One hundred years ago, a single document of 67 words caused seismic shifts in the Middle East, the reverberations of which are still felt to this day. The Balfour Declaration, penned by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour on 2 November 1917, announced British support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine for the minority Jewish population. It was the first in an onslaught of stepping stones towards the synthesis of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948. It marked one of the many violent and disruptive legacies left by the West in the Middle East. But just what exactly did the Balfour Declaration entail, and how is it relevant to the politics of the Middle East today?
It marked one of the many violent and disruptive legacies left by the West
1917 was a year which bristled with historical significance in the Middle East. After the re ignition of offensives in Mesopotamia by the Indian Expeditionary Force, and the sweeping advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force across the Levant, the Ottoman Empire had been in a headlong retreat. The Empire’s control of the Middle East, following the redirection of forces from Gallipoli in 1916, and the victory over the British during the siege of Kut, had shown signs of promise, but had finally been reduced to a frail grasp by 1917.
Dubbed ‘The Sick Man of Europe’ since the mid-19th century, talk of dividing the Ottoman Empire was no novel concept. Russian designs on the Bosporus and Constantinople stretched back to the 18th century with Catherine the Great’s ‘Eastern Question’. Already by 1915, like ravenous vultures, the Great Entente Powers of Britain, France and Russia circled the carcass of the Ottoman Empire, looking hungrily to ideas of carving it up like a joint of meat. These ideas became finalised in the 1916 Skyes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, in which the neat geometric division of the Middle East based on the territorial lust of both powers was propositioned. Britain would have the territory now controlled by Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and Kuwait. France would endow itself with Syria and Lebanon.
This, however, was not the first shady-back alley deal Britain had sullied itself with during the Great War
This, however, was not the first shady-back alley deal Britain had sullied itself with during the Great War. In 1916, a string of correspondences between the Sharif of Mecca and Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner to Egypt were written. In them, McMahon gave his support for Arab independence after the war on Britain’s behalf, in exchange for a popular Arab revolt against the Ottomans. Struck with a zeal for independence, Arab armies revolted against their Ottoman overlords, raiding their supply lines and assisting the British in their advance across the Levant. Their sacrifice, unfortunately, would not be rewarded.
When these agreements were concluded, the Ottomans remained the dominant power in Arabia but 1917 was to be the year that signalled the end of four centuries of Ottoman sovereignty over the Middle East.
The British Empire had been mounting several campaigns in the Sinai and Palestine since 1915 after a German-led Ottoman force invaded a part of the then British protectorate of Egypt. These had resulted in a mixture of defeats and victories but late 1917 was to be the turning point for British interests in the region. By November 1917, the Third Battle of Gaza had come to a bloody conclusion, and the fragmented armies of the Ottoman Empire had embarked on a retreat into Syria. As the first columns of British troops entered a battle-scarred Gaza, a letter from British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour to the prominent Zionist, Lord Rothschild, was published in November 1917 in The Jewish Chronicle. Though a small paragraph, its significance could not be overstated. In it, Balfour pledged British support for the establishment of a home for the Jewish minority in Palestine (a territory not yet under British control, as the holy city of Jerusalem would not fall until December). This was the culmination of a policy of Zionism pushed by British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George since December 1916. The intention of this policy, however, was not altruism for the Jewish cause – far from it. Lloyd George viewed Palestine as a vital land-bridge between British Egypt and India, and as such, a Zionist state under British protection suited Britain very well. The Balfour Declaration infamously would join the ranks of agreements like Sykes-Picot which double-crossed the Arabs, dangling the carrot of Arab independence whilst sharpening the knives of imperialism behind their backs.
Russia was too riddled with civil war to benefit or participate
15 months following the Ottoman surrender in 1918, its division was finalised under the Treaty of Sevres on August 20th 1920. Ironically, after over 100 years and countless wars attempting to bring about Ottoman partition, Russia was too riddled with civil war to benefit or participate. This saw Britain and France redraw the map of the Middle East according to the straight, pencil drawn lines of Sykes-Picot, ceding Palestine to Britain. Almost before the ink had dried on the treaty, Jewish immigrants flocked to Palestine, causing dramatic increases in the size of the Jewish population. Despite the Balfour Declaration specifically insisting on due respect being paid to the Palestinian people, this did not prevent Jewish-Arabic tensions from boiling over. As the Jewish population in Palestine rose, so too did instability and violence, with Zionists believing Palestine to be their rightful homeland, and the Palestinian Arabs being filled with anger at the hollow promises of independence and Jewish encroachment on what they believed to be their land.
This Western support, initiated by Britain, for a Zionist state in Palestine would later snowball into the proclamation of the independent state of Israel in 1948, to the further dismay of the native Arab population, mapping out decades of unresolvable conflict, from the Arab-Israeli wars to the skirmishes we see today.
The Balfour Declaration still rings in the ears of the Middle East
The Balfour Declaration still rings in the ears of the Middle East. Besides the obvious implication of Arab-Israeli tensions and Zionism in the Near East, the declaration was symbolic of the many backroom plots the West concocted for their own exploitative gain. The ramifications stifling of Arab nationalism, elevation of tensions and cultivating an underlying hatred of the West, set the scene for the 100 years of history that followed in its wake. The words of Peter O’Toole, playing the desert-traversing diplomat Lawrence of Arabia in the film of the same name, prove particularly poignant: “Nothing is written.” As much as the Middle East has been artificially sculpted by words and treaties, these will not stop it from forging its own destiny, as civil wars, factional conflicts and rampant Kurdish nationalism today attest to.