Even while the First World War was raging, Britain and France discussed among themselves how they would carve up the Ottoman Empire once the war was won. The resulting Sykes-Picot Agreement was never put into effect, but it did provide a blue-print for future agreements in the Middle East.
It also proved the lie to British promises of independence made to the Arab peoples, should they rise up and help the British drive out the Ottomans from Palestine – an area that comprised modern Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza strip and Jordan.
To further muddy the waters, not long afterwards, the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, issued his famous declaration. In it, he promised “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, but crucially, without prejudice to “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”.
In other words, it was a fudge to please everybody, but one that would ultimately please nobody. But it was made with the intent of securing Britain’s economic interests in the area – namely oil and the Suez Canal, a vital conduit to India – as well as of coaxing the United States into entering the war.
When the war ended in 1918, Britain was already in possession of Jerusalem. The British Army had entered the holy city the previous December, making good Sir Edmund Allenby’s promise to Prime Minister Lloyd George to deliver Jerusalem to the British people “as a Christmas present”.
The Balfour Declaration, with all its faults, was added to the British mandate to govern Palestine, receiving the nod from the League of Nations in 1922. On 29 September the following year, the mandate came into effect.
The British mandate lasted for over 30 years until the creation of Israel in 1948. During that time, tensions between the Jewish and Arab populations simmered away, with the violence continuing into the Israeli era and up to the present day.
Also on this day
On this day in 1829, the first of London’s ‘Peelers’ hit the streets as the Metropolitan Police Force began its patrols. Read more here.