Towards the birth of the State of Israel. The First World War

Ferrara concludes with this article a series of four interesting cultural-historical summaries to understand the configuration of the state of Israel, the Arab-Israeli question and the presence of the Jewish people in the world today.

Gerardo Ferrara-August 8, 2023-Reading time: 4 minutes

Israeli security personnel ©OSV News photo/Ammar Awad, Reuters

Both pan-Arab and pan-Islamic nationalism began to become "local", or rather, to identify a Palestinian problem in the face of the growing Jewish presence in the region. PalestineRashid Rida (1865-1935), a Syrian Muslim who, won over by the ideas of Al-Afghani and Abduh, became convinced of the need for Arab independence, while identifying Arabism with Islam, elements which in his opinion were indissolubly linked.

The "Palestinian problem

Rashid Rida was the founder of Al-Manar magazine and author of the first anti-Zionist article, in which he accused his compatriots of immobility. With Rida, a specific Palestinian national consciousness germinated within pan-Arab and pan-Islamic nationalism.
It is important to mention the two currents of thought that emerged from the Arab national awakening first and the Palestinian national awakening later, since the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is practically a child of the former, with the Fatah movement (of which Yasser Arafat was the leader and of which the current president of the Palestinian National Authority is a member); of the latter, on the other hand, Hamas is a direct descendant. At present, both currents fight fiercely against each other, each claiming to be the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and their aspirations.

The over-promised land

The presence of Western powers in the territories ruled by the Ottoman Empire does not date back to the end of the 19th century. In fact, as early as the 15th century, several European states signed treaties with the Porte to secure privileges. This was the case of the Republic of Genoa (1453, immediately following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople), followed by Venice (1454) and other Italian states. Then it was the turn of France, which signed several agreements with the Ottoman Empire, the most important in 1604.

All these bilateral pacts signed between the Sublime Porte and the European states took the name of Capitulations and established that, in religious and civil matters, the foreign subjects present in the Ottoman territories referred to the codes of the countries of which they were citizens, imitating the model known as "millet". This legislative model stipulated that each non-Muslim religious community was recognized as a "nation" (from the Arabic "millah", Turkish "millet") and was governed by the religious head of that community, vested with both religious and civil functions. The highest religious authority of a Christian community or nation (such as the Armenians), for example, was the patriarch.

Since, traditionally, the Latin Catholic Church was not very present in the Ottoman territories, the Capitulations, especially the agreements with France, favored the influx of Catholic missionaries. Other powers - including in particular the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but later above all Germany, Constantinople's historical ally also in the First World War - began to compete with each other in the field of the protection of the Empire's non-Muslim minorities, and into this game entered at the beginning of the 20th century Great Britain, which until then had remained almost empty-mouthed because it had not found any minorities to protect.
If European international politics had tried, until then, to keep alive the "great sick man" that was the Ottoman Empire, the entry of Constantinople into the war on the side of the Germanic Empire and against the Entente powers (Great Britain, Russia and France) pushed the latter to agree to the partition of the "Turkish carcass".
Here began the great game of nations over the future of the very peoples who had been subject to the Sublime Porte. We cite, in particular, a series of agreements and declarations that concern more closely the area of the Middle East that interests us:

- Hussein-McMahon Agreement (1915-1916): the essence of this agreement, contracted between the Sherif Hussein of Mecca (ancestor of the present King Abdallah of Jordan) and Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, was that Great Britain, in exchange for support in the conflict against the Turks and important economic concessions, would undertake to guarantee, once the war was over, the independence of an Arab kingdom extending from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf, would undertake to guarantee, once the war was over, the independence of an Arab kingdom extending from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf and from south-central Syria (the north was within French interests) to Yemen, with the Sherif of Mecca at its head.

- Sykes-Picot Agreement. This agreement was stipulated between Great Britain, in the person of Sir Mark Sykes, and France, represented by Georges Picot, in parallel to the negotiations with the Sherif Hussein of Mecca, testifying to the extent to which the ambiguous and blind policy of the European states in the area, later followed by the United States, had caused devastating damage over time.

The pacts stipulated that the former Ottoman Empire (in the eastern part, i.e. part of Cilicia and Anatolia, together with present-day Palestine/Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Mesopotamia) would be divided into Arab states under the sovereignty of a local leader, but with a sort of right of first refusal, in political and economic matters, for the protecting powers, which would be: France for the interior zone of Syria, with the districts of Damascus, Hama, Homs, Aleppo up to Mosul; Great Britain for the interior part of Mesopotamia, for Transjordan and the Negev.

For other areas, direct administration by the two powers was envisaged (France in Lebanon, in the coastal areas of Syria and parts of Cilicia and eastern Anatolia; Great Britain for the districts of Baghdad and Basra). Palestine, for its part, would remain under the administration of an international regime agreed upon with Russia, the other allies and the jerife of Mecca.

- Balfour Declaration (promulgated in 1917 but with negotiations dating back to 1914). With this declaration Britain affirmed that it looked favorably on the creation of a "national home," a deliberately vague definition, in Palestine for the Jewish people. However, the British were well aware that 500,000 Arabs would never have agreed to be ruled by even 100,000 Jews. Therefore, they reserved the option of annexing Palestine to the British Empire, favoring Jewish immigration there, and only then giving the Jews the possibility of self-rule.

We know that British General Allenby entered Jerusalem victoriously, liberating it from the Ottomans, and that after the Great War, Britain, which had promised Palestine to half the world, kept it for itself. But that is another story.

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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