North Africa, West Asia

How Britain’s recognition of Israel violated its colonial “mandate” over Palestine

Britain’s undertakings from the government’s own archives, show a pride rooted in false promises of “one nation promising a second the land of a third”

Omar Sabbour
13 February 2018

French map of the Vilayet of Aleppo: Antioch and Alexendretta, today part of Turkey, can be seen as west to the “Sanjdjak De Alepp” (Sanjak of Aleppo). Source: Wikimedia commons

 In an interview with BBC host Emily Maitlis on Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Israel’s ambassador to the UK Mark Regev cited what he called a hypocritical Arab reaction to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, declaring: “The Palestinians and the Arab World officially say that they recognise Israel within the 1967 boundaries, so why is there a problem with recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital when Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel since 1949?”  

Regev’s audacity here was alarming even by his notorious standards.

For one, the ‘Arab acceptance’ of Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders was of course conditioned on Israel staying within those borders, i.e. the end of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Furthermore East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed to West Jerusalem as part of its ‘eternal undivided capital’ against international law in 1980, of course lay within the Palestinian state according to the 1967 borders. The Arab acceptance was additionally tied to the settling of other outstanding resolutions from 1948, such as the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees (UN Resolution 181) and the Status of Jerusalem. 

Indeed, the reason that the international community does not recognise Jerusalem (that is, even West Jerusalem before 1967) as Israel's capital is because the city was originally designated by the 1947 UN partition plan – which Israel proclaims as the basis of its legitimacy, despite going on to annex half of the allocated Arab state in the 1948 war – to be an international city. In the eyes of the international community, a revised status of Jerusalem which would depart from the original UN resolution is thus subject to a final agreement with the Palestinians, since the partition plan was meant to create two states.

Of course, this does not mean that the very recognition by the ‘international community’ of Israel in 1948/49 was anything but contradictory, largely political, and in legal terms arguably somewhat nonsensical. The ‘international community’ – then primarily a small club of old colonial powers, recently independent Latin American states under the strong influence of the US, as well as the Eastern Bloc under Stalin’s similarly pro-Israel USSR – accepted Israel’s occupation of half of the allocated Arab state during the 1948 war, but balked at the annexation of West Jerusalem – the declared capital of the state being recognised – despite both of these realities violating the Partition plan.
Britain would refuse to vote for Israel’s recognition at the UN on three separate occasions

Indeed, despite Theresa May’s declaration during the centenary of the Balfour Declaration of her ‘pride’ of Britain’s role in creating Israel, Britain on the other hand was in fact against the concept of partition, and despite US pressure and heavy wartime debts owed to it, abstained on the 1947 Partition plan vote. Indeed, the British ambassador to the United Nations at the time, Ernest Bevin, described the partition resolution (which granted 55% of Palestine to the Zionists, despite the Jewish population still being outnumbered by Arabs by two-to-one even after three decades of mass immigration) as “so manifestly unjust for the Arabs that it is difficult to see how we could reconcile it with our conscience”. Between 1948 and 1949, Britain would refuse to vote for Israel’s recognition at the UN on three separate occasions, before becoming the last state to do so in 1949 following the end of the first Arab-Israeli war.

May's misplaced 'pride'

May’s unapologetic acceptance of Britain’s right to decide the fate of another people on their behalf of course displayed a continued colonial hubris. That the Declaration and subsequent Palestine Mandate constituted “one nation promising a second the land of a third” was substantiated by Britain’s own census of Palestine, which in 1922 showed Arabs outnumbering the Jewish community (which it should be noted included local, Arabised Jews as well as Zionist settlers) by a ratio of nine-to-one. However, what is perhaps less recognised is that her declaration of ‘pride’ of Israel’s creation out of the Palestine mandate in fact contradicted Britain’s official and ‘legal’ undertakings during its control over Palestine.

Contrary to what may be popular perception today, British governments throughout the duration of the Mandate in fact denied that their aim in Palestine was to transform it into a Jewish state, declaring that Britain only meant to establish a Jewish ‘homeland’ or national presence within Palestine (though in practical terms of course, British policy would effectively set up the infrastructures of the Zionist state). Instead, Britain’s policy on Palestine was to establish a ‘binational state’ of Arabs and Jews, and this was an official tenet of the Palestine mandate. To emphasise this the ratified declaration of the Mandate would remove the draft wording of a Zionist ‘claim’ (a term seen as having potential legal connotations) to Palestine, as well as an excerpt declaring “…the establishment of the Jewish National Home as the guiding principle in the execution of the Mandate”.

