The History Behind the Balfour Declaration and the UN Partition That Birthed Israel

The French and British envisioned retaining control over the entire region, by leading the local powers by the nose

Mr. and Mrs. Winston Churchill at Government House reception on March 28th 1921, Jerusalem with Emir Abdullah of Transjordan and Sir Herbert Samuel on steps at left of Churchill. Churchill, Lawrence & the Emir Abdullah.
Library of Congress/Colony Photographer (Jerusalem)/Wikimedia Commons

On July 24, 1922, the Council of the League of Nations confirmed the British Mandate for Palestine, thereby giving a stamp of international legitimacy to the United Kingdom’s assumption of control over this sensitive piece of territory.

The land in question includes present-day Israel, Jordan and the disputed territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. All, prior to World War I, had been part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled from what was then called Constantinople (today Istanbul).

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Britain’s interest in Palestine began after the Ottoman Turks entered the war. Suddenly, their access to India and the rest of Asia, whether via the Suez Canal or by land through Palestine, was threatened.

Britain casts about for allies

In their struggle against the Turks, the British wanted to enlist the assistance of both the burgeoning Jewish community that was coalescing in the Land of Israel as part of the Zionist movement, and of the Arab tribes that inhabited the region.

In 1915, the British formed the Zion Mule Corps, which was succeeded by the Jewish Legion, and which would provide Jews with their own, albeit symbolic, means to participate in the war effort on the part of the Allies, rather than with the Turks.

Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, 1919.
Lowell Thomas/Wikimedia Commons

Simultaneously, T.E. Lawrence, an Arabic-speaking intelligence officer, was entrusted with the responsibility of encouraging the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, to take up arms against the Ottoman rulers of the Arabian peninsula, in what became known as the Arab Revolt.

In both cases, the British were cultivating allies in the region by encouraging them to believe that supporting the defeat of the sultan would lead to independence.

In the case of the Zionists, the encouragement was made explicit in October 1917, in a letter sent by the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild, stating the approval of “His Majesty’s Government” for the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine at the conclusion of the war.

Even prior to the Balfour Declaration was the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, an exchange of letters between the British high commissioner in Cairo and the Sharif of Mecca, between July 1915 and January 1916. In them, a senior British official assured the Arab leader that if he and his people joined the war on the side of the Allies, the UK would recognize Arab independence following the war.

British and French find common cause

What only became known later – in November 1917 -- was that while the British were raising hopes for independence among both Jews and Arabs, they were also negotiating with their French allies to split up the Middle East into spheres of influence, that they would continue to control respectively following the presumed defeat of the Axis powers.

The plan was for the British to govern Palestine and Transjordan, as well as Iraq, and the French to take control of what are today Syria and Lebanon.

What came out of these overlapping promises and mixed messages was the British mandatory regime in Palestine, which was discussed at a series of conferences between 1919 and 1922, and decided upon by the fledgling League of Nations on July 24, 1922.

The "British Mandate" officially entrusted the United Kingdom with responsibility for “placing the country [Palestine] under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home ... and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race or religion.”

Until that point, “Palestine” was understood to encompass not only the land stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River – today’s Israel and the West Bank – but also Transjordan, the much larger land to the east that today comprises the Kingdom of Jordan.

Two months later, in September 1922, the League and the UK agreed that the Jewish national home would not include Transjordan.

The mandatory system was not meant to establish British rule in the area in perpetuity, but rather "until such time as they [the Arab and Jewish entities] are able to stand alone." What may be surprising, considering how strictly Britain clamped down on Jewish immigration during the 1930s and ‘40s, is that the mandate included a British commitment to “facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions.” On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted a partition of Mandatory Palestine at the end of the British Mandate - with the U.K. officially abstaining from the vote.