Europeans in the Middle East Between World Wars I and II

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Iraq and Syria area divided by the 1916 Sykes-Picot deal with area under direct French control in dark blue; French influence in light blue; direct British control in dark pink; British influence in light pink; and Palestine in purple, an international zone

With the Middle East carved up between them, Britain and France ruled their separate “spheres influence” without really challenging one another. For the most part, the Europeans were able to suppress opposition within the countries they ruled.

Both the British and French increased trade in the Middle East and North Africa, used raw material from the region to feed industries back home, and improved infrastructure by building roads, railways and electricity plants and improving irrigation projects. Distances across the desert that once took weeks to cover took days. Schools were built that offered a European-style education. Some were built by the colonizers, other by Christian missionaries.

The population of the Middle East grew dramatically under European rule, primarily due to improvements in health and agriculture. There was also waves of immigrations of Europeans to North Africa and to a lesser extent the Middle East and waves of emigration out of the region, mostly Syrians and Lebanese to west Africa and Latin America, Egyptians to Britain and Algerians to France.

The local elite consisted primarily of landowners who supplied raw materials to the Europeans and people who had received a European style education. Few Europeans knew Arabic and there was relatively little social mixing and intermarriage.

Cinemas, nightclubs, radio stations and newspapers opened up. Foreign tourists arrived in increasing numbers. Local artists became influenced by European styles. Arab artistic styles began spreading around the globe. A popular music scene developed. The rigors of Islam were relaxed. Women gained more freedoms Young men were sent to European universities to study. They brought back ideas of democracy and civil liberties along with technical and scientific knowledge.

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Islamic Civilization ; Muslim Heritage ; Brief history of Islam ; Chronological history of Islam

British Rule After World War I

British in Iraq with howitzers in 1932

Britain’s primary strategic interests in the Middle East were the Suez Canal, protection of its sea routes to India, cotton in Egypt and oil in Iran, Arabia and the Persian Gulf but the war-ravaged nation did not have the resources to devote to ensure control in he Middle East. At one point a British force of a million men was positioned in the Middle East. As the army demobilized after World War I it became impossible to keep that many soldiers there.

As the soldiers left, the British had more difficulty maintaining control over the region. Riots broke out in Egypt; Arabs fought with Jews in Palestine; tribes clashed in present-day Iraq; Ibn Saud defeated the British ally Hussein; and the Turks rebelled against the Allied-imposed treaty.

By 1920, British foreign policy in the Middle East was under attack. One London Times editorial read: "How much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavor to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration, which they never asked for and do not want?"

British Rule in Iraq

In 1920, after World War I, Britain secured a League of Nations mandate over Iraq. The primary purpose of British rule was to maintain control over Iraq’s oil fields. Unlike like Egypt and North Africa, Iraq didn’t have a very large foreign population. The explorer and writer Gertrude Bell helped run Iraq for Britain.

Britain governed Iraq through a puppet Sunni monarchy. It established a constitution and bicameral legislature and gave the monarchy a certain amount of legitimacy by appointing “suitable” tribal leaders that were selected in accordance with the regional custom of holding of “their” tribe.

King Faisal, king of Iraq from 1921 to 1933

Under British rule, as was the case with the Ottomans, Sunnis collaborated with the occupiers and dominated the central government while Shiites and Kurds were left out of the government but a had a large degree of independence and autonomy. They didn’t really become integrated into Iraq until secular education was introduced throughout the country in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

Shiites responded to calls by the clergy to launch a jihad against the British. The British crushed them and reaffirmed their second class status. In a letter to her father Gertrude Bell wrote: “[The extremists] have adopted a line difficult in itself to combat, the union of the Shiah and Sunni, the unity of Islam. And they are running it for all it’s worth...There’s a lot of semi-religious semi-political preaching...and the underlying thought is out with the infidel. My belief is that the weightier people are against it—I know some of them are bitterly disgusted—but its very difficult to stand out against the Islamic cry and the longer it goes on the more difficult it gets.”

