Lesson 2: Broken Promises World War I

Watch "Promises, Promises"

Setting: the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire which began in 1299 CE lasted over 800 years, reaching its greatest extent in the 17th century. The Arab-Israeli conflict traces its beginnings to the late 19th century at a time when much of what we call the Middle East today was part of the Ottoman Empire.

When World War I began, the region that today includes Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Israel was called Greater Syria (sometimes Palestine) and it belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans governed their empire by dividing it into smaller units called vilayets, roughly the equivalent to what we might call states or provinces. These vilayets were further subdivided into sanjaks, similar to what we might call counties.

Time: World War I
June 28, 1914, Sarajevo

World War I was sparked with assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo. The conflict between the Allied Powers--Britain, France, and Russia--and the Central Powers--Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire--would last over four years and take millions of lives.

The Allied Powers were concerned that the Central Powers would advance further into the Ottoman Empire and take control of areas with important natural resources such as oil or march south toward Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal. In order to contain and push back the Central Powers, the British enlisted the help of Arabs and Jews in the region, promising each of them independence if the Allies were victorious.

Primary Sources


DOCUMENT 1: Hussein-McMahon Correspondence (1915)

Beginning in the summer of 1915, Sir Henry McMahon (1862-1949), British High Commissioner in Cairo, exchanged letters with Hussein Ibn Ali (1853/54-1931), the Sherif of Mecca. In these letters, which became known as “The Hussein-McMahon Correspondence,” McMahon agreed to support Hussein’s request for Arab independence in exchange for Arab support against the Ottoman Empire in World War I. NOTE: The maps in this document were not part of the original correspondence; they represent the request that Hussein made and the response that McMahon provided.


From Sir Henry McMahon, 24 October 1915

I have received your letter of the 29th Shawal, 1333 [September 29, 1915 in the Islamic calendar], with much pleasure and your expressions of friendliness and sincerity have given me the greatest satisfaction.

I regret that you should have received from my last letter the impression that I regarded the question of the limits and boundaries with coldness and hesitation; such was not the case....

This area in light gray (ARABIA) is what Hussein originally requested, based on conversations with other Arabs in Damascus, earlier in 1915. Schneer, Jonathan. Balfour Declaration the Origins of the Arab-israeli Conflict. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.

I have realised, however...that you regard this question as one of vital and urgent importance. I have, therefore, lost no time in informing the Government of Great Britain of the contents of your letter, and it is with great pleasure that I communicate to you on their behalf the following statement, which I am confident you will receive with satisfaction.

The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and 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....

In this letter, McMahon offers Hussein everything to the right of the thick dark line (which corresponds to Arabia on the above map but was technically called the Villayet of Damascus because it was part of the Ottoman Empire). The area in pink, McMahon says, is not properly Arab and can't be included. Gilbert, M. (2012) "THE McMAHON-HUSSEIN LETTER, OCTOBER 24, 1915." Israel & Judaism Studies. Web.

I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurances and make the following reply to your letter:

1. Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca.

3. When the situation admits, Great Britain will give to the Arabs her advice and will assist them to establish what may appear to be the most suitable forms of government in those various territories.

4. On the other hand, it is understood that the Arabs have decided to seek the advice and guidance of Great Britain only, and that such European advisers and officials as may be required for the formation of a sound form of administration will be British....

I am convinced that this declaration will assure you beyond all possible doubt of the sympathy of Great Britain towards the aspirations of her friends the Arabs and will result in a firm and lasting alliance, the immediate results of which will be the expulsion of the Turks from the Arab countries and the freeing of the Arab peoples from the Turkish yoke, which for so many years has pressed heavily upon them.

I am sending this letter by the hand of your trusted and excellent messenger, Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Arif Ibn Uraifan....

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

DOCUMENT 2: Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916)

On May 9, 1916, Great Britain and France reached a secret agreement, drafted by their representatives Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot, respectively. As part of this agreement they outlined their spheres of influence in the Middle East, territory in an Arab state or confederate of states, dividing most of the Ottoman Empire into areas of British and French control which would take effect at the end of World War I. See accompanying map.

