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  • Max Hyman

Early History and British Involvement in Palestine

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

When thinking of the cultural past of Palestine, one's mind turns immediately to Arab and only Arab, however, this land was dominated heavily by the British. In fact, the British had a surprising impact in setting up what was to be an Israeli-Palestinian conflict decades later.

In a series of eight letters written between Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner to Egypt and Sharif Hussein, governor of a province in Arabia held correspondence that is little known yet of extremely high historical importance. As the Ottoman empire continued to fall, between July 14, 1915 and January 30, 1916, the two men negotiated the terms under which Hussein would encourage the Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire and enter World War I on the side of the Allies. The fact that the Ottoman Empire's own people helped to take down the empire symbolized the beginning of a turbulent future in Palestine. In particular, Hussein demanded British recognition of the independence of the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire now known as Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and Saudi Arabia.


On May 16 of 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, laid down the borders of the Middle East in an agreement decided by the British and the French, which marked out on a map with grease pencil in a series of straight lines, most likely to create 'uncomplicated borders.' The agreement divided the land that had been under Ottoman rule since the early 16th century into new countries in two spheres of influence: Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine under British control; and Syria and Lebanon under French control. So, during WWI, the Ottoman Empire sided with the Central Powers against the Allies and to liberate Arab lands from Turkish oppression, and trusting the honor of British officials who promised their support for a unified kingdom for the Arab lands, Arab leaders launched the Great Arab Revolt. At the end of the war, Arab forces controlled all of modern Jordan, most of the Arabian peninsula and much of southern Syria.


In Nov. 1917 the British Government stated its support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. "His Majesty's Government view with favor 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." Clearly, despite the supposed full support of the Arabs and their view of the future, the British almost immediately pivoted introducing Jews to the area. So, the question rises - what was the intent of the British all along? Did they want to introduce a conflict of interest to the region so the Middle East was no longer a threat in any way? Did they truly have the best interests of the Jewish people in mind? Leave your thoughts and comments below on what the intent of the British behavior was.

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