The situation led to the 1920 revolution, a mostly Shiite uprising against British troops. The revolt took three months to put down and took the lives if 500 British and as many as 10,000 Iraqis. After the 1920 revolt the British changed their strategy in Iraq. They abandoned plans of nation-building and sought ways to quickly transfer power to trustworthy elites.

French Rule After World War I

France’s primary strategic interest in the Middle East were oil, minerals and raw materials in the Maghreb, and land and sea routes to sub-Sahara Africa. Navy bases were set up in Casablanca, Bizerta and Mer el-Kebri, and military bases were set up throughout the Maghreb. Syria and Lebanon were of lesser importance. French was there as a balance to the British presence there and to have a presence near the oil-rich regions of the Middle East (much of the oil at that time came from Iraq).

In the Maghreb, the French initially only controlled the coastal areas. They moved inland by making deals with tribal leaders who governed the areas in way that was not unlike their “indirect rule” methods used in sub-Sahara Africa. The French ruled Syria under a League of Nations mandate until they were forced out in 1948. To maintain power, the French divided ethnic groups and encouraged rivalries.

In colonial days Syria was regarded as the cotton farm of France that same way that Egypt was the cotton farm of Britain. Today cotton is second only to oil as a major revenue earner there. Some upper and middle class Syrians loved French culture. The Syrian-American write Robert Sole wrote that some “adored French without having a drop of French blood in their veins, just as they knew Paris by heart without ever having set foot there.”

The French had trouble ruling the Syrian-Lebanese mandate. In 1925, problems over French administration in the Druze area led to a major revolt that spread across the country. The French had difficulty it putting down. Damascus was bombed. Many Syrians regard this uprising as Syria’s first war of independence.

Middle East and North Africa in between World Wars I and II with indepedent countries in yellow, French or French-influenced in green and British or British-influenced in reddish orange

Syria After World War I

The period from the outbreak of World War I in 1914 to the granting of France's mandate over Syria by the League of Nations in 1922 was marked by a complicated sequence of events and power politics during which Syrians achieved a brief moment of independence. Syrian intellectuals, many of them graduates of European and European- or American-run universities, were urging the study of Arab history, literature, and language. Also, groups of Syrians publicly demanded decentralization of Ottoman administration and administrative reform. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Syria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987 *]

As Ottoman governors such as Jamal Pasha suppressed them, Syrians went underground and demanded complete Arab independence. One of the first secret groups to form was Al Jamiyyah al Arabiyah al Fatat (the Young Arab Society, known as Al Fatat, not to be confused with the contemporary Al Fatah, or Fatah, of the Palestine Liberation Organization — PLO), of which Prince Faysal, son of Sharif Husayn of Mecca, was a member. Another group was Al Ahd (the Covenant), a secret association of Arab army officers. *

Following the outbreak of World War I, Jamal Pasha determined to tighten his control over Syria. Attacking dissidents ruthlessly, he arrested Al Fatat members. Twenty-one Arabs were hanged in the city squares of Damascus and Beirut on the morning of May 6, 1915. The event is commemorated as Martyrs' Day, a national holiday in Syria and Lebanon.*

Syria’s Brief Period of Independence

Syria was briefly independent from the end of World War I in 1918 to 1920 when the Middle East was divide dup among the European powers. The period between the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the granting of France’s mandate over Syria by the League of Nations in 1922 was marked by a complicated sequence of events during which Syrians achieved a brief period of independence (1919–20). [Source: Library of Congress, April 2005**]

