into account in any attempt to estimate the responsibilities which - upon any interpretation of the correspondence - His Majesty's Government have incurred towards those inhabitants as a result of the correspondence". 7/

On 17 April 1974, The Times of London published excerpts from a SECRET memorandum prepared by the Political Intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office for the use of the British delegation to the Paris peace conference. The reference to Palestine is as follows:

"With regard to Palestine, His Majesty's Government are committed by Sir Henry McMahon's letter to the Sherif on October 24, 1915, to its inclusion in the boundaries of Arab independence ... but they have stated their policy regarding the Palestine Holy Place and Zionist colonization in their message to him of January 4, 1918."

An appendix to the memorandum notes:

"The whole of Palestine ... lies within the limits which His Majesty's Government have pledged themselves to Sherif Husain that they will recognize and uphold the independence of the Arabs."

Professor Arnold J. Toynbee, who dealt with the Palestine question as a member of the British Foreign Office at the time of the Peace Conference, wrote in 1968:

"... as I interpret the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, Palestine had not been excepted by the British Government from the area in which they had pledged themselves to King Hussein to recognize and support Arab independence. The Palestinian Arabs could therefore reasonably assume that Britain was pledged to prepare Palestine for becoming an independent Arab state." 8/

These acknowledgements that the British Government had not possessed the right "TO DISPOSE OF PALESTINE" appeared decades after the commitments to the Arabs not only had been infringed by the Sykes-Picot agreement but, in DISREGARD of the inherent rights and the wishes of the Palestinian people, the British Government had given Zionist leaders separate assurances regarding the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people in Palestine", an undertaking that sowed the seeds of prolonged conflict in Palestine.


1/ Hurewitz, J. C., Diplomacy in the Near and Middle East (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1956), vol. II, p. xvi.

2/ British Government, Correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon and the Sherif Hussein of Mecca, Parliamentary Papers - Cmd. 5957 (1939).

3/ Ibid., Report of a Committee on Correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon and the Sherif of Mecca, Parliamentary Papers - Cmd. 5974 (1939), p. 48.

4/ Ibid., p. 49.

5/ Ibid., pp. 50 and 51.

6/ Ibid., p. 11.

7/ Ibid., p. 11. A historical footnote to the Anglo-Arab understandings appeared in the "Feisal Documents", consisting of correspondence exchanges in 1919 between Sherif Husain's son and Weizmann. It has been asserted that this correpondence (in English, which was unknown to Feisal) invalidated the preceding understandings.

However, it is evident that this later correspondence was not official, and the opinion of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine is conclusive:

"The Feisal-Weizmann agreement did not acquire validity, since the condition attached (i.e. Arab independence) was not fulfilled at the time". United Nations document A/364, report of the Special Committee on Palestine to the General Assembly, 3 September 1947, p. 35).

The question of the validity of these documents has been examined by an authority who possesses the original of the document. See Jeffries, J. M. N.: Palestine: The Reality (London, Longmans Green, 1939), pp. 248-257.

8/ Robert John and Sami Hadawi, The Palestine Diary, vol. I (1914-1945), (New World Press, New York, 1970), p. xiv.

CLICK HERE for the official UN's version of this booklet.


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Posted by Erika G. on January 14, 2008 #27197

Thank you so much for this article on the Palestinians! ^^ I have been trying to find France's views on the matter for a while, and I have! =D Thank you again for helping with my research.