Palestine, the Great War and British Imperialism

In part two of his series on Israel and the occupation of Palestine Neil Rogall moves on to look at how Britain’s strong relationship with Israel goes back to the Balfour Declaration which paved the way for the Zionist state. Read part 1 of this series, The Origins of Zionism, here.

A well-loved chant on Palestinian demonstrations is “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free”. This slogan succinctly describes the land of Palestine as it was before the Zionist state was created through ethnic cleansing and dispossession in 1948. Under the British Mandate (effectively colonial rule) Palestine consisted of what today is Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza strip.

So how was it that Britain came to rule over Palestine and encourage Zionist emigration there? The answer to this lies with the development of British imperialist policy during and immediately after the First World War.

Palestine was a land of about 26,000 square kilometres, about a tenth of the size of the United Kingdom. It was bordered on the north by what is now Lebanon, on the east by the River Jordan. It’s western boundary is the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and on the south by the Gulf of Aqaba.

Its population in 1881 was around 457,000. This was made up of around 400,000 Muslims, 42,000 Christians and 13-20,000 Jews. By 1914 this had risen to 600,000 with now about 85,000 Jews, many of whom, but not all were from the first wave of Zionist immigrants.

Palestine had been part of the Ottoman Empire since 1517 and was administered after 1888 as part of the Vilayet (province) of Beirut. But the Ottoman Empire had been in political crisis through much of the nineteenth century, finally losing all its European territories by 1913.

The territory of the Ottoman Empire in 1914

In 1908 the “Young Turks” rebellion against the Sultan promised democracy and more freedom within the Empire. Instead however there was an attempt to centralise the Empire and “Turkify” it. The result was the beginnings of Arab Nationalism. In 1913 the First Arab Congress met in Paris. The Congress called for political rights for Arabs, Arabic to be used alongside Turkish and for autonomy in the Arab provinces of the Empire. When war began in 1914, Germany allied with the Ottoman Empire. In response Arab nationalists threw in their lot with the British hoping to win an independent Arab state.

Britain and the Middle East

British imperialism’s main concern as it had been for a century was keeping hold of India – the so-called “Jewel” in the imperial crown. The ruling class was terrified that any disintegration of the Ottoman Empire would threaten its control of the Suez Canal, the main route to South Asia. Lord Kitchener, the future minister of war (in 1914) was desperate to block any Russian expansion before the war that would threaten India. Britain therefore wanted to control a swathe of land from Persia (modern Iran) through Anatolia to Iraq and the Arab provinces in order to defend imperial India and the Suez Canal. However the Ottoman alliance with the German “enemy” during the 1914-1918 war made this more urgent

The key British figure during the war was the Tory MP and Kitchener’s protégé Mark Sykes. He publically supported Arab independence from the Ottoman Empire. But at the same time he viewed Arabs as “cowardly”, “insolent” and “vicious” and dismissed Arab nationalism as “absurd”.

In early 1916 a secret agreement was drawn up between the French and British governments to carve up the Arab lands. Mark Sykes was the key British representative in these negotiations. This infamous plan was exposed to the world after the 1917 October Revolution in Russia when the new revolutionary Soviet government published all the secret treaties hidden in the Tsar’s archives.

This, the Sykes-Picot agreement named after the two diplomats who drew it up gave France direct rule over Lebanon and the northwest Syrian coastline. Britain in turn was to gain control over the provinces of Basra and Baghdad in Mesopotamia (part of today’s Iraq). The area in between was to be a confederation of Arab states with France dominating the northern half and Britain the south. Palestine was to be split but in the event Britain got it all.

In November of the following year, 1917, Lord Balfour the British foreign secretary made the promise that if Britain controlled Palestine after the war’s end then it should become a “national home” for the Jewish people’.

At the time the Liberal MP, David Lloyd George was prime minister. He hated the Ottoman Empire and loathed “the murderous tyranny of the Turks” as he described it. The destruction of the Ottoman Empire was now a priority in order to guarantee security for Britain’s lifeline to India, the Suez Canal. His imperial vision meshed with his Methodism. Christian Zionism was a staple of his Chapel upbringing where he was imbued with Old Testament stories about “the Jews in Zion”. But we shouldn’t assume that religion was the driving force for as a previous prime minister, Asquith put it, “Lloyd George does not care a damn for the Jews or their past or future”. But he did care about Palestine.

