Divide, rule and appease

Did the Pan-Arab policy serve British imperial interests?

Jewish Batallion in WWII 521 (photo credit: JP Archives)
Jewish Batallion in WWII 521
(photo credit: JP Archives)
The circumstances of the Allies’ division of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I beg for a drastic revision in light of the recently opened national archives.
Prof. Isaiah Friedman, a distinguished historian, retired Ben-Gurion University scholar, senior fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, expert on British-Jewish- Arab relations, editor of The Documents on the Rise of Israel and the co-editor of Encyclopedia Judaica, has conducted such a timely reexamination.
William Faulkner reminded us that the past is never dead, it’s not even past. The Sykes-Picot agreement, which set today’s Middle Eastern borders to serve French and British interests, and the separation of Trans-Jordan from Palestine in violation of the terms of the Palestinian Mandate, still affect Israel’s destiny. The disengagement of Islam from politics is difficult in traditional Arab societies, and a worldwide Caliphate continues to be sought.
In this book, Friedman probes whether the British Pan-Arab policy enhanced its security in the Middle East. He shatters many myths and distortions and shows us how T.E. Lawrence, the hero of the “Arab revolt,” who planned a single Arab state under British protection, became disillusioned.
However, his view that halutzim (Jewish pioneers) would redeem the devastated Palestine came true.
On November 9, 1914, British prime minister Herbert Asquith announced dramatically: “The Turkish Empire has committed suicide” – it had launched a jihad against Britain. The Ottoman giant, which enjoyed British protection, entered World War I on the German side and had to be defeated.
The original British plan, devised in Cairo, for the conquest of Turkish-occupied Palestine included landings at the Haifa Bay area and at Aqaba. However, it was replaced on February 15, 1915, by an ambitious Dardanelles Anglo-French expedition, destined for Constantinople.
There were no Arab soldiers at Gallipoli, but in the wake of the Allied failure and withdrawal, Arab cooperation became an interesting proposition.
The British defense minister, Lord H.H.
Kitchener, and Henry McMahon, who replaced him in Cairo, both imbued with imperial spirit, envisaged an Arab fighting force joining the British under the guise of a new Caliphate. This was based on a false premise that the Arabs would rise and replace the Ottomans.
But Arabs regarded themselves as Ottomans and devoted Muslims, bound by their faith and loyalty to the caliphsultan in Constantinople. They were the champions of Islam, fighting against the encroachment of the infidel. The British belief that Arabs should blame Turkey for their backwardness and economic stagnation was just as wrong; the Arabs held high positions under the Ottomans.
McMahon was warned that even if Turkey lost the war, the Ottoman sultancaliph would still be admired. But both the September 10, 1915, arrival in Cairo of Muhammad al-Faruqi – the leader of the Arab secret societies, who promised the Allies a big Arab army – and the revolt started by Sharif Hussein, the emir of Mecca in 1916, won British recognition.
The British were unaware that Hussein had revolted only after the Turks sought his life, and that he still tried to accommodate them.
Hussein aspired to become a caliph, a great political and religious leader of a united Arab empire, and on October 29, 1916, he proclaimed himself “king of the Arab countries.” London, however, appointed him as the king of Hejaz only, and was vague insofar as the Arab independence was concerned. But after an Arab Bureau was established in Cairo, Gen. Ronald Storrs – without the Foreign Office’s authorization and at variance with the official Whitehall policy – called on all Arabs to unite, get rid of the Turks and declare, with British help, their independence.
The Arab Bureau’s “five musketeers” – Col. Stewart Francis Newcombe, George Lloyd, Aubrey Herbert, Leonard Woolley and Lawrence – shared Storrs’s policy.
The total cost of the Arab revolt was £11 million in gold. But only a few thousand badly disciplined soldiers, interested more in spoils than in fighting, had joined the fray. It was Lawrence’s bold move in freeing Aqaba and his false claim that his Arabs, and not Gen. Harry Chauvel’s ANZAC (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) cavalry, had liberated Damascus, that caught the world’s attention.
Sir Arthur Hirtzel of the India Office and Lt.-Col. Walter Gribbon of British Intelligence found that the Arab contribution to the war effort was “practically nil,” while the cost was high. Palestine was freed by the Allies, supported by the Jewish “Nili” spies, Aharon Aaronson’s guidance in providing Gen. Edmund Allenby with maps indicating that advance through the littleknown road to Beersheba would be preferable to his former fatal frontal attack on the Turkish-German forces at Gaza, the Zion Mule Corps and three Jewish battalions of Royal Fusiliers – the 38th, 39th and 40th, recruited from the Yishuv itself.
SIR MARK SYKES, Gertrude Bell and other Middle Eastern experts found a deep ethnic and religious schism among Arabs, but hardly any evidence of nationalistic feeling. In 1919 Maj. J.N.
Clayton stated in Damascus that in the eyes of the vast majority of Muslim Arabs, Arab nationalism and Islamism were “synonymous terms.”
Maj. C.S. Jarvis, who lived 18 years among Arabs, found that the national feeling was confined to a few educated Arabs. But all this had changed fast during the Paris peace negotiations, when many countries won their independence, and from which Hussein withdrew in protest of the Allied treatment.
On March 8, 1920, the Syrian Congress recognized Hussein’s son, Feisal, as king of Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. But the Great Powers implemented the Sykes- Picot agreement, giving Syria and Lebanon to France, and Iraq and Palestine to Britain as protectorates, claiming that the Arabs were not yet ready to govern themselves.
