Blame the British and French for Today's Mayhem in the Middle East
Jerusalem, Israel and the Palestinian Territories
I don't think a lot of Westerners understand just how young the national identities of many notable Middle Eastern countries are—I certainly didn't, until I started traveling here and did some real digging.
As distant outsiders, we're conditioned to think of the Middle East and their sand-colored buildings as the cradle of civilization. Sure, there's been (and still is) a ridiculous amount of conflict there, but what do you expect for a region that has been inhabited for eons.
But what if I told you there are people alive today who served in World War I, years before countries like Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, and even Iraq existed? Well, as of the early 1900s, they didn't.
There's a tremendous amount of hateful animosity in the Middle East over borders that didn't exist a few decades ago, over and between countries that didn't exist a few decades ago.
Lines were arbitrarily drawn in the sand by European powers with their own colonial interests in mind, followed at a distant second with thoughts of appeasing a gaggle of Arab nobles who all thought they should control territories of their own. Mixed into this were indebted favors to the leading Jewish Zionists, insisting on obtaining control of the highly prized Holy Land for their support during the WWI.
I've spent some considerable time learning, collecting and organizing a timeline of sorts, to share just how disastrous a place the greed of the British and French have made for us all in the 21st century. I've focused in on Israel a bit, because I'm currently in the middle of it, and it's a point of ever-present drama. Today's Middle Eastern tensions, Arab disdain for the West, and our involvement in war after war in the region can probably all be traced back to this period in time…
Drawing Lines in the Sand
Napoleon's foray into Egypt in 1798, in the midst of the French Revolution, began a long string of European adventures in the Middle East, leading to colonization, resistance, and eventually war.
Ultimately, the British would take Egypt, Sudan and the small states of the Persian Gulf. France would seize Algeria and Morocco. And Arab resistance to European encroachment would prompt much bloody violence across the region.
By the early 1900s, much of the Middle East and Africa—which had previously been under control of the Ottoman Empire—was actually ruled by the Europeans.
In 1897, a Hungarian Jew named Herzl organized the first World Zionist Congress in Switzerland (attended by 200 delegates), which subsequently established the World Zionist Organization. Herzl, as leader of the organization, attempted through diplomatic channels to get one of the major powers to sponsor a Jewish home in Palestine.
He met with little success until approaching the British, who were more sympathetic. In 1903 they offered what is now Uganda as a site for a Jewish home, but Zionist opposition to this offer was so strong that from that time on, the organization became unalterably committed to establishing the national home for the Jews only in Palestine.
The name "Zionism" comes from the word "Zion," which was the name of a stronghold in Jerusalem. Over time, the term "Zion" came to be applied to Jerusalem in general, and later to the Jewish idea of utopia.
At the outbreak of World War I (July 1914–November 1918), the Ottoman government clamped down on Palestine and declared the Zionist movement a subversive element.
During the war Jewish leaders gave financial support to the Allied governments in an effort to gain sympathy towards their agenda. Of greater importance toward that end, however, were the contributions of Dr. Weizmann, a chemistry lecturer at Manchester University and a Zionist leader.
During the war, he gained influence in England by developing a process for producing acetone, used in the manufacture of cordite explosive propellants critical to the Allied war effort. Dr. Weizmann—considered to be the father of industrial fermentation, and who later became the first President of Israel—used his influence to gain the support of British leaders for the Zionist cause.
British leaders also had to consider the pressure coming from Baron Rothschild, a wealthy, politically-active Zionist (and close friend of Weizmann). The financial support of the Rothschilds, at a time when the country had to float loan after loan, would be lost, if the Zionist request were refused.
Additionally, if such a request was granted, it would ensure Jewish cooperation throughout the British Empire and in other countries, both during the war and in the future, as well as a nearby ally to ensure the Suez Canal continued to operate under British and French administration.
As a result, the British issued the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which 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 endeavors 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."
—from Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Baron Rothschild, November 1917
The anniversary of the Declaration, 2 November, is widely commemorated in Israel and among Jews in the Jewish diaspora as Balfour Day.
World War I transformed the Middle East in ways it had not seen for centuries. The Europeans, who had colonized much of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, completed the takeover with the territories of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.
