Published on The Middle East Eye on 1 November 2021.
This article is a condensed version of a talk that was given by Professor Eugene Rogan to the Balfour Project charity. The charity holds regular free webinars focused on Britain’s historic and continuing responsibility to secure equal rights for the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples.
Against the rival and incompatible nationalisms its mandate unleashed, Britain was left with no choice but to withdraw from the territory it had once hoped would be a permanent part of its empire
More than a century after Lord Balfour made his declaration, there is little agreement about what former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s foreign secretary or subsequent governments intended to do with Palestine.
It should not be such a mystery. Britain wanted Palestine for its own empire, for simple geostrategic reasons born of World War I. Towards that end, the British government sought to exploit the Zionist movement – not to create a Jewish state, but to partner with Zionist settlers in managing Palestine over the predictable opposition of the Palestinian Arab majority.
If one were to compare Palestine to the French mandate in Lebanon, the Zionists were the Maronites of British Palestine: a compact minority community that would openly advocate for a British mandate at the Paris Peace Conference and cooperate with the British in governing the territory.
This wish to draw Palestine into the British Empire was entirely new in 1917. Before World War I, Britain had no declared interest in the Ottoman territories of Palestine. This disinterested position would continue well after the outbreak of war. The De Bunsen Committee, convened in April and May 1915 to consider British imperial interests in Ottoman territory in Asia, practically disavowed any claim on Palestine, aside from a rail terminal in Haifa linking Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean.
“Palestine must be recognised as a country whose destiny must be the subject of special negotiations, in which both belligerents and neutrals are alike interested,” the De Bunsen Committee report concluded.
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