Revolution in Russia

By 1917 the British war effort was starting to unravel. In March (according to the western Gregorian calendar, February according to the then Russian calendar) the Tsar was overthrown in Russia by a huge popular movement in the cities. As the year progressed the revolution dug deep roots in the army and the countryside as well as amongst the urban workers. There was growing support inside the Russian Empire for Russia to stop fighting. The new government refused but the clamour for a separate peace became overwhelming by the summer. In November (according to the western calendar) the Soviets (the committees of workers’ soldiers and peasants) overthrew the government. One of the first acts of the new workers and peasant government led by Lenin was to unilaterally pull Russia out of the war.

It was in the same month of November that the British foreign secretary Lord Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild who headed Britain’s Zionist federation:

 “I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which have been submitted to and approved by the Cabinet: 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 this 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.”

The last point about protecting the rights of ‘existing non-Jewish communities’ didn’t count for very much. Two years later he was to write in a letter to Lord Curzon:

“Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-old traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that land”.

The Balfour Declaration was easily the most important statement of international support the Zionists had so far received. Not that they were satisfied with it. In December 1918 the Zionist movement declared that their aim was not Balfour’s national home “but a ‘Jewish state”.

Why did Balfour make this promise to Rothschild? It certainly wasn’t because Balfour was an anti-racist or a friend of Jewish people. In fact he had been prime minister in 1909 when the government introduced the Alien’s Act that barred entry to Jewish refugees fleeing racist attacks in Eastern Europe. But clearly the Jews who were not welcomed in Britain’s backyard were now to be welcomed in the front yard of the Palestinian Arabs. Balfour epitomised the anti-Semitic strain of British imperial thinking that allied itself to Zionism. It hated the real Jews that it saw for they were poor immigrants. But it liked the idea of the Zionist dream of reviving the “old testament” Jew in a modern guise especially when this coincided with imperial interests.

What were these interests? Firstly it was firmly believed that a British protected Jewish colony would help secure the eastern approaches of the Suez Canal. As the future British governor of Jerusalem, Sir Richard Storrs put it Palestine would be “a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”

But there were other reasons too for the declaration. Balfour thought it would help mobilise popular support amongst American Jews for the war, which the USA had entered in April, and help in keeping Russia in the war as many of the revolutionaries were from Jewish backgrounds.

Of course in reality such revolutionaries were deeply hostile to Zionism. The British government were also terrified that Germany with its own huge Jewish population was going to make its own declaration of support for Zionism, as had France in June. It also appeared to fit nicely with the wartime rhetoric of national self-determination that the American president Woodrow Wilson was championing.

Reshaping the Middle East

In June 1916 Hussein, the Emir of Mecca rose in revolt against the Ottomans.  This was no great mass uprising for only a few thousand were involved. But British troops aided the rebellion and by the end of 1918 the rebels with imperial help had captured much of Palestine, Transjordan, Syria and Lebanon.

The victorious Allied Powers met after the war, in San Remo, Italy in April 1920 to officially carve-up the Middle East. The fancy word used was “mandate”. Colonialism was seen as “outdated”, not fitting with the rhetoric of national self-determination and democracy spouted by the victors. But in reality a mandate was just old-fashioned imperial rule dressed up in new clothes.

France was given a mandate, later confirmed by the new League of Nations over Syria and Lebanon. Similarly Britain was given the same power over Palestine and Iraq – and Balfour’s promise to the Zionists was made part of the mandate. There was to be no independent Arab state – but as a consolation prize Emir Hussein’s son Faisal was made King of Iraq and his brother Abdullah was appointed Emir of Transjordan.

The Zionists had been officially granted their “national home” in Palestine. It certainly was not everything they wanted but it was a huge step forward for this late developing European colonial movement. The question now was how would this Zionist colony imposed on an Arab society develop, and what would be the response of Palestinians to it.

Part 3: The origins of the Iron Wall: Zionist settlers during the mandate


  1. This is very good Neil. A minor additional detail that you might consider is the agreement brokered by CP Scott of the Manchester Guardian who in 1916 did a deal with Chaim Weizmann for Herbert Asquith which was to allow his (Weizmann’s) gin distillery in London to be turned over to the production of much needed acetone for explosives production in exchange for further sponsorship for the Zionist state of Israel post-hostilities. The acetone flowed and CP Scott/Asquith/Lloyd George kept their part of the bargain.


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