With the onset of WWI, the French and the British sent armies and agents into the Middle East, to foment revolts in the Arabian Peninsula and to seize territory. In 1916, French and British diplomats secretly reached the Sykes-Picot agreement, carving up the Middle East into spheres of influence for their respective countries.
During World War I, the British had made three general promises regarding territory in the Middle East. One of these assured the governors of Arabia independence for a united Arab country covering Syria, in exchange for their supporting the British against the Ottoman Empire. In 1914 the much diminished Ottomans had entered the war on the German side, against the British and French, and it was hoped that an alliance with the Arabs would quell the chances of a general Muslim uprising in British held territories (in Africa, India, and the Far East).
The fate of Palestine thus remained undecided until 1922, when the League of Nations placed the territory under a British mandate.
Carving up the Middle East
The partitioning brought the creation of the modern Arab world and the Republic of Turkey. The League of Nations granted France mandates over Syria, with the Christian coastal areas split off to become Lebanon, and granted the United Kingdom mandates over Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine (which was later divided into two regions: Palestine and Transjordan). Parts of the Ottoman Empire on the Arabian Peninsula became parts of what are today Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
One of Sheriff Hussein's sons, Faisal, was installed as King of Iraq. Palestine was split in half, with the eastern portion becoming Transjordan to provide a throne for another of Hussein's sons, Abdullah. The western half of Palestine was under direct British administration, and the Jewish population was allowed to increase, initially under British protection. Most of the Arabian Peninsula fell to another British ally, Ibn Saud, who created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
The United States decided to have nothing to do with partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. The U.S. simply sought the creation of a permanent peace as quickly as possible, with financial compensation for its military expenditures.
Jewish Immigration Issues
Due to stiff Arab opposition and pressure against Jewish immigration, Britain redefined Jewish immigration by restricting its flow according to the country's economic capacity to absorb the immigrants. Annual quotas were put in place as to how many Jews could immigrate, while Jews possessing a large sum of money (500 Pounds) were allowed to enter the country freely.
Following the rise of Adolf Hitler and other anti-Semitic regimes in Europe, a growing number of European Jews were prepared to spend the money necessary to enter Palestine.
The large numbers of Jews entering Palestine led to the 1936–1939 Arab Revolt, in which 10% of the adult male (Arab) population was killed, wounded, imprisoned, or exiled.
In 1939 a limit of 75,000 Jewish immigrants was set for the five-year period 1940–1944. After this cut-off date, further immigration would depend on the permission of the Arab majority.
The restrictions on Jewish immigration effectively closed Palestine, which had, despite the financial restrictions, been the only available destination for Jews fleeing the persecution in Europe. The Zionists responded by organizing illegal migration which the British countered by blockading Palestine.
On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on the British Commonwealth and sided with Germany. Within a month, the Italians attacked Palestine from the air, bombing Tel Aviv and Haifa.
After the war, the determination of Holocaust survivors to reach Palestine led to large scale illegal Jewish migration to Palestine. British efforts to block the migration led to violent resistance by the Zionist underground.
According to official records, 367,845 Jews and 33,304 non-Jews immigrated to Palestine legally between 1920 and 1945, while over 100,000 people attempted to enter illegally. Immigrants caught were detained by the British Government and imprisoned in camps on Cyprus. These individuals had no citizenship, and could not be returned to any country.
From October 1946, the British Government, under the 'severest pressure' from the United States, relented and allowed 1,500 Jewish migrants a month into Palestine, equal to the total amount the United States was admitting of all immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Loss of Control, Domestic Support
Between 1945 and 1948, the decision of the British government to halt Jewish immigration to the British Mandate of Palestine led to an increasingly bitter conflict between Britain and Palestinian Jews. In particular it resulted in large scale illegal Jewish immigration, "boat people", and Zionist political violence in Palestine. The policy of opposing Zionism led to deep divisions within the British leadership and violence against the British in Palestine provoked anti-Semitism in Britain.
The cost of maintaining an army of over 100,000 men in Palestine weighed heavily on a British economy suffering from post-war depression, and was another cause for British public opinion to demand a withdrawal from Palestine.
Finally in early 1947 the British Government announced their desire to terminate the Mandate, and passed the responsibility over Palestine to the United Nations.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly, with a two-thirds majority international vote, passed the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, a plan to resolve the Arab-Jewish conflict by partitioning the territory into separate Jewish and Arab states (with the Greater Jerusalem area, encompassing Bethlehem, coming under international control).
