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Israel’s birth explained – in 450 words


The Partitioning of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War

France and Britain now sought the dismemberment of the Ottoman territories, partitioning it into small political entities.

The partitioning was planned throughout the First World War in a series of agreements, most significantly the Sykes-Picot agreement. This secret agreement between the governments of Britain and France had the assent of Russia and defined the major powers’ proposed spheres of influence after a successful conclusion to the war.

Concluded on 16 May 1916, it was the work of Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919) and Francois Georges-Picot (1870-1951) who divided the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces into areas of British or French control.

Book coverIn January 1919, twenty-seven nations convened in Paris to devise a peace settlement that would guarantee no future wars.

The Middle East proved difficult and it would not be until the settlement agreed at the San Remo Conference of April 1920 – reluctantly signed by the government of the Ottoman Empire in August of that year – that issues would finally be settled. Ottoman sovereignty was seriously restricted. The straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean were to be governed by an international commission; France, Italy and Greece were awarded spheres of influence in southern Anatolia; and Greece took over Thrace, the last Ottoman province in Europe. At the time, national self-determination was the buzzword but the victorious nations only applied it when it suited them.

At San Remo, the Ottoman’s Arab provinces were detached from the former empire, allocated to either Britain or France and called Mandates. Effectively, this was just a way of dressing up old-fashioned imperialism. Britain was given the Mandates for Iraq and Palestine and France was given the Mandate for Syria.

The brand new state of Iraq was formed from three former Ottoman provinces – Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. These three were thrown together, although they had little to unify them.

It was important to Britain, however, in that it gave her control of the approaches to British India and access to all-important oil reserves in the region.

Meanwhile, matters were complicated further by the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930). In a letter of 2 November 1917 to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, a prominent British Zionist he had made a case for a Jewish state in Palestine. It would become known as the Balfour Declaration and would be incorporated into the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. He wrote:

‘His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’
Yapp, ME, The Making of the Modern Middle East 1792-1923,
Longman, Harlow, 1988

Extracted from Gordon Kerr’s thoroughly rewarding A Short History of the Middle East. It adds to a range of his books that give a historical perspective to various world regions. 

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