Events leading to Syria's momentary independence began in the Arabian Peninsula. The British — anxious for Arab support against the Ottomans in the war and desiring to strengthen their position vis-a-vis the French in the determination of the Middle East's future — asked Sharif Husayn, leader of the Hashimite family and an Ottoman appointee over the Hijaz, to lead the Arabs in revolt. In return the British gave certain assurances, which Husayn interpreted as an endorsement of his eventual kingship of the Arab world. From the Arab nationalists in Damascus came pleas for the Hashimites to assume leadership. Husayn accepted, and on June 5, 1916, the Hijazi tribesmen, led by Husayn's sons and later advised by such British officers as T.E. Lawrence, rose against the Turks. In October 1918, Faysal entered Damascus as a popular hero. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Syria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987 *]

French Mandate of Syria

Faysal, as military governor, assumed immediate control of all Syria except for the areas along the Mediterranean coast where French troops were garrisoned. In July 1919, he convened the General Syrian Congress, which declared Syria sovereign and free. In March 1920, the congress proclaimed Faysal king of Syria.*

Faysal and his Syrian supporters began reconstructing Syria. They declared Arabic the official language and proceeded to have school texts translated from Turkish. They reopened schools and started new ones, including the Faculty of Law at the Syrian University and the Arab Academy in Damascus. Also, Faysal appointed a committee to begin drawing up a constitution.*

In the areas still held by the French, Syrians continued to revolt. In the Jabal an Nusayriyah around Latakia in the northwest, there was an uprising against French troops in May 1919. Along the Turkish border, the nationalist leader Ibrahim Hannanu incited another rebellion in July 1919. The French defeated these attempts but not before Hannanu and Faysal had acquired permanent places in Syrian history as heroes.*

Failure to Achieve Arab Rule in Syria and Elsewhere

Three forces were at work against Arab nationalism: Britain’s interest in keeping eastern Mesopotamia under its control in order to counter Russian influence and to protect British oil interests; the Jewish interest in Palestine; and France’s determination to remain a power in the Middle East. Ultimately, Syria and Lebanon were placed under French influence, and Transjordan and Iraq, under British mandate. The termination of Syria’s brief experience with independence left a lasting bitterness against the West and a deep-seated determination to reunite Arabs in one state. This quest was the primary basis for modern Arab nationalism. [Source: Library of Congress, April 2005**]

Although Britain had promised to recognize "an independent Arab State or a Confederation of Arab States" in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 16, 1916, (not published until later-see below), in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 it had also promised Zionists a "national home" in Palestine. The two promises were in direct conflict. The third force was France's determination to remain a power in the Middle East. Earlier in the war, the French, British, Italians, and Russians had met secretly to decide the fate of Arab lands. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks published secret diplomatic documents, among them the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In this agreement, signed only six months after the British had vaguely promised Husayn an Arab kingdom, Britain and France agreed to give the French paramount influence in what became Syria and Lebanon; the British were to have predominance in what became Transjordan and Iraq.*

flag of the French Mandate of Syria (1920)

At the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, Woodrow Wilson asked that the Arab claims to independence be given consideration, and Faysal was invited to present the Arab cause. His pleas were unavailing, as was a report recommending Syrian independence under Faysal or a United States mandate over the country. Disappointed by his failure at Versailles, Faysal returned to Damascus and declared again that Syria was nevertheless free and independent.*

France and Britain refused to recognize Syria's independence, and the Supreme Allied Council, meeting in San Remo, Italy, in April 1920, partitioned the Arab world into mandates as prearranged by the earlier Sykes-Picot Agreement. Syria became a French mandate, and French soldiers began marching from Beirut to Damascus. Arab resistance was crushed, and on July 25, 1920, the French took Damascus. Faysal fled to Europe and did not return to the Middle East until the British made him king of Iraq in 1921. Faysal's brother Abdullah was recognized by the British as the amir of the region that became known as Transjordan. The boundaries of these states were thus drawn unilaterally by the European allies after World War I. Syria had experienced its brief moment of independence (1919-20), the loss of which Syrians blamed on France and Britain. These events left a lasting bitterness against the West and a deep-seated determination to reunite Arabs into one state. This was the primary basis for modern Arab nationalism and the central ideological concept of future pan-Arab parties, such as the Baath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party and the Arab National Movement. Aspects of the ideology also were evolved in the 1950s and 1960s by Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt.*

