On June 10, 1916, the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, fired a shot from the window of his palace, signaling the beginning of the revolt against rule by the Ottoman Turks. Within three weeks, Hussein’s 5,000 warriors forced the 1,400 Turks stationed around Mecca to surrender.
The Arab rebellion continued in alliance with the British war effort against the Turks. Hussein bin Ali’s intention was to create a single unified Arab state across Arabia, including Palestine, to the Turkish border. Some Arab Muslims considered fighting alongside Christians as betraying Islam. Hussein’s son, Faisal (portrayed by Alec Guinness in the movie Lawrence of Arabia), in charge of his father’s rebellion, was motivated by Arab nationalism and a desire for independence from rule by the Turks more than he was by religious doctrine. He believed that he and his father had a right to power as descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and he and his father ignored the criticism.
Hussein’s forces were largely made up of Bedouin and other nomadic desert tribes who were only loosely allied and more loyal to their respective tribes than to any Arab nationalism. Faisal wanted to convince Arabs serving in the Ottoman Army to mutiny and join his cause, but few would do so until near the end when it was more apparent who was winning.
The British in Egypt sent a young officer, Captain T. E. Lawrence, to work with the Arabs, and Lawrence succeeded in getting the Arabs to coordinate their actions with British strategy. They left the Turks holding Medina, and Lawrence and his Arab allies attacked the Hejaz railway on many occasions. In the spring of 1917, Arab forces moved north to seize Yenbo and Wejh on the coast of the Red Sea.
In May, 1917, Hussein bin Ali learned from the French diplomat, Picot, that France and Britain wanted to play a role in Arabia’s future and that the two countries had already drawn up boundaries in Arabia. Picot was referring to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, concluded the year before and still a secret. Picot tried to convince him and his son Faisal that all would be well with such an arrangement, but Hussein was offended. He told Picot that he had received letters from leaders of all classes of Arabs promising true allegiance to him as their leader and protector. He complained that separating Christians from Muslims in Arabia would create divisions amongst the people and foster bigotry. He called for the wishes of the people of Arabia for independence from foreign rule to be honored, and he said that people who had recently been executed by the Turks had said, “We don’t mind. Our King … will soon appear and avenge our death.”
The British, French and Hussein went on with their war efforts, and in July an army led by Lawrence and the Bedouin chief Auda Abu captured the port of Aqaba (at the northeastern tip of the Red Sea, just 230 miles east of Cairo).
On November 2, 1917, Britain issued its Balfour Declaration, which proclaimed that Palestine was to be “a national home for the Jewish people.” The fighting between Britain and Germany had another year to go and the British still wanted to make trouble for Germany, which had a sizable Jewish population. It was wartime opportunism that had little to do with wanting to advance the well being of Jews.
The declaration read:
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.
The Bolsheviks in Russia released a copy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, its full text printed in their newspaper on November 23. This embarrassed the British, who had begun the war under the pretense that they joined the war fighting for the rights of Belgians. And there was the United States, whose president, Woodrow Wilson, had entered the war believing in the right of people to self-determination.
In December, the British and their Arab allies drove the Turks from Jerusalem. The British commander, Allenby, entered the city on foot out of respect for what was considered a holy city.
The fighting continued into the last year of the war — 1918. In October, 1918, the Arabs and British took control of Damascus and Syria. In Damascus, people rejoiced at what appeared to be a liberation from Turkish rule. Turks agreed to an armistice on October 30.
The British and French were making an effort to reassure Arab doubters about liberation. European influence in Arabia was described as “like a lighthouse” that guides a navigator. A senior British officer saw complaints about the presence of foreign (British) troops and a desire for complete independences as coming from a “small party” of “fanatical Muslims and ‘Young Arab’ hotheads.”
The Middle East (the year 2000)