Sykes-Picot Agreement map Sykes-Picot Agreement map. Photo: Public Domain

In the second article in our series to mark Nakba75, Shabbir Lakha and Michael Lavalette look at the role of the imperialists in the region at the end of the First World War – and its implications for the Palestinians

In 2017, celebrating 100 years since Lord Balfour committed Britain to support a ‘Jewish homeland’ in Palestine, then Prime Minister Theresa May asserted:

“Let us cast our minds back to the time of 1917. In an era of competing imperial powers and with Britain still embroiled in the midst of the First World War, the idea of establishing a homeland for the Jewish people would have seemed a distant dream for many; and been fiercely opposed by others.”

Her claim – that Britain selflessly decided to help the Jewish people, despite being entangled in imperial rivalry and war – is the precise opposite of what happened. It was because of Britain’s imperial ambitions that the declaration was issued.

Joe Biden summarised the importance of Israel to the west when he said “Israel is the best $3billion investment America makes”, and “if Israel didn’t exist, we’d have to invent one.”

Antisemitism and Balfour

The common revisionist version of events suggests that the declaration by Balfour was made in order to protect Jewish people facing persecution.

Violent pogroms against Jewish people in the Russian empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to hundreds of thousands fleeing eastern Europe to find safety. In 1905, Balfour as prime minister, introduced the Aliens Act, the first immigration controls in Britain, to limit Jewish refugees trying to come to Britain. The legislation described refugees ‘unable to support themselves’ as ‘undesirables’ and ‘aliens’.

When the 1917 declaration to support the Zionist cause was discussed in the cabinet, opposition to it came from the only Jewish member, Sir Edwin Montagu, who rightly pointed out that Zionism was a minority current among Jewish people. Zionism was viewed by many Jewish people as an acceptance that antisemitism existed instead of a challenge to it.

The carve up of the Middle East

In reality, the Balfour Declaration was tied in with the colonisation and dismemberment of the Middle East by the imperial powers during the First World War. In an article written in 1945, shortly after leaving Palestine, Ygael Gluckstein (later known as Tony Cliff) highlights four reasons why control of the Middle East was necessary for the imperialist powers:

“First, as a route to other regions – India, Australia, China, etc.; second, as a source of raw materials; third, as an important market for manufactured goods; and fourth, as a field for capital investment. It is self-evident that there is a close connection between these four aspects.”

The Middle East was strategically important as it linked Britain (and other European powers, especially France) to India and China. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 cut sailing times from Britain to India, and from France to what was then called Indo-China, dramatically. It also encouraged Imperial intervention into East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. As a result, the ports of Beirut, Haifa and Port Said grew in economic and strategic importance.

Second, and of equal importance, was the discovery of oil – one of the most important commodities of the 20th century – in the region.

The first oilfield in the Middle East was discovered in 1908 in present day Iran. In the prewar period, the Royal Navy shifted from coal powered ships to oil powered Dreadnoughts. British imports of oil products increased eleven-fold between 1900 and 1920. Controlling the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran became key Imperial goals.

The First World War offered the French and British empires an opportunity to extend their influence over the Middle East.

The (Turkish) Ottoman Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany. The British tried to foment rebellion in the region to undermine the Turkish war effort. They entered into various agreements with different groups, making vague promises about the future shape of the Middle East should Britain and its allies win the war.

In the immediate pre-war period there was considerable agitation for greater Arab autonomy within the Ottoman empire, especially in what was known as the ‘fertile crescent’ (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq). The ‘Young Turk’ revolt of 1908 against the Sultan, brought the promise of greater autonomy for the Arab provinces, but the dreams were soon squashed. A demand for Syrian self-government was rejected in early 1909 and the Young Turks turned towards a process of ‘Turkification’ across the old Ottoman Empire. The actions of the Young Turks fuelled Arab nationalism – and it was this that the British played upon and exploited during the war.

In a series of papers and letters known as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence of 1915/16, the British actively encouraged Arab hopes for independence. Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner of Egypt, with the authorisation of the British Foreign Secretary, reached out to the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali encouraging him to mobilise a revolt against the Ottomans.

Yet the demands for independence came up against the second British policy-perspective, encapsulated in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. Signed by the French and the British it detailed how they would divide the Middle East in the event of an Allied victory. The details were first made public by Leon Trotsky in Izvestia after the Russian Revolution in late November 1917 as he determined to expose the imperial carve up of the region.

The Agreement identified zones of permanent influence, with the French and British taking control of Arab resources, including oil. Palestinian resources were not central to the British empire, but the port of Haifa was. British control of Haifa would allow the export of oil from the Middle East out through the Mediterranean and, at the same time, offer a port for the British fleet to refuel, using the Suez Canal to get to and from India (the imperial ‘jewel in the crown’). Beirut, just up the Mediterranean coast, would perform a similar role for the French.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement affirms how important the region was to the imperial powers both economically and geopolitically. For both the British and the French any form of Arab independence would need to be compatible with their over-arching imperial interests.

For the British, the aim was to, “Integrate this project [ie of establishing a Jewish Homeland in Palestine] into the goal of sustaining empire without appearing to replicate imperialist expansionism and colonisation. They hoped that Zionist settlement would provide a convenient surrogate, effectively implementing colonisation under the guise of national reconstruction. Zionism … became an important adjunct of British imperial strategy in the Near East.”[1]

As the First World War drew to a close the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration were central to establishing British imperial support for a ‘Jewish homeland’ in Palestine. The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 began a process of dividing the postwar world, and by June that year a mandate system was put in place by a covenant of the League of Nations. Article 22 of the covenant stated that mandates would be held by ‘advanced nations’ to govern over peoples not yet ready to ‘stand by themselves in the modern world’.

The mandate system allowed the division of the Middle East in terms that broadly followed the Sykes-Picot Agreement: Lebanon and Syria were handed over to France, while Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine came under the British mandate.

For the rest of the 20th and the 21st centuries, the Middle East would become a battlefield over which the global powers would fight to gain or retain their power bases. It would be a struggle where the interests of ordinary Arabs would simply not register on the radar of the powerful.

The consequences for the people of Palestine were dramatic.

The mandate era was marked by increased European Jewish settlement, colonisation and the introduction of draconian and restrictive regulations imposed by British armed forces on everyday life as a means of controlling the Arab masses.

[1] B. Regan The Balfour Declaration: Empire, the Mandate and Resistance in Palestine (London, Verso 2017 p.9)

The Nakba75: the Roots of Israeli Apartheid series:
  1. Downward spiral: Settlers and state violence
  2. Palestine and the carve-up of the Middle East
  3. The origins of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration
  4. Palestinian resistance to Mandate rule
  5. What is settler colonialism?
  6. Al-Nakba: The ethnic cleansing of Palestine
  7. Israel: Watchdog for US imperialism
  8. Palestine: the key to freedom in the Middle East rests with the Arab working class
  9. Palestine and international solidarity

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