French Take Over Syria and Lebanon After World War I

The French were given Syria, which at that time included Lebanon. The period of French Mandate brought nearly every feature of Syrian life under French control. This oppressive atmosphere mobilized educated wealthy Muslims against the French. Among their grievances were the suppression of newspapers, political activity, and civil rights; the division of Greater Syria into multiple political units; and French reluctance to frame a constitution for Syria that would provide for eventual sovereignty, which the League of Nations had mandated. Only in the wake of a widespread revolt instigated by the Druze minority in 1925 did the French military government begin to move toward Syrian autonomy. Despite French opposition, the Soviet Union and the United States granted Syria and Lebanon recognition as sovereign states in 1944, with British recognition following a year later. These Allied nations pressured France to leave Syria, but it was not until a United Nations resolution in February 1946 ordering France to evacuate that Syrians finally attained sovereignty. By April 15, 1946, all French troops had left Syrian soil. [Source: Library of Congress, April 2005]

the French army on the occupied Syrian coast in 1920

French-British rivalry in the Middle East continued after the two countries had divided the area into spheres of influence at San Remo. In their mandate, the French sought to increase their strength by supporting and separating religious minorities and thereby weakening the Arab nationalist movement. France originally planned to establish three sectarian states: an Alawi state in the north, a Sunni Muslim state at the center, and a Druze state in the south. The three were eventually to be incorporated into a federal Syria. France did create a Christian state in the area of Mount Lebanon. The Sunni Muslim state never materialized. Instead, in 1926 the French, working with Maronite leaders, expanded the original boundaries of the Christian state to create Lebanon. To the east the valley of the Biqa, predominantly populated by Muslims, was added; to the west the Christian state was expanded to the coast and incorporated the cities of Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon, and Tyre. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Syria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987 *]

The rest of Syria was divided into five semiautonomous areas- -the Jabal Druze, Aleppo, Latakia, Damascus, and Alexandretta (modern Iskenderun)--which accentuated religious differences and cultivated regional, as opposed to national pan-Arab, sentiment. The Druzes were given administration of the Jabal Druze, the area of their greatest concentration. The northern coastal region and the Jabal an Nusayriyah (where there was a concentration of Alawis, Syria's largest religious minority) were united in the state of Latakia (present-day Al Ladhiqiyah Province). North of Latakia, the district of Alexandretta (the present-day Turkish province of Hatay), home of some Turks, had a separate government. In the area to the south, in Palestine, European Jews were promised a Jewish homeland. Opposition by nationalistic Arabs to the many divisions proved fruitless, and Arab nationalists became isolated in Damascus.*

French Rule in Syria and Lebanon

French rule was oppressive. The franc became the base of the economy, and currency management was in the hands of French bankers concerned with French, rather than Syrian, shareholders and interests. The French language became compulsory in schools, and pupils were required to sing the "Marseillaise." Colonial administrators attempted to apply techniques of administration learned in North Africa to the more sophisticated Arabs of Syria. Nearly every feature of Syrian life came under French control. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Syria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987 *]

Krak des Chevaliers Crusader castle in Syria in the 1930s

The Syrians were an embittered, disillusioned people whose leaders kept them in ferment. Shaykh Salih ibn Ali led the Alawis in intermittent revolt, Shaykh Ismail Harir rebelled in the Hawran, and in the Jabal Druze, Sultan Pasha al Atrash, kinsman of the paramount chief of the Druzes, led continual resistance, most notably in 1925, as did Mulhim Qasim in the mountains around Baalbek. The revolts, however, were not necessarily expressions of desire for unified Syrian independence. They were uprisings by individual groups--Alawis, Druzes, and beduins--against foreign interference, comparable to those earlier fomented against the Ottomans.*

