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The Ottoman empire: 1534-1918

Ottoman rule over the region of Palestine and Syria lasts for almost four centuries from the arrival of the sultan and his army in 1534. The region is ruled for most of that period by a provincial administration in Damascus. From time to time there is unrest, turmoil and violence - but as if in a vacuum. Firm Ottoman control seals the area from outside influence or intrusion apart from a couple of brief periods. For a few months in 1799 Napoleo dominates the area. A longer and more significant interlude is the period from 1831 to 1840, when Mohammed Ali, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, seizes Palestine and Syria from his own master, the sultan.

The military campaign is conducted by Mohammed Ali's son, Ibrahim Pasha, who becomes governor general of the region. He rules rather better than the Ottoman administration, allowing a degree of modernisation. But Britain, Austria and Russia come to the aid of the sultan in 1840, forcing Mohammed Ali to withdraw his armies to Egypt.

During the following decades the most significant development is the beginning of the settlement of European Jews in Palestine in the late 19th century. But it is World War I, when Turkey sides with Germany, that changes the region out of recognition, ending the Ottoman centuries and bringing into existence the modern territories of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine (the region now including Israel), Jordan and Iraq.

When the Turks enter the war, in 1914, the hereditary emir of Mecca (Husayn ibn Ali) sees a chance of extricating his territory from Ottoman rule. He secretly begins negotiating with the British. By June 1916 he is ready to launch an Arab revolt along the Red Sea coast.

The most effective part of this uprising is conducted by Faisal, one of Husayn's sons, in conjunction with T.E. Lawrence, a young British officer seconded for the purpose. Together they attack the most strategically important feature in the region, the railway which runs south from Damascus, through Amman and Ma'an, to Medina. This is the only route by which the Turks can easily send reinforcements to Arabia.

The policy succeeds and by the summer of 1917 the Arabs have moved far enough north to capture Aqaba. This is achieved on July 6 in a dramatic raid by Lawrence and some Arab chiefs with a few hundred of their tribesmen. Together they kill or capture some 1200 Turks at a cost of only two of their own lives.

The port of Aqaba occupies an important position at the head of the gulf of the same name. It offers relatively easy access up towards the Dead Sea. Faisal's army is now well placed to support a British thrust into Palestine, by operating from the desert region of the Negev to bring pressure on the eastern flank of the Turks.

During the winter of 1916 the British have been laying a railway along the northern coast of the Sinai peninsula. This makes possible an attack on Gaza, the gateway into Palestine. But on two separate occasions - in March and April 1917 - the campaign is seriously bungled. As a result a new commander, Edmund Allenby, is brought in. He succeeds in taking Gaza on November 7. He follows this with the capture of Jerusalem a month later, on December 9. So by the end of 1917 the Allies are making good progress, but they are still a long way from the frontier of Turkey itself.

With massive armies confronting each other on the western front, these events in Palestine seem a long way from the centre of the action. And it is on the western front that the final and conclusive stage of the war will be fought.


Empire dismembered: 1920

When Germany seeks an armistice, in early November 1918, the war ends. Delegates to the peace conference gather in Paris two months later. Their task is a complex one working out the precise terms that will be imposed if a treaty is to be signed with each of the defeated nations. The treaty with the Ottoman empire is the last to be agreed, not being signed until August 1920 at Sèvres.

Its terms are harsh. The empire is to be entirely dismantled, with all the middle-eastern provinces previously under Turkish control now made the responsibility of France and Britain as mandated territories. The division between the two European nations has already been agreed between them, foreseeing this possible outcome if Turkey is defeated. In 1916 the Sykes-Picot agreement has been signed. Its details have been negotiated by François Picot for France and Mark Sykes for Britain. Their proposed borders, drawn in a fairly arbitrary fashion, are adopted when the League of Nations in 1920 allots to France the mandate for Syria and Lebanon and to Britain the mandate for Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.

Palestine is predictably a problem area because Britain has in 1917, just three years before the treaty of Sèvres, declared its support for the Zionist campaign to include in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people. Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary has done so in a letter to Lord Rothschild, a leader of Britain's Jewish community.

The letter, subsequently known as the Balfour Declaration, states: 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.

This becomes both a powerful document in support of the Zionist movement but also, in the longer term, a programme that has not been achieved. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza can argue forcefully today that within the region of Palestine their civil and religious rights have been prejudiced.

The encouragement given by the Balfour Declaration is a major factor in the growth of Jewish immigration to Palestine. From the 1880s to the Balfour Declaration the average number of new arrivals has been about 900 per year. Following the Declaration, during the 1920s, that goes up to 12,000 per year. And the terrifying rise in anti-Semitism during the 1930s, not only in Nazi Germany, increases that figure again to 30,000 per year. This brings the Jewish population from 5% of the Palestinian Arabs in 1880 to more than 40% in 1939.

In the treaty agreed at Sèvres it is specifically stated that Palestine is to be an exception to the principle of self-determination that defines League policies elsewhere, with local decisions based on a majority vote within a region. Clearly in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Arabs in Palestine outnumber the Jews, self-determination by the Arabs would prevent the creation of a homeland for the Jews.


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