The original sin

” Yes, we are supporters of Israel, but we do not support illegal settlements, we do not support what is happening in East Jerusalem——occupied East Jerusalem, it is genuinely shocking,” [David Cameron, February 24, 2016]

How often have we heard this well trodden mantra? Its constant repetition, even by well meaning individuals, has contributed much towards the delegitimizing of Israel. Indeed, one is left with the distinct impression that the media and politicians are devoid of history and international law.

A lesser known, but thoroughly researched doctoral thesis paper by John Richmond entitled, “The evolution of British strategy for Palestine, 1914-20” provides a worthy analysis of the subject matter. He makes extensive use of quotations from his heavily referenced unusual research material to demonstrate the background in which major decisions were taken based on international law.

In summary:

[1] The strategic importance of the defense  of the Suez Zone area to the British Empire evolved into one designed to acquire Palestine as a British  dominated region within the British Empire. To this end, The management of information available to the Asquith and Lloyd George governments is discussed.

[2] Britain’s original intention to support an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, and thereby to create a friendly country in Palestine which  would protect the Suez, evolved into a strategy that sought to acquire Palestine itself.

[3] The thesis is divided into 4 chapters. Chapter 1 concerns itself with Lord Kitchener’s appointment as War Minister and a changed foreign policy forced on his government as a result of the Ottoman Empire’s alliance with the Central Powers. It also discusses British relations with the Arabs, responses to Arab nationalism and Kitchener’s consideration of French interests resulting in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, dividing the Ottoman Middle East territories between Britain and France. Chapter 2 covers the reasons for the British support of Zionist aims of restoration in their “Promised Land” as a matter of strategic priority, British misconceptions of both Jewish and nationalism, British clashes with the French and specifically the nature of Arab nationalism in Palestine. Chapter 3 examines how the Paris Peace Process and San Remo Conferences led to a British Mandate, with changes to the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Chapter 4 Discusses the issue of land ownership  between Arabs and Zionists. In the handling of disputes, the consequences thereof obviously impacted British strategy to govern Palestine. Since both Arabs and Zionists claimed sole ownership, British efficacy would determine the possibility British success. Although not stated, in the given time period, “to the victor went the spoils”, thus the victories allies, principally Britain and France, could have annexed Ottoman territory.

This paper concerns the period between the outbreak of WW1, August 1914 and June 1920 when Sir Herbert Samuel became the first High Commissioner to lead a civil government replacing the Military Authority in power in Palestine since 1917. The initial evolving British  strategy for Palestine was largely concerned in ensuring the protection of the Suez from a German backed Ottoman threat. When this became a reality, the British encouraged an Arab  revolt to remove the Ottomans while simultaneously using the Zionists to combat French demands over Syria. Although Richmond acknowledges that the revolt was only of very limited benefit to the successful prosecution of the war, he failed in not stressing its real impact, one leading to a great myth.

In the words of historian David Fromkin, “the Arab revolt  for which Hussein hoped never took place. No Arabic units of the Ottoman army came over to Hussein. A few thousand tribesmen, subsidized by British money, constituted Hussein’s troops.”[1]  Now this is of supreme importance in that yet another historian of consequence, Isaiah Friedman draws attention to a famous letter of 11 September 1919 to the Times by T.E. Lawrence, where he refers to 4 documents, the 1st of which reads “The British promise to King Hussein, dated 24 October 1915, which undertook, conditional on an Arab revolt, to recognize the ‘independence of the Arabs’ south of the latitude 37 degrees, except in the provinces of Bagdad and Basra, and except where Great Britain was not ‘free to act without detriment to the interests of France.'”[2]  To this day, the Arabs allege that the British betrayed them in assessing their claims to Palestine verses those of the Jews by conveniently ignoring the conditional requirement.  According to Samuel Katz, “The aid given to the Allied campaign against the Turks by the Arab Revolt was minor and negligible; Lawrence himself————once described it as ‘a sideshow of a sideshow.'” [3]

As understood by Richmond, American Jews, the British Government believed, could significantly threaten the financing of the allied war effort, a singularly important factor when issuing the Belfour Declaration. He also asserts that notwithstanding the similarities of British and Zionist interests, without Britain’s declaration of war against the Ottoman Empire on 5 November 1914, the Balfour Declaration might never have been made. He also notes that centuries of British sympathy for Jewish resettlement and three years of diplomatic effort explaining its advantages combined to convince the Government into issuing the Balfour Declaration.

In the discussion on the British Mandate at the famed San Remo Conference on April 1920, the author makes an extremely important observation. He points to the non-existence of a political entity of “Palestine” within the Ottoman Empire, instead the country was divided into three sanjaks. He further notes that the Muslim chairman of the Syrian Delegation at the Paris Peace Conference drew attention to “the only Arab domination since the Conquest in 635 hardly lasted twenty-two years.”

In a study on human behavior, we learn how a Jewish and Arab leader can reach an accommodation. The  reported Weizmann and Feisel meeting on 3 January, 1919 to create an accord on Palestine was intended to provide a cooperative basis of tolerance between Arabs and Jews. Feisal had stated  that Jews and Arabs are “very close in blood” while Weizmann believed their agreement would establish “a real political entente.”