In Damascus Arab nationalism was led by educated, wealthy Muslims who had earlier supported Faysal. Their grievances against the French were many, but chief among them were French suppression of newspapers, political activity, and civil rights and the division of Greater Syria into several political units. They also objected to French reluctance to frame a constitution for Syria that would provide for the eventual sovereignty that the League of Nations mandate had ordered. When the Iraqis gained an elected assembly from the British in March 1924, Syrian Arabs became even more distressed. On February 9, 1925, as a placating move, the French permitted the nationalists to form the People's Party. Led by Faris al Khuri, they demanded French recognition of eventual Syrian independence, unity of the country, more stress on education, and the granting of civil liberties.*

The most immediate issue was Syrian unity, since France had divided the country into six parts. In 1925 the Aleppo and Damascus provinces were joined, and in 1926 Lebanon became an independent republic under French control. The League of Nations in its session in Rome in February to March 1926 stated: "The Commission thinks it beyond doubt that these oscillations in matters so calculated to encourage the controversies inspired by the rivalries of races, clans and religions, which are so keen in this country, to arouse all kinds of ambitions and to jeopardize serious moral and material interests, have maintained a condition of instability and unrest in the mandated territory." *

Druze Revolt in Syria and Its Impact

Druze rebel al-Atrash

Devastating proof of the miscalculations of the French burst into the open with the 1925 Druze revolt. The Druzes had many complaints, but chief among them was the foreign intervention in Druze affairs. The Ottomans had never successfully subdued these mountain people; although split among themselves, they were united in their opposition to foreign rule. Led by Sultan Pasha al Atrash, Druzes attacked and captured Salkhad on July 20, 1925, and on August 2 they took the Druze capital, As Suwayda. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Syria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987 *]

News of the Druze rebellion spread throughout Syria and ignited revolts in Aleppo and Damascus among Syrian nationalists, who pleaded with Atrash to attack the Syrian capital. In October the Druzes invaded the Damascus region; nationalist leaders led their own demonstrations; and the French began systematic bombardment of the city, resulting in the death of 5,000 Syrians. The rebellion collapsed by the end of the year, and reluctant order replaced open revolt.*

The return of order gave the French military government an opportunity to assist Syrians in self-government, an obligation demanded of France by the League of Nations.

Rise of the Syrian Nationalist Movement

In 1928 the French allowed the formation of the National Bloc (Al Kutlah al Wataniyah), composed of various nationalist groups centered in Damascus. The nationalist alliance was headed by Ibrahim Hannanu and Hashim al Atassi and included leading members of large landowning families. One of the most extreme groups in the National Bloc was the Istiqlal (Independence) Party, a descendant of the old Al Fatat secret society of which Shukri al Quwatly was a leading member. Elections of that year for a constituent assembly put the National Bloc in power, and Hannanu set out to write a constitution. It provided for the reunification of Syria and ignored the authority of the French. In 1930 the French imposed the constitution minus articles that would have given Syria unified self-government. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Syria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987 *]

Syrian nationalists

Syrian nationalists continued to assert that they at least should have a treaty with France setting forth French aims, since Britain and Iraq had signed such a treaty in 1922. Unrest after the death of the nationalist leader Hannanu at the end of 1935, followed by a general strike in 1936, brought new negotiations for such a treaty. Under Leon Blum's liberal-socialist government in France, the two countries worked out the Syrian-French Treaty of Alliance in 1936. The French parliament never ratified the treaty, yet a feeling of optimism prevailed in Syria as the first nationalist government came to power with Hashim al Atassi as president.*

During 1937 Syria's drive for independence seemed to be advancing under National Bloc leadership. France allowed the return of Jabal Druze and Latakia to the Syrian state and turned over many local government functions to the Syrian government. French administration during the previous years had given some advantages to the Syrians. It had built modern cities in Damascus and Aleppo and roads and schools throughout much of the country; and it had partially trained some Syrians as minor bureaucrats. French cultural influence spread in the schools, in the press, and even in the style of dress; social and economic conditions slowly improved.*