Meanwhile the phrasing of “reconstituting Palestine a Jewish national home” (phrasing which was not present in the Balfour Declaration) would be changed to reconstituting a Jewish national home in Palestine”, against Zionist opposition. Such ‘clarifications’ were not accidental. Thus when Hubert Young, a prominent pro-Zionist figure in the Foreign Office, wrote in 1921 that the British commitment “…in respect of Palestine is the Balfour Declaration constituting it a National Home for the Jewish People”, he was corrected by Foreign Secretary Curzon: “No. ‘Establishing a National Home in Palestine for the Jewish people’ – a very different proposition”.

This differentiation in British policy continued to be consistently repeated by different British administrations, including even by pro-Zionist figures. Thus the 1922 Churchill White Paper would reaffirm that Britain’s mandate was not to create a separate Jewish state in Palestine – declaring again that the “…[Balfour] Declaration… do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded "in Palestine"” – before adding that there was to be only one form of citizenship for Arabs and Jews alike: a Palestinian one. Even Britain’s first High Commissioner in Palestine, the renowned and ardent Zionist Herbert Samuel, would declare to a Jerusalem crowd in 1921 that “Britain has never consented and would never consent” to a “Jewish Government” in Palestine. Finally, the 1939 White Paper would declare "The independent State [of Palestine] should be one in which Arabs and Jews share government in such a way as to ensure that the essential interests of each community are safeguarded."

This distinction especially stressed when Britain faced criticisms that the Balfour Declaration violated the McMahon-Hussein agreement of 1915 (which preceded the Balfour Declaration), which promised independence to the Arabs if they agreed to revolt against the Ottomans. Indeed, in 1922 the House of Lords rejected ratification of the Palestine Mandate and its commitment to establishing a Jewish national home both as “opposed to the sentiments and wishes of the great majority of the people of Palestine” as well as “[it] directly violates the pledges made by His Majesty's Government to the people of Palestine in the Declaration of October, 1915 [McMahon Correspondence], and again in the Declaration of November, 1918”.

The Lords were overruled by the Conservative-led Commons - in no small part due to the efforts of Winston Churchill. This was despite his admission in 1921 that: “The difficulty about the promises of a National Home for Jews in Palestine was that it conflicted with our regular policy of consulting the wishes of the people in mandated territories and giving them a representative institution as soon as the people were fitted for it”. Herbert Samuel was similarly candid, writing: “What we have got to face is the fact that as long as we persist in our Zionist policy, we have got to maintain all our present forces in Palestine to enforce a policy hateful to the great majority, a majority which means to fight and to continue to fight and has right on its side”.

Britain’s other forgotten promise

“The Palestine position is this. If we deal with our commitments, there is first the general pledge to Hussein in October 1915, under which Palestine was included in the areas as to which Great Britain pledged itself that they should be Arab and independent in the future” - Soon-to-be Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, speaking in 1918 as Chairman of the Eastern Committee of the British Cabinet.

During the First World War, an agreement was made between the British official Henry McMahon, representing the British government, and Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite Arab Emir of Mecca, promising independence in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire if the Arabs agreed to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. The areas which would formulate the independent Arab state would extend until Aden in the south (which was a British colony), Turkey in the north, and Persia (Iran) in the east.

There were however territorial exemptions laid out by McMahon within these limits: described as areas which “could not be said to be purely Arab” and were of interest to Britain’s ally, France. These were defined as “the two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo”. The resulting pact resulted in the launch of the Arab Revolt of 1916, later made famous by the accounts of British officer T.E. Lawrence, i.e. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. With British support, the revolt succeeded in expelling the Ottomans from the Hijaz (Western Arabia) and Syria.

