January 4, 2012
A Twice Denied Land: The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence
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A Twice Denied Land: The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence
It wasn't long after World War I ended when Arab leaders accused their war-time ally, GreatBritain, of duplicity during the war in promising Palestine first to the Arabs and then to the Jews. The British government rejected the charge, replying that Arab leaders had misconstrued wartime negotiations with them covering Palestine.
The negotiations in question were contained in a series of ten letters between Sharif Hussein bin Ali Sharif, at the time Emir of Mecca, responsible for the custody of Islam's shrines in the Hejazand, consequently, recognized as one of the Muslims’ spiritual leaders, and Sir Henry McMahon, the High Commissioner for Egypt. The ten letters (five each by Hussein and McMahon) are known as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence (or the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence), and were written between July 14, 1915 and March 10, 1916.
The correspondence began with a letter to McMahon from Hussein that among other requests sought British acceptance of certain Arab territorial claims to the Arabian peninsula. McMahon responded in his first letter to Hussein that it was, "premature to consume our time in discussing such details in the heat of war, and while, in many portions of them [territories requested by Hussein], the Turk is up to now in effective occupation..." Hussein replied that he detected a certain "coolness and hesitation" on the part of the British on the question of territorial limits to be granted the Arabs after the war had ended. Hussein added that the territories requested were surly the properties of many peoples who lived on the land, and that after the war precise negotiations would take place to ensure native peoples were provided for, but that such details should not in any way deter the British from making the easy pronouncement that those requested lands, en masse, would be Arab lands. Hussein had shrewdly called the British hand, and the British had no choice now but to place their cards on the table.
In the reply letter of October 24, 1915 to Hussein, McMahon, after consultation with the British government, wrote, "The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded. With the above modification[emphasis: mine], and without prejudice of our existing treaties with Arab chiefs, we accept those limits [emphasis: mine]."
In the follow up letter to McMahon dated November 5, 1915, Hussein rejects Great Britain's modification relating to the areas "of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs,Hama and Aleppo". Hussein writes, "the two vilayets of Aleppo and Beirut and their sea coasts are purely Arab vilayets, and there is no difference between a Moslem and a Christian Arab: they are both descendants of one forefather."
Hussein's last word in the correspondence on this sticking point swirling around the Vilayets of Beirut and Aleppo is again to refuse Great Britain's modification. Hussein writes in his letter of January 1, 1916, "yet we find it our duty that the eminent minister should be sure that, at the first opportunity after this war is finished, we shall ask you (what we avert our eyes from to-day) for what we now leave to France in Beirut and its coasts."
Hussein's refusal of Great Britain's modification relating to those "portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo", meant there was no final agreement between the two parties as to the ownership of any land on the Arabian peninsula, let alone Palestine. McMahon had said plainly in his October 24 letter that Great Britain would accept Hussein's territorial claims if Hussein accepted Great Britain's modification. Hussein rejected the British modification relating to areas "of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus,Homs, Hama and Aleppo", therefore by Hussein's own hand Palestine was denied to the Arabs. However, it would not be the only denial.
In McMahon's letter of October 24 to Hussein Palestine is denied for a second time as part of any land deal. The denial comes from a second modification McMahon made concerning Hussein's requested territorial limits. Though this modification does not explicitly mention Palestine as excluded territory, it would negate Palestine from any package deal with Hussein because of French territorial interests in the northern half of the Arabian peninsula--the Levant. McMahon writes, "As for those regions lying within those frontiers [northern half of the Arabian peninsula] wherein Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interest of her ally, France, I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurances and make the following reply to your letter:-
1. Subject to the above [two] modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca."
What are those French interests in Palestine that would warrant Palestine's omission from Arab territorial limits in the northern half of the Arabian peninsula?
Before the eruption of World War I in 1914, over the course of four centuries France and the Ottoman Empire had signed a series of treaties that gave France the right to protect the civil, commercial and religions freedom of French subjects anywhere in the Ottoman Empire, including Palestine. This 'protectorate system' also covered Muslim and Jewish nationals from the French colonies of North and Sub Saharan Africa whom came to settle in Palestine, and assistance to Christian pilgrims visiting the holy places there. The protectorate system evolved whereby France was granted the right of, "protection...both individually and collectively to cover all the members of the clergy adhering to the Latin rite settled in the Levant, regardless of nationality or institution. These legal privileges were extended by custom to Orthodox Christians."
When the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers, France'sprivileges in the Levant under the four century old 'protectorate system' were abolished. When the war ended, "...France had...not given up entirely on saving its protectorate [in Palestine]..." However, in the intervening war years the British too had taken a keen interest in Palestine. As the Paris Peace Conference wound its way through 1919, in September of that year, "The French renounce[d] their claims to Palestine – which had mainly become bargaining chips, in exchange for a Syria carved out mainly around Beirut and Damascus."
When debating the justifications for the existence of Israel, Arabs will often bring up the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence as proof that the Arabs were betrayed when, as the Arab side claims, the British first promised Palestine to them, then reneged on that promise and give the land to the Jews. Analysis of the ten letters that make up the Hussein-McMahonCorrespondence clearly shows this not to be the case. In fact, upon close examination of the letters one is presented with the ironic situation of Hussein denying Palestine (and any other territorial limits requested) to the 'Arab nation'!
To this day, there is a contentious debate as to what McMahon actually meant when he wrote "districts [emphasis: mine] of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo" (see map below). Was McMahon referring to cities or provinces when he wrote districts? If McMahon meant provinces, then the land West of the province of Damascus [Vilayet of Damascus. Also known as the Vilayet of Syria] would include Palestine, however, if McMahon was referring to the city of Damascus, then the area would constitute what is today Lebanon.
The word districts is actually a British translator's substitution for the actual wording McMahon used, wilayahs (in fact, there were three British translators who independently came to the same conclusion on this point). The British translators felt that since Homs and Hama were not provinces but cities, and cities are closer in size to districts than to provinces, then the wordwilayahs as understood in official Ottoman usage of the term (vilayets) meaning provinces was deemed incorrect, but that the unofficial Arabic usage of the term, meaning environs, was more precise. Therefore the British translators used the unofficial Arabic translation for the wordwilayahs, environs, or districts in the English translation. Now, unless there was a qualifier elsewhere in the correspondence that favored the exclusion of Palestine to the Arabs, this revised wording would place Palestine into the Arab nation after the war.
This writer takes no stand on this debate, and views the debate as a distraction to the question of British duplicity on Palestine.
The city of Homs is 47 miles due south of Hama (Damascus is 209 miles