Syria and Its Neighbors Between World Wars I and II

Under the French, Syria became a refuge for persecuted groups from neighboring countries. Most of the Kurdish population arrived between 1924 and 1938, fleeing Kemalist rule in Turkey. The major immigration of Armenians occurred between 1925 and 1945 as a result of similar persecution. Assyrians, under attack in Iraq in 1933, settled in eastern Syria. [Source: Thomas Collelo, ed. Syria: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1987 *]

French in Druze territory in 1930

Although the country appeared to be on the verge of peace, true calm evaded Syria. Claims by Turkey to Alexandretta, Arab revolts in Palestine, an economic crisis caused by depreciation of the French franc, and lack of unity among Syrians served to undermine the stability of the Syrian government. The National Bloc was split by rivalries. Abdul Rahman Shahabandar, a leading nationalist, formed a rival organization in 1939 to compete for Syrian political leadership, but he was assassinated a year later. Separatist movements in the Jabal Druze found French support and antagonized the nationalists.*

During the course of the Syrian-French treaty discussions in 1936, Turkey had asked for reconsideration of the situation in Hatay--at that time the Syrian province of Alexandretta--which had a large Turkish minority and already had been given a special administrative system under the Franco-Turkish Agreement of Ankara (sometimes called the Franklin-Bouillon Agreement) in 1921. The case was submitted to the League of Nations, which in 1937 decided that Alexandretta should be a separate, self- governing political state. Direct negotiations between Turkey and France ended on July 13, 1939, with France agreeing to absorption of Alexandretta by Turkey. Disturbances broke out in Syria against France and the Syrian government, which Syrian nationalist leaders felt had not adequately defended their interests. Syrian President Atassi resigned, parliamentary institutions were abolished, and France governed an unruly Syria through the Council of Directors. Latakia and the Jabal Druze were again set up as separate units. The French government officially declared it would not submit the Syrian-French treaty to the French Chamber of Deputies for ratification.*

British, Jews, Zionism and the Balfour Declaration

The final British pledge, and the one that formally committed the British to the Zionist cause, was the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. Before the emergence of David Lloyd George as prime minister and Arthur James Balfour as foreign secretary in December 1916, the Liberal Herbert Asquith government had viewed a Jewish entity in Palestine as detrimental to British strategic aims in the Middle East. Lloyd George and his Tory supporters, however, saw British control over Palestine as much more attractive than the proposed British-French condominium. Since 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 a planned British attack on Ottoman Syria originating from Egypt. Lloyd George was determined, as early as March 1917, that Palestine should become British and that he would rely on its conquest by British troops to obtain the abrogation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.*

Arthur James Balfour, Britain's foreign secretary after World War I

In the new British strategic thinking, the Zionists appeared as a potential ally capable of safeguarding British imperial interests in the region. Furthermore, as British war prospects dimmed throughout 1917, the War Cabinet calculated that supporting a Jewish entity in Palestine would mobilize America's influential Jewish community to support United States intervention in the war and sway the large number of Jewish Bolsheviks who participated in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution to keep Russia in the war. Fears were also voiced in the Foreign Office that if Britain did not come out in favor of a Jewish entity in Palestine the Germans would preempt them. Finally, both Lloyd George and Balfour were devout churchgoers who attached great religious significance to the proposed reinstatement of the Jews in their ancient homeland.*

The negotiations for a Jewish entity were carried out by Weizmann, who greatly impressed Balfour and maintained important links with the British media. In support of the Zionist cause, his protracted and skillful negotiations with the Foreign Office were climaxed on November 2, 1917, by the letter from the foreign secretary to Lord Rothschild, which became known as the Balfour Declaration. This document declared the British government's "sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations," viewed with favor "the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People," and announced an intent to facilitate the achievement of this objective. The letter added the provision of "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."

