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Promises of Independence: The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence

At the heart of the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the former Palestine was both sides had a desire for self-rule and a homeland in the area. These positions became more entrenched during the period of the British mandate following the First World War (1914-18). While nationalist sentiment had grown and doubtless would have continued to grow regardless of outside influences, during the war both sides had received what they considered to be promises of support in their quest for nationhood from Britain.

The promise for independence for the Arab lands came in the form of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, which took place during 1915 and 1916. In this exchange of letters between Hussein ibn Ali, Sharif of Mecca, and Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, McMahon promised Great Britain’s support for Arab independence movements in return for Arab support against the Ottoman Empire. This was seen by the Arab leadership as being directly applicable to the case of Palestine.

The Palestinian Arabs believed that they had an agreement from the British to support the creation of Palestine during the Arab Revolt in 1917 that defeated the Turkish forces. The British took the role of administrators in Palestine and Syria for the rest of the war. This led to Britain receiving control of Palestine after the war in 1919 by the League of Nations.

However, the territory covered by McMahon’s pledge was vaguely worded, with no specific reference to Palestine, leaving room for future dispute. The division of the region into League of Nations mandates following the war was viewed by the Arab population as a betrayal of a bargain made in good faith.

The issue was complicated further by the release of the 1922 Churchill White Paper, which stated that the McMahon’s pledge had been meant to include Palestine. This conflicted directly with the Balfour Declaration issued in 1917, supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

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