Some people in UK and US will have heard of Balfour, he of the infamous declaration. A few may be aware of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, but I wonder how many are aware of the McMahon correspondence. Two years before Balfour, while secret negotiations were already planned between France and Great Britain to carve up the Middle East post-war into ‘spheres of influence’ (code for imperial control), Sir Henry McMahon, High Commissioner in Cairo wrote a letter to Sherif Hussein in Mecca. This letter, his response to Hussein’s proposal for an independent Arab state incorporating all the Arab provinces of the soon to collapse Ottoman Empire, appeared to Arab eyes to be a promise of independence in return for support to the Allies against the Turks.

An Arab revolt against Turkish rule in the Hedjaz would have the effect of diverting men and weapons to a new theatre of war, thus weakening the force Germany could use on the ‘Western Front’.  The actual effect of the revolt is much debated, including the role of T.E.Lawrence ( read e.g.  Anthony Bruce, ‘The Last Crusade’; James Barr, ‘A Line in the Sand’) but the Arab armies fighting with British help up the peninsula as far as Damascus lost 20,000 men killed. The revolt was undertaken, based on a promise from Great Britain, for the purpose of ‘setting up a greater Arab state’ (Gerald Butt, ‘The Arabs’).  Whilst there is a certain ambiguity in the text as to the precise areas there can be no doubt that the Sherif was justified in believing he had a promise of independence for the greater part of what is now Israel-Palestine- Lebanon-Saudi Arabia-Syria-Jordan.

If Sykes-Picot was merely imperialism in action, and kept  secret for nearly two years, Balfour was a betrayal.  The Wilsonian Principle of self-determination for indigenous peoples, implicit in the League of Nations Articles and explicit in the UN Charter, could be ignored in respect of the Arabs who, unlike the Zionists, had no representatives in Washington and London.

Telling the Arabs, “You lost, get over it” is pointless.  Irish Republicans haven’t forgotten William of Orange and many in the republican southern states of USA have not forgotten the civil war.  In the Middle East the situation is both worse and more recent.  Western influence, mainly for ill, is still felt keenly.  When in 2012 I spoke with a Palestinian woman whose family had been illegally evicted from their home by Israeli settlers with the support of the Israeli army, her anger at me, because I was British, was palpable; it was all our fault. McMahon, Sykes-Picot and Balfour were the context for her anger. British duplicity had let her down, was implicated in the death a few days later of her disabled husband, and is still part of the sub-text of Arab-Muslim suspicions in the region.

If we want to be part of a solution in the Middle East we must stop being part of the problem; we and USA both.


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