As a contrast, Richmond points to four hundred years of Ottoman lack of interest, corruption, and shortage of investment resulting in a moribund economy, intense poverty, and no social cohesion; while in the twenty-five years prior to 1914, Zionists had “flung themselves upon barren and uncultivated land, and converted it into rich intensively cultivated plantations. Centuries of Arab farming had only resulted in pauperized village economies, subsequently worsened by the destruction wreaked from greater than it had been before.” On the other hand, Brigadier P.A. Clayton a notorious anti-Semite issued a strong critical note to the Foreign Office, saying that 90 per cent of Palestine’s inhabitants were not Jews, so imposing an alien and unpopular element would be highly injudicious particularly as Zionists had little executive experience.

Professor Richmond’s paper primarily focused on the incompetence or misjudgments of British and to a lesser extent French political leaders. In fact far greater blunders occurred in the time period beyond June 1920.  As an indication of the former:

[a] Because the British had not formulated how they intended to govern Palestine, or what this entailed, the military was left directionless to form an administration without any clear ideas that the government favored Zionism because it perceived the Jews as the only people able to develop Palestine’s economy, thereby  providing strategic protection and increased trade to the Empire.

[b] Weizmann made clear  that the Arab ideas of being ousted were either “fundamental misconception of our aims and  intentions or malicious activities of our common  enemies—- because our pioneers have shown that even under the deadening Ottoman regime they were capable of transforming the desert into flourishing villages.”

[c] Zionists found it hard to understand why, since they were creating the wealth that could lead to greater economic prosperity, this should cause Arab agitation. Most Zionists did not understand that Arabs regarded the land as their own even though, because of corruption and crippling taxation , earning a living from it was very difficult. To the Zionists, British failure to prevent Arab agitation, some of which could be attributed to poor intelligence  and some to dislike of Jews, left the yishuv feeling betrayed.

[d] Seeking easy rather than right solutions to the antagonism between Arabs and Jews, they were often partial and made little attempt to understand that because Jewish finances were developing  the country rather more tactful handling was merited.  They also failed to appreciate that the Arab agenda was to expel the Jews.

Undoubtedly , the two worst acts perpetrated by the British occurred beyond the scope of Richmond’s thesis. Article 25, an amendment to the Mandate for Palestine permitted by the Council of the League of Nations “to postpone or withhold applications of such provisions” enabled the British to slice of 80% of Palestine for the creation of a Jew free entity named Transjordan in April, 1921. Never mind “postpone”, on May 25, 1946, Transjordan became Jordan and in all this, Article 5 which specifically forbade Palestine territory to be “ceded or leased” was conveniently set aside as was in part the “grounds for the reconstituting their [the Jews] national home in—-the historical connection—-with Palestine.

The other seminal event was Herbert Samuels ignoring the results of the Arabs April 12, 1921 elections for a Grand mufti and instead appointing the arch anti-Semite el Husseini for life, thus costing the lives of thousands of Jews.

By way of further demonstrating how Jews were considered against Arabs by key British leaders as a fitting conclusion:

In 1922, Churchill, by way of showing that Arab economic fears were unjustified, granted Pinhas Rutenberg,  a Jewish engineer from Russia a concession for hydro-electric schemes in the Auja and Jordan valleys. Addressing the House of Commons:

“I am told that the Arabs would have done it for themselves. Who is going to believe that? Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken effective steps toward the irrigation and electrification of Palestine. They would have been quite content to dwell – a handful of philosophic people – in the wasted sun-scorched plains, letting the waters of the Jordan continue to flow unbridled and unharnessed into the Dead Sea.”[4]  And Lloyd George:

“No race has done better out of the fidelity with which the allies redeemed their promises to the oppressed races than the Arabs. Owing to the tremendous  sacrifices of the Allied nations, and more particularly of Britain and her Empire, the Arabs have already won independence in Iraq, Arabia, Syria, and Trans-Jordania, although most of the Arab races fought throughout the War for the Turkish oppressors.”[5]

Undoubtedly, had the British left Palestine intact under Jewish sovereignty, there would hve not been any arguments over “settlements” and “occupation”!


[1] Fromkin: A Peace to end all Peace P 219, 328.

[2] Friedman: Palestine a twice-promised land P47.

[3] Katz: Battleground P49

[4] Fromkin: A Peace to end all Peace P523

[5] Fromkin: A Peace to end all Peace P401.

About the Author
Alex Rose was born in South Africa in 1935 and lived there until departing for the US in 1977 where he spent 26 years. He is an engineering consultant. For 18 years he was employed by Westinghouse until age 60 whereupon he became self-employed. He was also formerly on the Executive of Americans for a Safe Israel and a founding member of CAMERA, New York (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and today one of the largest media monitoring organizations concerned with accuracy and balanced reporting on Israel). In 2003 he and his wife made Aliyah to Israel and presently reside in Ashkelon.