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Why a Jewish Homeland: The Husain-McMahon Arrangements, Palestine: A Study of Jewish, Arab and British Policies, Volume 1, Yale University Press, 1947.

Despite the fact that the original texts were made available in full (McMahon’s letter to Husain), with accurate translations, the British and Arab representatives continued to disagree on the main issue-whether Palestine had been included in the area in which the Arabs were promised unconditional independence. The “British representatives agreed that the language used to indicate the exclusion of Palestine from the areas reserved for Arab independence was “not so specific and unmistakable as it was thought to be at the time” but they maintained that “on a proper construction of the correspondence Palestine was in fact excluded.” In a special summary, the Lord High Chancellor (Lord Maugham), the spokesman of the British representatives, reiterated this view- “The Correspondence as a whole, and particularly the reservation in respect of French interests in Sir Henry McMahon’s letter of the 24th October, 1915, not only did exclude Palestine but should have been understood to do so. . . .”

Leading British statesmen of successive governments and officials connected with the Husain arrangements have testified to the same effect. The following represent a selection of such statements-

“That letter [October 24, 1915, from McMahon to Husain] is quoted as conveying the promise to the Sherif of Mecca to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories proposed by him. But this promise was given subject to a reservation made in the same letter, which excluded from its scope, among other territories, the portions of Syria lying to the west of the district of Damascus. This reservation has always been regarded by His Majesty’s Government as covering the vilayet of Beirut and the independent Sanjak of Jerusalem. The whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was thus excluded from Sir H. McMahon’s pledge. (Statement of British policy in Palestine, June 3, 1922 [Churchill White Paper], Cmd. 1700, p. 20.)

Whether they [the promises] were expressed in the best terms or not, it is perhaps not for me to say, but undoubtedly there never was any intention, when the pledge was given, to recognize the independence of the Arabs so as to include Palestine. I think that is perfectly clear, and in my own mind I am certain of it. Although the terms may not have been expressed in the clearest possible language, I think it was the intention of both Sir H. McMahon and the Government at the time, when those pledges were given, that Palestine should not be included. (The Secretary of State for the Colonies [the Duke of Devonshire], House of Lords Official Report, March 1, 1923, col. 223.)

I was in daily touch with Sir Henry McMahon throughout the negotiations with King Hussein, and made the preliminary drafts of all the letters. I can bear out the statement that it was never the intention that Palestine should be included in the general pledge given to the Sherif. The introductory words of Sir Henry’s letter were thought at the time, perhaps erroneously, clearly to cover the point. It was, I think, obvious that the peculiar interests involved in Palestine precluded any definite pledges in regard to its future at so early a stage. (Sir Gilbert Clayton [Chief Secretary of the Palestine Government, in a note to the High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, April 12, 1923], quoted by Lord Samuel, House of Lords Official Report, July 20, 1937, col. 629.)

I served in 1916 in the Arab Bureau in Cairo on Sir Henry McMahon’s staff, and I wish myself to testify to the fact that it never was in the mind of anyone on that staff that Palestine west of the Jordan was in the area within which the British Government then undertook to further the cause of Arab independence. . . . I want it clearly and finally understood that His Majesty’s Government, neither then nor now, can or will admit that Palestine west of the Jordan was included in the pledge given to the Sherif, and that they have always in mind that special considerations must obtain in regard to the future government of the Holy Land. The unique character of Palestine was recognized by the Arab Delegates to the Peace Conference. It is recognized all over the world. (Secretary of State for the Colonies [Mr. Ormsby-Gore], House of Commons, July 21, 1937, House of Commons Official Report, July 21, 1937, cols. 2249/50.)

Colonel C. E. Vickery, who was a master of Arabic, was sent from Cairo in 1920 on an official mission to inspect the original Arabic text of the letter as actually received by the Sharif. In a letter published in The Times on February 21, 1939, referring to this visit, he wrote-

“I read the letter through very slowly. . . . It was quite evident that Palestine was not included in the proposals to the King. . . . I can say most definitely that the whole of the King’s demands were centered around Syria, and only around Syria. Time after time he referred to that vineyard, to the exclusion of any other claim or interest. He stated most emphatically that he did not concern himself at all with Palestine and had no desire to have suzerainty over it for himself or his successors.