Jewish leaders accepted the plan, while Palestinian Arab leaders rejected it and refused to negotiate.
The Jewish population was concentrated in settlement areas in 1947. The borders were drawn to encompass them, placing most of the Jewish population in the proposed Jewish state:
The 1947–1948 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine lasted from November 30, 1947—the date of the United Nations vote in favor of the termination of the British Mandate of Palestine and the UN Partition Plan—to the termination of the British Mandate itself on May 14, 1948.
This period constitutes the first phase of the 1948 Palestine war, during which the Jewish and Arab communities of Palestine clashed, while the British, who supposedly had the obligation to maintain order, organized their withdrawal and intervened only on an occasional basis.
On May 14, 1948, the day before the end of the British Mandate, the Jewish Agency proclaimed independence, naming the country Israel. The following day the armies of five newly sovereign Arab countries—Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq—attacked Israel, launching the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Morocco, Sudan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia also sent troops to assist the invaders.
The 1948 Arab-Israeli War, was the first in a series of wars fought between the newly declared State of Israel and its Arab neighbors. Fighting mostly occurred on the former territory of the British Mandate, and for a short time also on the Sinai Peninsula and southern Lebanon.
Approximately 720,000 Arabs, encouraged by their leaders to leave, fled from what is now Israel between April and December 1948. The Arab leaders promised them that they would soon be able to return, following Israel's destruction. Instead of welcoming and integrating them into the mainstream of their societies, the Arab states were known to keep the Palestinians in squalid refugee camps, using them as political pawns in their fight against Israel.
By November 1948, Israeli forces firmly controlled the southern desert region known as the Negev. Fearing an invasion of Egypt and Jordan, and acting on the basis of the mutual defense pacts with these countries, Britain's Ministry of Defense began to prepare for the possibility of invading Israel. The RAF conducted reconnaissance flights over Israeli positions, taking off from Egyptian air bases. (Some of these flights may have been conducted alongside Egyptian planes.)
The British Cabinet decided that action could be taken to defend Jordan, but that under no circumstances would British troops enter Israel.
In December 1948 Israeli troops made a twenty-mile incursion into Egyptian territory and Israeli forces completed the conquest of the Negev, reaching Umm Rash Rash (now Eilat) on the Red Sea. On January 2, 1949, fear of invasion and shortage of ammunition led Jordan to invoke its mutual defense pact with Britain.
On January 6, 1949, Egypt and Israel agreed to a cease-fire and face-to-face negotiations in Rhodes.
The next day Israeli forces shot down three British Spitfires over the Egyptian border. The UK Defense Committee responded by sending two destroyers carrying men and arms to Jordan.
On January 17, 1949, the British Chief of Staff briefed the cabinet on events in the Middle East. The cabinet voted to continue supporting the Arab states, while simultaneously voting to recognize the nation of Israel.
The 10-month war concluded in March with decisive Israeli victory, a tactical and strategic Arab failure, and the 1949 Armistice Agreements which established temporary borders between Israel and the Jordanian-held West Bank—also known as the Green Line (its name is derived from the green ink used to draw the line on the map during the talks).
The Israeli side of the Green Line encompassed 78.5% of what was Palestine in 1947, and about 50% more than the UN partition proposal allotted it.
These lines held until the 1967 Six-Day War.
During the war around 10,000 Jews were forced to leave their homes in Palestine, but in the three years following the war, 700,000 Jews settled in Israel (mainly along the borders and in former Arab lands). Around 136,000 came from the 250,000 displaced Jews of World War II. Most others were part of the 758,000 to 900,000 Jews who fled or left Arab countries between 1948 and the Six-Day War following widespread anti-Jewish attacks.
For nineteen years following the 1949 Armistice Agreements, Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip and Jordan occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem—no Arab state was created. In 1950, Jordan annexed the territories it occupied.
Israel captured both territories in the 1967 Six-Day War, and since then they've been under Israeli control. Immediately after the war, on June 19, 1967, the Israeli government offered to return the Golan Heights to Syria, the Sinai to Egypt and most of the West Bank to Jordan in exchange for peace. At the Khartoum Summit in September, the Arab parties responded to this overture by declaring "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no negotiations with Israel."