Balfour Declaration

At the end of World War I, the British were convinced they needed Jewish support to defeat Germany and they began pledging their support for Zionism. The result was statement in November 1917 by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, which became known as the Balfour Declaration, in which Britain pledged its support for a Jewish homeland providing that the rights of the existing Palestinians were recognized.

Balfour Declaration in the Times, November 9, 1917

Balfour Declaration called for creation of a Jewish state as long as that did not interfere civil or religious rights of the inhabitants of the region. It read: "His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of that 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.”

The Balfour Declaration radically changed the status of the Zionist movement. It promised support from a major world power and gave the Zionists international recognition. Zionism was transformed by the British pledge 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 spirit of British pledges contained in the Husayn-McMahon correspondence. The wording of the document itself, although painstakingly devised, was interpreted differently by different people, according to their interests. 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, i.e., the Arabs. The incompatibility sharpened over the succeeding years and became irreconcilable. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Israel: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Zionists and many Jews regarded the Balfour Declaration as an endorsement for unrestricted Jewish immigration into Palestine. But that did not became the reality. Responding to concerns by the Arab population already in Palestine, a policy, shaped by Churchill and calling for modified Zionism, was implemented that set strict limits on the number of new Jewish immigrants. This policy continued through World War II.

British Capture Jerusalem and Events After the Balfour Declaration

On December 9, 1917, five weeks after the Balfour Declaration, British troops led by General Sir Edmund Allenby took Jerusalem from the Turks; Turkish forces in Syria were subsequently defeated; an armistice was concluded with Turkey on October 31, 1918; and all of Palestine came under British military rule. British policy in the Arab lands of the now moribund Ottoman Empire was guided by a need to reduce military commitments, hold down expenditures, prevent a renewal of Turkish hegemony in the region, and safeguard Britain's strategic interest in the Suez Canal. The conflicting promises issued between 1915 and 1918 complicated the attainment of these objectives.*

Surrender of Jerusalem in 1917

Between January 1919 and January 1920, the Allied Powers met in Paris to negotiate peace treaties with the Central Powers. At the conference, Amir Faysal, representing the Arabs, and Weizmann, representing the Zionists, presented their cases. Although Weizmann and Faysal reached a separate agreement on January 3, 1919, pledging the two parties to cordial cooperation, the latter wrote a proviso on the document in Arabic that his signature was tied to 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 Faysal-Weizmann agreement as binding. The conferees faced the nearly impossible task of finding a compromise between the generally accepted idea of self- determination, wartime promises, and plans for a division of the spoils. *

Prior to the Paris Peace Conference, Palestinian Arab nationalists had worked for a Greater Syria under Faysal. The British military occupation authority in Palestine, fearing an Arab rebellion, published an Anglo-French Joint Declaration, issued after the armistice with Turkey in November 1918, which called for self-determination for the indigenous people of the region. By the end of 1919, the British had withdrawn from Syria (exclusive of Palestine), but the French had not yet entered (except in Lebanon) and Faysal had not been explicitly repudiated by Britain. In March 1920, a General Syrian Congress meeting in Damascus elected Faysal king of a united Syria, which included Palestine. This raised the hope of the Palestinian Arab population that the Balfour Declaration would be rescinded, setting off a feverish series of demonstrations in Palestine in the spring of 1920. From April 4 to 8, Arab rioters attacked the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. Faysal's ouster by the French in the summer of 1920 led to further rioting in Jaffa (contemporary Yafo) as a large number of Palestinian Arabs who had been with Faysal returned to Palestine to fight against the establishment of a Jewish nation.*

British Mandate Over Palestine

In 1920, the British Palestine Mandate was recognized by the fledgling League of Nations and Palestine was designated as a “National Home” for the Jewish people. Palestine existed under British mandate from 1922 to 1948. In 1923, Palestine was split along the Jordan River into Palestine and Transjordan, which later became Jordan.

