The Great War on the Western Front was a static war. In order to end the war faster the British needed to open a new front to try and tie down troops of Germany or one of its allies. Many of these attempts to open up a new front were made in the Near and Middle East. The campaign at Gallipoli, where ANZAC troops landed in 1915, failed miserably and after early successes Indian divisions also suffered defeats in Mesopotamia against the Ottomans. In search for a new way to break open the war the British decided they would need the help of the Arabs. The British plan was for the Arabs to stage a revolt against their Ottoman rulers. This would tie down Ottoman troops that were now assisting their allies on the fronts on the European mainland to stage a revolution against the Ottoman Empire, one of Germany’s allies.
In return the British would offer the Arabs their own state. Around the same time the British were trying to get support of the Jews. In return they promised them Palestine as a homeland. Zionism had experienced a great growth in support from the beginning of the 20th century. When the Great War broke out the Zionists started to press national governments more and more to answer the so called Jewish question. During the Great War the British wrote secret treaties and agreements with the Arabs, Jews and even the French. These agreements were made during the war and were mostly to end the war and were unstable and short term solutions. The origins of the modern day Israel-Palestine conflict were cause largely by British interest in winning the Great War which led to double dealing between the Arabs and the Jews which are particularly prominent in the Balfour declaration, Sykes-picot treaty and the Hussein-McMahon correspondence.
The Balfour declaration of the 2nd of November 1917 stated: “_His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of the 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”._ (Balfour Declaration, 1917) the British believed they needed the support of the Jews for a number of reasons. They wanted long term control in the Middle East to control the Suez Canal. Some of the other reasons for the Balfour declaration were more
short term though. They believed by pleasing the Jews they would be pleasing Russia. The British were under the impression that there were a number of Jewish Russians high up in the government.
By pleasing the Jews the british thought they would keep Russia in the war. With Russia still in the war that would keep two fronts open on Germany and tha Germany would have to split its forces. The British also thought that there were Jews in America and by pleasing them that would get the United states of America in the war. The Arabs consider this declaration as a betrayal of the faith that they placed in the British. The Zionists consider this the promise for a Jewish homeland or state.
The declaration was written by Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild an important figure who was close friends with Chaim Weizman who was President of the World Zionist Organization. The paper doesn’t promise a state, but that is how it was interpreted by the Jews as well as the Arabs. Either way it was a clear promise of support from the British government to the Jewish community. By supporting the Jews and their claim for Palestine through the Balfour declaration the British lost the trust of the Arabs. The Balfour declaration also caused much of the animosity from the Arabs to much of the Western World including modern day Israel.
After their embarrassing defeat at Gallipoli the British were looking for a new front to combat the Ottomans. This led to the first agreement that was made that concerned the Middle East and Arab independence. This agreement is known as the Hussein-McMahon correspondence. Sir Henry McMahon was the High Commissioner in Egypt and Hussein bin Ali was the Sharif of Mecca. In 1915 and 1916 Hussein bin Ali and Sir Henry McMahon wrote a series of letters concerning an Arab state to each other. The British would help the Arabs gain their own state if they would revolt against the Ottomans. One particular letter written by McMahon identified the boundaries of an Arab state. “_The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded.”_(McMahon-Hussein correspondence,1915)
These descriptions do not specifically mention Palestine or indicate what would happen to the region Palestine. The British argue that Palestine was never mentioned in this agreement and that it is therefore justified that after the war and 1919 Versailles peace conference they had all rights to keep Palestine. The British also argued that they had stated that areas that were not purely Arab would not be included in an Arab state. As Palestine had a Jewish minority it would qualify as not purely Arab. The Arabs however believed that Palestine was mentioned and that they therefore had rights to claim Palestine in their own independent state. The Hussein-McMahon is a prime example of a war time agreement. The solution it prevents is unstable and the regions it defines are ambiguous. The Hussein-McMahon correspondence is in particular ambiguous about the region and thereby it has contributed to the origins of the Israel Palestine conflict.
A paper issued in 1922, the Churchill White Paper, was intended to explain the Balfour declaration to the Arabs. It only shows how ambiguous these war time agreements, including the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, were in addition to showing us how the British were trying to appease both the Jews and the Arabs. The 1922 Churchill white paper only complicated matters further and cause more ambiguity about the Balfour declaration.
While the British were negotiating with the Jews and the Arabs they were also talking to the French about the fate of the Middle East. The negotiations of what is now known as the Sykes Picot treaty took place in late 1915 between Sykes and Picot. The Sykes-Picot treaty which was signed on May the 16th in 1916 divided the territories of the Ottoman Empire between France and Great Britain. The Allies believed that The Ottoman Empire was on the fringe of collapse. The treaty also said that certain areas such as the Caucasus would later be negotiated with Russia and other Allied powers. The French wanted part of the Middle East for several reasons. They had vague knowledge that the Middle East was an oil-rich region. During the Great War oil was becoming more and more important.
The British also wanted permanent influence in the Middle East to control the Suez Canal and the gateway between their colonies in India and the Far East. According to the Sykes Picot treaty the area of Palestine was to be partially part of a British mandate and part of it would be placed under the international mandate. This pleased neither the Arabs nor the Jews. The Arabs because they believed they were promised full independence through out the Middle East. The Jews because it limited their immigration to Palestine, which they believed they had been promised as homeland in the Balfour declaration. The Palestinian Arabs were also becoming more wary of the Jews, because they were taken over more an more of the precious fertile land in Palestine, which was not a very fertile region to start of with. This is where the tension starts between the West and the Arabs.
After centuries of peace in the Middle East tension was building up and in particular in Palestine. When in 1948 the state of Israel was formed the actual armed conflict was started. Most of this tension that came out in the 1948 war of independence was caused by treaties, agreements and declarations that were signed during the Great War. Great Britain had a major role by signing the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, the Balfour declaration and the Sykes-Picot treaty. Some of the underlying causes for these treaties was to find a way to win the Great war. Another reason was to safeguard the Suez Canal which was the gateway to their prize colonies of India. By trying to please both the Arabs and the Jews the British caused most of the tension between the Jews and Arabs. All of this tension that started with a number of treaties has come out in the last 60 years and has transformed Israel and Palestine into a global hotspot for terrorism and war.