Due to Britain’s position as a major power, the country was able to reshape the Middle East and formulate agreements with several important cultures. However, some of the terms within these treaties were completely contradictory, creating dispute and controversy between parties. This very powerful mandate made many mistakes and errors in judgment that led to disastrous conflicts, such as providing assurances of things they weren’t able to fulfill and creating contradictory terms within official agreements. Britain was responsible for a great amount of problems in the Middle East during World War 1, but there were many other sources of instability with different origins and motives.
Two of the most controversial events in the Middle East were the McMahon-Hussein agreement and the Balfour declaration, due to the profound difference in their terms. Whilst the Balfour Declaration promised to provide a National Homeland for the Jewish people, the McMahon- Hussein pact stated that Arab nationals would recover land previously owned by the Turks. At first sight, these terms were completely opposite, and according to the Jewish and the Arabs, impossible to fulfill at once. However, the British claimed that the way in which the Arabs had interpreted the McMahon-Hussein agreement was mistaken because they believed Palestine was to be given to them, just as Britain argued that the map used to establish the terms excluded Palestine from land that had to be given back to the Arab people.
A minor phrase that stated that any land that was not purely Arab was to be excluded from the terms created a monumental disagreement when it came to this particular event. Hussein claimed Palestine had to be considered “purely Arab” as McMahon had a very different view. He believed the land in question was not of pure Arab nature because many other religious groups had established in Jerusalem under Turk rule, therefore eliminating the possibility of ultimate Arab presence in Palestine. Many Palestinians felt betrayed by the British government due to the use of inaccurate technicalities of language.
The main purpose of the agreement Britain decided to make with Palestinian Arabs was to gain protection against Ottoman forces and their increasing power. In order to achieve their goal, British officials in Cairo contacted Sharif Hussein and informed him that if they were to assist them against Ottomans, Britain would support future Arab independence. The Arabs had to create a revolt and refer to the Ottomans as their enemies, in order to support the British government further. On the 10th of June 1916, the Arabs did effectively create a large physical conflict in order to fulfill the terms established and to gain the support they required for their ideal independence. The Arab army was founded and organized by the British government, but led by Sharif Hussein’s sons.
Due to the amount of instability the Arab-British forces created in the region, the terms were now justified and Hussein demanded Britain to recognize Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and areas of the Arabian Peninsula as Arab countries. However, Syria and Lebanon were of French interest and therefore were discussed in the Sykes-Picot agreement that took place from 1915 to 1916. The United Kingdom recognized the freedom of the Arabs, creating not only a contradiction between the agreements made with France and Palestinians but a great dispute between the Jewish and Arabs, two religious groups that had been promised the same portion of land. As time passed, Britain started increasing the amount of conflict in the Middle East throughout grave contradictions and opposite statements.
The McMahon-Hussein agreement occurred approximately two years before the Balfour declaration, increasing the dimension of the mistake made by the British government. Just after they had promised to return Middle Eastern territories to the Arabs, the major power was responsible for providing a very concrete assurance of giving the Jewish a national homeland within Palestine. Arthur James Balfour was very clear and was able to state this throughout a letter he wrote to Lord Rothschild on November 2nd, 1917. The Balfour Declaration urged Lionel Walter Rothschild to inform the Zionist Federation of the proposition and was clear that His Majesty’s government would use all its power to provide a National Homeland as long as no rights were violated in the process, even if they did belong to exterior ethnic groups. As mentioned before, this declaration was said to be completely contradictory to the agreement made with Sharif Hussein according to Jewish interpretation. Jews believed they would receive the entire land of Palestine and would be able to make exclusive use of it, whereas the British argued they never promised the land in its whole and therefore were not breaking any promises or contradicting the terms made in previous agreements.
The Treaty of Sevres confirmed the promise made to the Jewish people in the 1917 Balfour Declaration and initiated a long-term problem between the both Palestinian Arabs and Jews. With this treaty, European Powers managed to solve their internal conflicts and successes by reestablishing the map of the region according to what was convenient at the moment, but didn’t really think of the long-term consequences of the new arrangement. By not taking Turkish interests into account, the treaty of Sevres was not of their liking and managed to create a larger sense of nationalism within the country, thus creating the war. The lack of precision presented in the three consecutive arrangements with the Arabs, French and Jewish created a great deal of controversy and instability in the Middle Eastern region.
Even though the British government was undoubtedly responsible for the majority of the disputes in the Middle East during WW1, there were some exterior factors that accumulated and created outrageous amounts of discrepancies. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that Britain acted the way it did due to the pressure put on it by the initiation of the Holy War, announced by the Ottomans. After four entire centuries of rule, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and therefore contributed to the incessant tensions between inhabitants of several countries. The mentioned empire was the world’s most influential Islamic power and was responsible for putting a stop to its neutrality towards the allies and declaring a Holy War against France, Russia and Great Britain. This war initiation not only put pressure on Britain, but also encouraged the government to find support against the Ottomans, hence the McMahon-Hussein agreement and its terms.
In retrospect, Britain was mostly responsible for the instability in the Middle East during the First World War but there were some factors and events having to do with the Ottoman war declaration that created tension and controversy. If the treaties made with the French, Arabs and Jews had been coherent and logical when put together; the problems in the Middle East wouldn’t have been so deeply catastrophic. To certain extent, there were some factors that put Britain in a very difficult position by threatening their empire and even though they were to blame for creating most of the conflicts during World War 1, they definitely weren’t responsible for starting the long sequence of instability.
If it hadn’t been for Britain’s lack of precision when presenting the terms, the long-term problem between Palestinian Arabs and Jews could have been reduced or avoided, despite their ambitious natures. The events and agreements mentioned were not the only sources of conflict between these two ethnic groups due to the disputes that had been occurring a long time before concerning land and respective properties. British officials could have definitely dealt with conflicts in a better way, avoiding the preposterous amount of tension and disputes in the Middle East from the beginning until de end of the war.
Palestinians. (n.d.). The McMahon Agreement. _History Learning Site_. Retrieved September 16, 2012, from http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/mcmahon.htm
The Balfour Declaration . (n.d.). _Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs_ . Retrieved September 16, 2012, from http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Peace+Process/Guide+to+the+Peace+Process/The+Balfour+Declaration.htm
British Mandate for Palestine. (n.d.). _Middle East: MidEastWeb_. Retrieved September 17, 2012, from http://www.mideastweb.org/Middle-East-Encyclopedia/british_mandate_palestine.htm