TE Lawrence led an Arab army to rid the middle east of the Ottomans, but Edward Balfour, with his 125-word letter, began the process of splitting Palestine between Arabs and Jews. Composite image by Kenna Milaski.
Col. T. E. Lawrence fought in the Arabian desert beside men he loved, leading an army of divided Arab tribes across Transjordan — mostly today’s Jordan — to expel the Ottoman Empire. His army of Arabs had two goals: to pull the people of Arabia out from under Ottoman control while soaking up Ottoman troops that might otherwise be sent to the World War I trenches in France to fight with Germany. When he made promises of postwar freedom to the Arabs, he meant it.
Lawrence — known to generations of movie fans as Lawrence of Arabia — was devastated when he found out Britain would not keep the promises he had made in the nation’s name in Palestine. He lobbied British Parliament for the rest of his life on behalf of Palestine but died heartbroken.
Lawrence’s broken promises echo today in the scenes of rockets over Israel this month, as Palestinian Hamas fighters clash with the Israeli army. Though more than a century of grievances and fightings now overlay the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at its heart is the same question Lawrence set to solve — who shall live in Palestine? While Lawrence was telling the Arabian tribes that it would be them, leaders in London thought it should be England, in order to keep major trading lines open to Egypt and the Middle East.
To that end came a one-page document written deep inside the British government in 1917: The Balfour Declaration.
The Balfour Declaration is a 125-word letter sent in November 1917 from British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lionel Walter Rothschild, a leader in the Anglo-Jewish community in London. Written at the height of World War I’s carnage, the letter was circulated through British Parliament and marked the British government’s signal of support for the Jewish community that sought a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The Balfour Declaration was the first indication that the British government would side against Lawrence and the Arabs at the end of World War I. Britain was guilty of trading its sweet promises of independence for the cold language of the Sykes-Picot Agreement signed in 1916. The document divided the Middle East between Britain and France, ensuring Palestine was part of the British Empire’s newly acquired spoils of war. At the end of World War I, the victorious allies transferred control of Palestine from the losing Ottomans to the winning British.
During the British occupation of Palestine, which lasted through World War II until the establishment of Israel, Jews in the territory celebrated Balfour Day on the letter’s anniversary, while Arabs there came to mark the occasion with violent protests.
The Balfour Declaration has been widely criticized by historians and government officials alike for its role in dividing established communities and backpedaling on British promises to Arabs — an issue Col. Lawrence did his best not to let Parliament forget after the war was over.
It also figured prominently 30 years later in a CIA white paper published in 1947 on the consequences of partitioning Palestine to create a state of Israel. Declassified in 2013, the paper begins:
“Armed hostilities between Jews and Arabs will break out if the UN General Assembly accepts the plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states as recommended by the UN Special Committee on Palestine.
“Inflamed by nationalism and religious fervor, Arabs in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Transjordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia as well as Palestine are determined to fight against any force, or combination of forces, which attempts to set up a Jewish state in Palestine.”
A ceasefire was announced last weekend between Israel and Hamas in the conflict that, today, spans generations but whose roots can be traced to 125 words written more than a century ago.
Lauren Coontz is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. Beaches are preferred, but Lauren calls the Rocky Mountains of Utah home. You can usually find her in an art museum, at an archaeology site, or checking out local nightlife like drag shows and cocktail bars (gin is key). A student of history, Lauren is an Army veteran who worked all over the world and loves to travel to see the old stuff the history books only give a sentence to. She likes medium roast coffee and sometimes, like a sinner, adds sweet cream to it.
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