At the Paris Peace Conference, the Allied Powers ultimately decided upon a mandate system whose details were laid out at the San Remo Conference of April 1920. The terms of the British Mandate were approved by the League of Nations Council on July 24, 1922, although they were technically not official until September 29, 1923. The United States was not a member of the League of Nations, but a joint resolution of the United States Congress on June 30, 1922, endorsed the concept of the Jewish national home.*

The Mandate's terms recognized the "historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine," called upon the mandatory power to "secure establishment of the Jewish National Home," and recognized "an appropriate Jewish agency" for advice and cooperation to that end. The WZO, which was specifically recognized as the appropriate vehicle, formally established the Jewish Agency in 1929. Jewish immigration was to be facilitated, while ensuring that the "rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced." English, Arabic, and Hebrew were all to be official languages. At the San Remo Conference, the French also were assured of a mandate over Syria. They drove Faysal out of Damascus in the summer; the British provided him with a throne in Iraq a year later. In March 1921, Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, established Abdullah as ruler of Transjordan under a separate British mandate.*

To the WZO, which by 1921 had a worldwide membership of about 770,000, the recognition in the Mandate was seen as a welcome first step. Although not all Zionists and not all Jews were committed at that time to conversion of the Jewish national home into a separate political state, this conversion became firm Zionist policy during the next twenty-five years. The patterns developed during these years strongly influenced the State of Israel proclaimed in 1948.*

Arab spokesmen, such as Husayn and his sons, opposed the Mandate's terms because the Covenant of the League of Nations had endorsed popular determination and thereby, they maintained, supported the cause of the Arab majority in Palestine. Further, the covenant specifically declared that all other obligations and understandings inconsistent with it were abrogated. Therefore, Arab argument held that both the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement were null and void. Arab leaders particularly objected to the Mandate's numerous references to the "Jewish community," whereas the Arab people, then constituting about 88 percent of the Palestinian population, were acknowledged only as "the other sections."

Fall Out of the Balfour Declaration and the Failure of Greater Syria

The end of Faysal's Greater Syria experiment and the application of the mandate system, which artificially carved up the Arab East into new nation-states, had a profound effect on the history of the region in general and Palestine in particular. The mandate system created an identity crisis among Arab nationalists that led to the growth of competing nationalisms: Arab versus Islamic versus the more parochial nationalisms of the newly created states. It also created a serious legitimacy problem for the new Arab elites, whose authority ultimately rested with their European benefactors. The combination of narrowly based leadership and the emergence of competing nationalisms stymied the Arab response to the Zionist challenge in Palestine.*

To British authorities, burdened with heavy responsibilities and commitments after World War I, the objective of the Mandate administration was peaceful accommodation and development of Palestine by Arabs and Jews under British control. Sir Herbert Samuels, the first high commissioner of Palestine, was responsible for keeping some semblance of order between the two antagonistic communities. In pursuit of this goal, Samuels, a Jew, was guided by two contradictory principles: liberalism and Zionism. He called for open Jewish immigration and land acquisition, which enabled thousands of highly committed and well-trained socialist Zionists to enter Palestine between 1919 and 1923. The Third Aliyah, as it was called, made important contributions to the development of Jewish agriculture, especially collective farming. Samuels, however, also promised representative institutions, which, if they had emerged in the 1920s, would have had as their first objective the curtailment of Jewish immigration. According to the census of 1922, the Jews numbered only 84,000, or 11 percent of the population of Palestine. The Zionists, moreover, could not openly oppose the establishment of democratic structures, which was clearly in accordance with the Covenant of the League of Nations and the mandatory system.*

Jewish immigrants to Palestine in 1930

The Arabs of Palestine, however, believing that participation in Mandate-sanctioned institutions would signify their acquiescence to the Mandate and thus to the Balfour Declaration, refused to participate. As a result, Samuels's proposals for a legislative council, an advisory council, and an Arab agency envisioned as similar to the Jewish Agency, were all rejected by the Arabs. After the collapse of the bid for representative institutions, any possibility of joint consultation between the two communities ended.*

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except map between wars from Dartmouth College

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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