Finally we have testimony of Sir Henry McMahon himself. On March 12, 1922, Sir Henry wrote a letter to the Eastern Department of the Colonial Office in which he stated that he had intended to exclude Palestine from an independent Arabia. He had mentioned only the towns of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo because these were the places to which the Arabs attached vital importance. He could not at the time think of any other places in the area of Syria to which the Arabs attached such importance as deserved mentioning. He had explicitly excluded the coastal area of Syria west of the cities named and intended that this exclusion would apply to the southern as well as the northern part of the coast. He did not make use of the Jordan to define the limits of the boundaries because “he did not know whether at some later stage of the negotiations with the Grand Sharif a more suitable frontier might be found east of the river.” In conclusion he wrote that he did not remember ever having heard anything from Husain which gave him the impression that the Sharif did not understand that Palestine was to be excluded from an independent Arabia.

In a letter written to The Times, July 23, 1937, fifteen years later, McMahon reiterates his statement as follows-

“Many references have been made in the Palestine Royal Commission Report and in the course of the recent debates in both Houses of Parliament to the “McMahon Pledge,” especially to that portion of the pledge which concerns Palestine and of which one interpretation has been claimed by the Jews and another by the Arabs.

It has been suggested to me that continued silence on the part of the giver of that pledge may itself be misunderstood.

I feel, therefore, called upon to make some statement on the subject, but I will confine myself in doing so to the point now at issue- i.e., whether that portion of Syria now known as Palestine was or was not intended to be included in the territories in which the independence of the Arabs was guaranteed in my pledge.

I feel it my duty to state, and I do so definitely and emphatically, that it was not intended by me in giving this pledge to King Hussein to include Palestine in the area in which Arab independence was promised.

I also had every reason to believe at the time that the fact that Palestine was not included in my pledge was well understood by King Hussein.”…

According to a statement by Winston Churchill, Emir Faisal said that he was “prepared to accept the statement that it had been the intention of His Majesty’s Government to exclude Palestine.” (Great Britain, Parliamentary Debates, Commons, July 11, 1922, cols. 1032-1034)…

The relevant clause in his letter of October 24 reads- “…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.” (Great Britain, Correspondence, Cmd. 5957, 1939, p. 8)…

There is confirmatory evidence in Husain’s reply of November 5th. Husain, it will be remembered, agreed to the exclusion of the districts of Mersina and Adana in Asia Minor but took exception to the exclusion of Syria proper. Here he mentions the territories which he wishes to have included in the sphere of Arab independence in Syria by the names by which they were usually referred to in Turkish times, i.e., the vilayet of Aleppo and the vilayet of Beirut. The relevant passage in his letter is- “But the two vilayets of Aleppo and Beirut and their seacoasts are purely Arab vilayets, and there is no difference between a Moslem and a Christian Arab- they are both descendants of one forefather.” The district of Beirut includes northern and central Palestine. It will be recalled that McMahon very clearly refused to include the vilayet of Beirut in the Arab area of independence. Thus the larger part of Palestine was explicitly excluded by the British when they excluded the vilayet of Beirut, even though Palestine was not mentioned.

Of the southern part of Palestine, the sanjaq of Jerusalem, Husain makes no mention. In view of the fact that the Holy Land was the most questionable area, it is reasonable to assume that the Sharif did not think it worthwhile to enter a claim, it being generally understood that the Holy Land was of international interest and would not be made part of the independent Arab state. This view of the matter is confirmed by Faisal’s statement at the Peace Conference that Palestine “for its universal character should be left on one side for the mutual consideration of all parties interested.”…

From the point of view of international law, the claim on the basis of the Husain-McMahon arrangements has no validity, since the latter were not endorsed by the Allied powers or by the League of Nations. Great Britain was not sovereign over Palestine at the time and was not empowered to decide its future. At most, then, the disagreement with reference to the Husain-McMahon correspondence must be considered as an argument between the Arabs and the British, whether the latter helped the Arabs as much as they had promised. The British claim that they more than fulfilled their obligations, quite apart from paying very large sums to Husain and his followers for services rendered. British arms and money were mainly responsible for liberating the Arabs from Turkish rule, for laying the foundation for Arab independence in Arabia and Mesopotamia, and for preparing the way for independence in Syria.

Pages 181-191

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