An agreement was made promising independence in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire if the Arabs agreed to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. 
However following the end of the First World War, some pro-Zionist British officials in the post war government, led by Arthur Balfour and Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, would try to retroactively dispute the wartime government’s original claim that the territorial ‘exemptions’ declared within the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence did not include Palestine. Indeed, British archive records (these were separately relayed by and can be found in the works of Eli Kedourie and Arnold Toynbee) showed that both the British War Office and the British Arab Bureau confirmed in 1916 that Palestine was part of the proposed Arab state, and furthermore that the British government even dropped leaflets in Palestine during the war proclaiming the agreement for Arab independence in exchange for the Arab revolt against the Ottomans.

Though a natural and intuitive conclusion would be that the areas in question referred to the Syrian coast, and in particular Lebanon (which would become a French mandate, and in which France had long enjoyed special privileges since Ottoman time), this revised interpretation was adopted in order to deny any contradiction with the later Balfour Declaration and Sykes-Picot Treaty. In particular, the theory seemed to gain traction when the jurisdiction over Palestine was moved from the Foreign Office to the Colonial Office (headed by Winston Churchill), yet it was thoroughly debunked by the records and statements of British officials themselves – both before and after the revision.

A theory debunked

In its simplest form, the revisionist interpretation of the McMahon promise rested on the notion that by ‘districts’ McMahon actually meant to refer to ‘provinces’, i.e. the Ottoman administrative subdivision of Vilayat. The term ‘Vilayat’ came from the Arabic ‘Wilayat’, also used by Arabs as ‘province’ but additionally understandable as ‘district’, ‘region’ or ‘environs’. The English version of the letter used the term ‘district’, whilst Wilayet appeared in the Arabic translation. According to this revisionist reading, territories which were ‘west to the provinces [Vilayets] of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo’ would include Palestine.

However, as the British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax correctly noted in a government memorandum in 1939, there were no Ottoman Viliyats of Homs, Hama or even Damascus; the only provinces that existed were the Vilayet of Syria and the Vilayet of Aleppo. Additionally, there was no land west to the Villayet of Aleppo, but rather the Mediterranean Sea. If read as ‘districts’ on the other hand, which Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Hama had all been known as under the Ottomans (including colloquially by the population and officially as Sanjaks – which unlike Vilayet was a Turkish word not used by the Arabs), the areas west to the districts or Sanjaks of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo would include the Sanjaks of Beirut, Mount Lebanon (also known as the ‘Mutasriffiyat of Mount Lebanon’ – an independent or specially administered Sanjak), Tripoli, Lattakia, as well as the two Ottoman sub-districts (Qazas) of Alexandretta and Antioch.

Under the French Mandate Beirut, Mount Lebanon and Tripoli would form “Greater Lebanon” (which would become independent as Lebanon), whilst Alexandretta and Antioch formed the semi-autonomous ‘Sanjak of Alexandretta’ which would be ceded by France to Turkey before the end of the Mandate. Lattakia, meanwhile, would receive substantial autonomy during the French mandate as the ‘Alawite state’, and like Lebanon was similarly intended to be separated from Syria by France (this was however abandoned in the 1940s as a result of sustained Syrian nationalist pressure).

In other words, Palestine was not to the west of any of the districts of ‘Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo’, but lay considerably further to the south as well as to the west. Indeed, the entirety of Palestine could have been identified as the area west of the districts or Sanjaks of Houran and Ma’an. If insufficient, there were additionally three known Ottoman districts within Palestine which could also have been named, namely the Independent Sanjak (also Mutasriffiyat) of Jerusalem, the Sanjak of Nablus/Balqa and the Sanjak of Acre, which combined roughly constituted the borders of Mandatory Palestine.


The Vilayet of Aleppo was also divided into Sanjaks (including the Sanjak of Aleppo), as shown in next map. Furthermore, the Mutassirifyat of Jerusalem’s south-eastern border had in fact been changed by the Ottomans in 1906 to reflect Palestine’s familiar modern boundary. Source:


French map of the Vilayet of Aleppo: Antioch and Alexendretta, today part of Turkey, can be seen as west to the “Sanjdjak De Alepp” (Sanjak of Aleppo). Source: Wikimedia commons


Area “west to District of Aleppo”: Alexandretta & Antioch (Sanjak of Alexandretta) Area “west to District of Hama”: Latakia (Alawite State) Area “west to District of Homs”: Tripoli (Greater Lebanon) Area “west to District of Damascus”: Beirut & Mount Lebanon (Greater Lebanon). Source: Wikimedia commons

Indeed, this was made clear in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence itself, with Sharif Hussein writing: “We find it our duty that the eminent minister [McMahon] should be sure that, at the first opportunity after this war is finished, we shall ask you … for what we today put aside regarding France in Beirut and its coasts”. This was subsequently acknowledged without correction by McMahon. Palestine’s capital district, Jerusalem, was of course not part of ‘Beirut and its coasts’ (nor the Ottoman Vilayat of Beirut).

