The sweep of history is long, and events that happened one-hundred or even thousands of years ago continue to have repercussions in the present. Particularly in the Middle East.
The year 2014 will mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. That war caused the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Realizing the territorial gains that were to be had in the dismemberment of Ottoman lands, both the French and British began negotiations to share in the spoils. As British Prime Minister Asquith put it, “if…we were to leave the other nations to scramble for Turkey without taking anything for ourselves, we should not be doing our duty.”
The outcome in 1916 of these secret negotiations was what has become known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divided the Ottoman Empire into areas of British and French control. How were these areas of control determined? In a conversation with Arthur Balfour, Sir Mark Sykes, the British negotiator, traced his finger across a map and said “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk.” The map attached to the Agreement shows this literal “line in the sand” with the British sphere of control colored in red and the French sphere colored blue. The original red and blue states, if you will. But this carve up failed to take account of the various promises made to the Arabs.
The failure of the Gallipoli landings caused the British to worry that the Turks might mount an attack on the Suez Canal which would have cut Britain off from its empire in India. The idea was hatched in 1915 to provoke an Arab uprising. Sir Henry McMahon, the British governor of Egypt, made entreaties to Sharif Husein of Mecca. If the Arabs would turn against the Turks, British aid would follow, and Britain would support the Sharif’s claim to a Middle Eastern empire. But in putting this support in writing, the British engaged in an act of deceit that is still remembered in the Arab world today. The key phrase in McMahon’s letter to Husein was “…we accept these limits of boundaries; and in regard to those provisions of the territories therein in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally France…” To compound the deceit, the second qualifying phrase was dropped from the Arabic translation.
But it was another promise that would make interests in the Middle East irreconcilable. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 was addressed to Lord Rothschild and read as follows:
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours 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.” [the italics are mine]
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Christopher Sykes, historian and son of Sir Mark Sykes, has said that “nobody knows why the Balfour Declaration was made.” But it was T.E. Lawrence who painted the broader picture – “I quite recognise that we may have to sell our small friends to pay for our big friends, or sell our future security in the Near East to pay for our present victory in Flanders.”
The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 officially ended World War I and also established the short-lived League of Nations. The League created a British Mandate for Palestine which began on September 11, 1922. Another date which has not been forgotten in the Arab world nor more recently in the Western world.
The Preamble of the Mandate was as follows:
Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have agreed, for the purpose of giving effect to the provisions of Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, to entrust to a Mandatory selected by the said Powers the administration of the territory of Palestine, which formerly belonged to the Turkish Empire, within such boundaries as may be fixed by them; and
Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917 [the Balfour Declaration], by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might 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… [the italics again are mine]
Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations stated in part:
To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the States which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation and that securities for the performance of this trust should be embodied in this Covenant. [italics mine]
The best method of giving practical effect to this principle is that the tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility, and who are willing to accept it, and that this tutelage should be exercised by them as Mandatories on behalf of the League.
And what of events thousands of years ago in the Middle East? Sometime around 1100 BCE, God directed the Hebrew tribes coming out of Egypt to commit what today the United Nations would call Genocide against the indigenous Canaanites who had been living in the region since probably 2750 BCE.
Here is the word of God and his commandment to the Hebrews on what to do with the Canaanites – from Deuteronomy 7 and 20: “…you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them…you shall save alive nothing that breathes.”
Compare God’s words with the United Nation’s definition of Genocide in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:
…any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; [my italics]
From Rudyard Kipling:
Take up the White Man’s burden –
The savage wars of peace –
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.
The primary sources for this blog are two books I can highly recommend: A Line in the Sand, by James Barr, and Sowing the Wind, the Mismanagement of the Middle East 1900-1960, by John Keay.