Feisal, who complained that the Arab masses did not understand the meaning of nationalism, had little chance of succeeding in Syria, as well as Palestine, which Lawrence described as a racial and religious mosaic, torn by deep differences.
It was, however, Islam that became the uniting force of the Arab anti-foreign and anti-British policy. It was in this light that the budding Arab nationalism, based on the Islamic concept of the infidel’s inferiority, viewed the Balfour Declaration as a Zionist, imperialistic plot justifying the British occupation of Palestine.
Feisal, guided by Lawrence, welcomed Chaim Weizmann’s and Felix Frankfurter’s plans for the development of Palestine. He was ready to grant Jews cultural autonomy and limited immigration.
But facing the growing tide of Arab nationalism, he, too, started making different promises.
British officials in London and Jerusalem differed in their interpretation of the Balfour Declaration. On September 19, 1919, The Times wrote that Jordan would not do as the eastern frontier of Palestine, and in the North it should include a good part of the Litani River, as well as Mount Hermon.
In November 1919, Lord Milner, secretary of war, advised Nahum Sokolow “to insist upon as large a portion of Trans-Jordan as possible.”
But France took over the Hermon and the Litani, and British officers in Jerusalem devised a Pan-Arab policy of divide, rule and appease.
Richard Crossman asserted that it was natural for the British to love all that was decadent in Arab civilization and to disregard its new, less charming, less subservient features. This pro-Arabism was not really love for the Arabs, but concealed anti-Semitism.
On March 28, 1921, Winston Churchill received a deputation from the “Third Palestine Congress,” claiming to represent all Palestine’s Arab people.
They professed unswerving friendship for England, “too obvious to require proof.” This sympathy, they claimed, had brought upon them the wrath of the Turks, who had persecuted, tortured, executed and exiled many of them.
Palestinians had followed King Hussein’s call, and thousands of them had deserted the Turks to fight for the Allies, but had not been rewarded. England had broken the contract with Hussein and was changing Palestine into a home for Jews, the “advocates of destruction.” The delegation demanded a stop to Jewish immigration, the abolition of the Jewish national home and the formation of a national Arab government.
Churchill replied that many of the Arab claims were not true. The Arabs had not overthrown the Turks, the British forces had. The Balfour Declaration had been issued at a critical stage of the war, when victory was still in the balance; it had been ratified by the Allied powers and was the basis of the Mandate. It was manifestly right that Jews should have a national center and home. Britain thought it was good for all, including the Arabs.
Churchill added pointedly that Palestine benefited from Jewish colonization.
On July 5, 1922, Arab leaders of the National Societies of Haifa, Nazareth, Ghor District, Beisan and the surrounding areas wrote in confidence to Churchill that the delegation of the “Third Palestine Congress” did not represent them and had no right to speak in their name, and that towns inhabited by Jews were making steady progress. They also protested to the League of Nations that the delegates to the “Congress” represented a minority among Palestinians. They supported the Rutenberg electricity concession and progress.
Churchill was convinced that by installing Feisal in Iraq and Abdullah in Trans-Jordan, he had fulfilled all of Britain’s obligations toward the Arabs. He hoped that this decision, made after difficult negotiations, would mitigate the Arabs’ nationalistic zeal. But the Arabs saw the exclusion of Zionists from Trans- Jordan as appeasement.
The preservation of balance between Jews and Arabs in Palestine was upset by those British officials who were suspicious of the Jews and lenient toward Arabs.
Lord Samuel, the first high commissioner for Palestine, and his chief adviser Ernest T. Richmond, a passionate anti-Zionist, were chiefly responsible for stimulating the ensuing trouble.
Samuel, who tried to make everybody happy, had advised Jews to make sacrifices, and had diluted the meaning of the Balfour Declaration by temporarily halting Jewish immigration, in the wake of the riots that broke out in Jaffa on May 1, 1921, during which 27 Jews and three Arabs were killed, and 104 Jews and 34 Arabs were wounded. Arab police armed with rifles joined the rioters. But many Arabs took pains to dissociate themselves and described the rioters as hooligans.
Therefore Samuel’s step was both hasty and unprecedented.
He also invented the post of grand mufti to make Arabs faithful to one of their own, and on April 11, 1921, Haj Amin el-Husseini became the spiritual leader of Palestinian Muslims. Three weeks later, 43 Jews were murdered. Eventually those Arab forces that sought accommodation were eliminated by crude Arab terror, the Arab states’ instigation and the British Pan-Arab appeasement that culminated in the White Paper of 1939.
Did the Pan-Arab policy serve British imperial interests? The facts speak for themselves. During World War II, Palestine was a formidable and dependable British and Allied military and economic base, largely due to the fact that some 33,000 Jewish volunteers joined the British forces, while the entire Yishuv was mobilized for the Allied war effort. This offered Britain formidable assistance at a crucial time in 1940 and 1941, when German- assisted Rashid Ali carried out his short-lived revolt in Iraq, while France in Lebanon and Syria recognized the Vichy regime and had to be dealt with. Nor should the fact that the former mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, joined Hitler ever be forgotten.
Today, just like yesterday, the presence of Israel again continues to be central to world peace in a region undergoing social and economic upheaval, a barrier against the threatening Islamic Jihad.