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.

DOCUMENT 3: The Balfour Declaration (1917)

On November 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930) wrote a letter, endorsing the British Government’s establishment of a Jewish national home in the geographic territory of Palestine. Lord Rothschild, to whom the letter was addressed, was the unofficial leader of the British Jewish community.

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

"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."

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,

Arthur James Balfour

The Avalon Project : Balfour Declaration November 2, 1917. Web.

DOCUMENT 4: Feisal-Weizmann Agreement (1919)

On January 3, 1919, Emir Feisal (1885-1933), son of Hussein ibn-Ali and an Arab leader and military commander, and Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), President of the Zionist Organization, entered into an agreement with each other to formalize the national aspirations of both the Jews and the Arabs with the aim of establishing independent states for both peoples.


His Royal Highness the Emir Feisal, representing and acting on behalf of the Arab Kingdom of Hedjaz, and Dr. Chaim Weizmann, representing and acting on behalf of the Zionist Organisation, mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people...have agreed upon the following Articles:

Article I

The Arab State and Palestine [Jewish State] in all their relations and undertakings shall be controlled by the most cordial goodwill and understanding. . . .

Article II

The definite boundaries between the Arab State and Palestine shall be determined by a Commission to be agreed upon by the parties hereto.

Article III

Measures shall be adopted . . . for carrying into effect the British Government's Declaration of the 2nd of November, 1917 [the Balfour Declaration].

Article IV

All necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale.... In taking such measures the Arab peasant and tenant farmers shall be protected in their rights and shall be assisted in forwarding their economic development.

Article V

No regulation or law shall be made prohibiting or interfering in any way with the free exercise of religion....

Article VI

The Mohammedan Holy Places shall be under Mohammedan control.

Article VII

The Zionist Organization will use its best efforts to assist the Arab State in providing the means for developing the natural resources and economic possibilities thereof.

Reservation by the Emir Feisal [above, in Arabic, next to his signature]

If the Arabs are established as I have asked in my manifesto of 4 January, addressed to the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, I will carry out what is written in this agreement. If changes are made, I cannot be answerable for failing to carry out this agreement.

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict. New York: Penguin, 2008.

DOCUMENT 5: Covenant of the League of Nations, Article 22 (1919)

As World War I was coming to a close, many of the European powers sought to form an international organization to settle disputes between nations. Member nations would agree to defend each other if attacked and would not declare war without the consent of the others. The Covenant of the League of Nations is the document which created the League of Nations and defined its mission. The League of Nations formally came into being in 1920 as a result of the Paris Peace Conference. This section of the Covenant talks about what should be done with the colonies and territories of the Central Powers before World War I.


To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the late war have ceased to be under the sovereignty of the States which formerly governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation and that securities for the performance of this trust should be embodied in this Covenant....

The tutelage of such peoples should be entrusted to advanced nations who by reason of their resources, their experience or their geographical position can best undertake this responsibility, and who are willing to accept it, and that this tutelage should be exercised by them as Mandatories on behalf of the League.

The character of the mandate must differ according to the stage of the development of the people, the geographical situation of the territory, its economic conditions and other similar circumstances.

Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire [Ottoman Empire] have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.

Other peoples, especially those of Central Africa, are at such a stage that the Mandatory must be responsible for the administration of the territory under conditions which will guarantee freedom of conscience and religion, subject only to the maintenance of public order and morals, the prohibition of abuses such as the slave trade, the arms traffic and the liquor traffic, and the prevention of the establishment of fortifications or military and naval bases and of military training of the natives for other than police purposes and the defence of territory, and will also secure equal opportunities for the trade and commerce of other Members of the League....

The degree of authority, control, or administration to be exercised by the Mandatory shall, if not previously agreed upon by the Members of the League, be explicitly defined in each case by the Council.

Avalon Project - The Covenant of the League of Nations. Web.

Created By
Institute for Curriculum Services


Unless otherwise noted, the photos on this page are part of the public domain, Creative Commons.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a copyright violation, please follow the DMCA section in the Terms of Use.