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Did Britain Promise Palestine to the Arabs?

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Did Britain Promise Palestine to the Arabs?

Based on the ambiguous Hussein-McMahon correspondence, pro-Arab sources have maintained that the British had promised Palestine to the Arabs, as part of the reward of Sharif Husain for starting the Arab revolt and overthrowing Turkish power in the Middle East.

However, British officials denied consistently that that was the case. A book written in 1943 documented the claims of British officials, and also gave extensive documentation of the aid that the Jews and the Zionist organization gave to the British in overthrowing Turkish rule in Palestine.

From the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, October 31, 1943:

THE FORGOTTEN ALLY,
By Pierre Van Paassen . . .
343 pp. . . . New York;
Dial Press. . . .

Reviewed by
EDGAR ANSEL MOWRER

This extremely well written book by the much traveled and imaginative Mr. Van Paassen is really a disturbing accusation. The "forgotten ally" is the Zionist Jew of Palestine. The author accuses the United Nations in general of forgetting the Jews, and Great Britain in particular of betraying them. Selling them down the River Jordan, in the interest of British Middle Eastern imperialism.

To make his case, Mr. Van Paassen, with the flourishes of Luther tacking his immortal thesis to the church door at Wittenberg, makes a number of bold, challenging statements.

Let us look at them.
Mr. Van Paassen says:

1. The United Nations are passively permitting the extermination of the European Jews when they could be saving a large number of them.
(I think this is correct. Failure to consider the relief of European Jewry a major task will remain a blot on the fine records of Messrs. Roosevelt and Churchill.)

2. The Jews' natural (perhaps only) haven of refuge, Palestine, was deliberately cut off by the British White Paper of 1939, which started as a cowardly gesture of appeasement condemned by Churchill himself, and is now being maintained by Churchill in the interests of British post-war imperialism.
(Certainly, His Britannic Majesty's Government has as yet expressed no adequate excuse for closing the doors of Palestine to Jewish refugees.

3. It is not true Palestine was promised twice by the British, once to the Jews and once to the Arabs. Palestine, including Trans-Jordania, was promised only to the Jews and the Arabs so understood it.
(A good case is made for this thesis.)

4. Hostility between the Jew and the Arab is not “inherent.” It has been deliberately created and kept alive by anti-Semitic officials of the British Colonial Office, determined to bring about the undoing of the Balfour declaration.

5. British colonial officials in the '20s deliberately fomented native uprisings in Syria and Lebanon against the French.
(I believe this. Today Churchill's dislike of De Gaulle is based in part, as Van Paassen states and I happen to know, on the latter's proclamation of independence for the two regions, thus subtracting them from British and "British-Arab" control.)

6. Palestinian Jews, as soldiers, engineers, workers, played a major role in the salvation of Egypt and enabled Montgomery to throw back Rommel. Examples: A Jewish engineer built the vital bridge across the Euphrates River; a battalion of mine-laying Jewish engineers under Major Felix Liebmann held Mechli for two days against all manner of Axis assaults until relieved by French General Koenig of Bir-Hacheim fame; Jewish suicide task forces frequently went into Rommel's camp disguised as Germans, Jews helped the United Nations take Vichy-French Syria; a Jewish battalion under Major Richard Perach led the battalion that turned the Mareth line. When Montgomery took over from Auchinieck, the Egyptian Army consisted of 45,000 men. A full quarter were Jews. In the British 8th Army at one time or another were 30,000 Jewish fighters supported (from Palestine) by 200,000 "Palestinian" (read Jewish) farmers and workers (7,000 factories).
Now, Palestinian Jews, officially neutral, had no obligation to help Britain. Of all these important Jewish contributions, no official British mention was ever made. It was the "best kept secret of the war." 

(The charge is correct according to my check-up.)

7. The reason for the British "strange policy of delay, obstructionism, and, yes, even cruelty" toward the Jews lies in British imperial plans for the future.


Britain and the United States, according to Van Paassen, intend to have control of the French Empire. Hence hostility to De Gaulle. And British colonial administrators will not permit the creation, in the midst of a vast backward, agrarian, feudal, Arab territory under British influence, of even a small, model, industrialized Jewish state, whose progressive ideas would spread to the Arabs and provoke "dangerous thoughts." For that would thwart imperialism.
(A number of well informed people believe this. I have no direct knowledge.)

Such, briefly, are Mr. Van Paassen's thesis and the reviewer's comments. The Information Service of His Majesty's Government would do well to answer them--not with a blanket or mere indignation, but calmly, chapter and verse. Success here would help good Anglo-American relations, essential to the world.


From the Forgotten Ally, by Pierre Van Paassen, published by Dial Press, 1943

"When in later years an Arab nationalist movement was born in Palestine and its leaders, in support of their opposition to the Jewish national home, invoked the correspondence that had passed between Sir Henry McMahon and the Sherif of Mecca at the start of the war and incited the peasants to bloodshed and destruction of property by alleging that Britain had broken her pledge to make Palestine an independent Arab country, Sir Henry McMahon, then long since retired from government service, wrote two letters to clarify the earlier understandings. In the first, dated March 12, 1922, addressed to the British government, he said that he had intended to exclude Palestine from the area of Arab independence as fully as the Syrian coastal regions to the north. In a second letter, addressed to the editor of The Times and published by that newspaper on July 23, 1937, he wrote: 'I feel it my duty to state, and do so definitely and emphatically, that it was not intended by me in giving this pledge (of independence) to King Hussein to include Palestine in the area in which Arab independence was promised. I also had every reason to believe at the time that the fact that Palestine was not included in my pledge was well understood by King Hussein.'" [pp. 115-116]

"Sir Ronald Storrs, who as Oriental Secretary to the High Commissioner (Sir Henry McMahon) handled the Anglo-Arab correspondence, wrote in his [book] Orientations: 'Palestine was excluded from the promises made to the Arabs before those British (military) operations which gave freedom to so large a proportion of the Arab peoples.'" [p. 116]

"In the year 1937, when Palestine was plunged into chaos and bloodshed by the Arabs, and their leader, Haj Hussein Amin, Mufti of Jerusalem, again invoked the McMahon correspondence, William Ormsby Gore, who was attached to the McMahon staff in 1916, stated in the House of Commons, on July 21, 1937, 'that it never was in the mind of anyone on that staff that Palestine west of the Jordan was in the area within which the British Government then undertook to further the cause of Arab independence.' Colonel Lawrence also took the view that Palestine was excluded from the areas in which Britain intended to foster Arab independence and said so in a letter to The Times on September 11, 1919." [p. 116]

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