Thus the reality is that if Palestine was intended to be excluded, it could’ve been excluded alternately as:

  1. ‘Palestine’, which was the commonly used term at the time (as the thousands of 19th century travelogues to the area, such as those of Mark Twain, would attest);

  2. ‘Areas to the west of the districts of Houran and Ma’an’;

  3. ‘The districts of Acre, Nablus and Jerusalem’;

  4. ‘The district [actually province or Vilayet] of Beirut and the district [Mutasrifiyat] of Jerusalem’

Instead, the likes of Winston Churchill, who would later deride the Palestinian Arab claim to Palestine in the words “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time”, would proclaim that McMahon really meant to say ‘provinces’ when he said districts – which failed as a revisionist interpretation in any case since no such provinces existed. Indeed, aware of widespread opposition to his ‘reading’ within the British government itself, Winston Churchill argued that the classified text of the McMahon agreement should not be published, stating that it was “not in the public interest”.

Britain of course later comprehensively betrayed the McMahon-Hussein agreement with the 1917 Sykes-Picot treaty: not only taking control of Palestine, but also other areas which were (even more definitively) outside of the areas ‘exempted’ such as Transjordan - whilst the entirety of Syria (and not just its western coast) would be similarly betrayed by Britain to French control.

Zionist contradictions

Indeed, here an interesting contradiction can be highlighted within the Zionist narrative: whilst often proclaiming the Balfour Declaration as the ‘legal’ basis for the Israeli state, the Zionist movement at the time in fact condemned in Britain in no uncertain terms for its affirmations that the Mandate’s purpose was not to create a Jewish state. Therefore, it is rather the case that when relations are warm with the British government, as was the case during the centenary’s celebrations, Israel’s proponents would praise Britain’s role in the foundation of Israel, yet when relations are cold, as they indeed ostensibly were during the early years of the State of Israel, Britain would be condemned in no uncertain terms by the same proponents. 

Indeed, even today official Israeli accounts continue to declare that Britain was an ‘obstacle’ to the creation of Israel, whilst attempting to fight back at increasingly popular accusations of Israel as a colonial product of the British Empire. Accusations of British ‘betrayal’ are rife throughout both historical and contemporary Zionist books. Herein lies a further contradiction: on the one hand Zionists condemned the British authorities for their repeated affirmations that Balfour’s promise of a Jewish homeland did not equate a commitment to creating a Jewish state, whilst on the other proclaiming that same British promise as the basis of Israel’s legitimacy.

This reality formed one of the reasons Britain was busy throughout the 1940s being embroiled in fighting what it termed a 'terrorist' insurgency by various Zionist factions (later Prime Ministers of Israel such as Menachem Begin had been designated as wanted ‘terrorists’ by the British mandate authorities). It is also why Britain abstained on the 1947 Partition plan vote.

This is therefore one of the most ironic realities of Theresa May’s declaration of ‘pride’ of Britain’s role in establishing Israel: at the official level, the State of Israel was founded against the tenets of the British Mandate. Not only were British actions in Palestine unjust in the obvious (and main) sense of constituting a hubristic colonial imposition, but 'honest' and 'proper' Britain actually acted dishonestly and improperly in Palestine even according to its own colonial commitments.

Thus whilst May and others can perhaps try to ignore the colonial nature of Britain's actions in Palestine (or if acknowledging it, view them as not necessarily negative) – or imply that its legacies should stand regardless as a product of British Empire ‘officialdom’, executed by a then-‘legitimate’ ancestor of the modern state – she would be well advised to familiarise herself with Britain’s undertakings from the government’s archives, before further enthusing on a pride rooted in false promises.

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