Herbert Samuel appointed British High Commissioner to Palestine from 1920 to 1925 Image Credit: Supplied

The secret agreement between Britain and France in 1916 proposed an “international administration” for Palestine, which was supposed to be run by Britain and France, as well as Russia, which as an Orthodox Christian imperial power, retained some interests over the Christian sites in Jerusalem. However, the Russian Revolution toppled the Tsar and the revolutionaries revealed the Sykes-Picot Agreement to an astonished Middle East, and the new Russian government lost any claim to rule Palestine.

On the ground, First World War military considerations dominated as the Ottoman armies were defeated by the British with the help of their Arab allies. So regardless of any agreement, the British conquered Palestine along with all of Greater Syria, and British General Edmund Allenby and his successors ran a military government in Palestine from 1917. The British continued to administer Palestine directly until they were granted a mandate in 1923 from the League of Nations, which continued until 1948.

The British had looked favourably at the Zionist agenda ever since 1915 when the British Home Secretary Herbert Samuel in the British Cabinet had supported the idea of establishing a British protectorate over Palestine, and creating a government based on “some kind of Council to be established by the Jews”.

In 1916 Samuel met Sykes as he was preparing for his discussions with the French and Russians to create what became the Sykes-Picot Agreement later that year. Samuel suggested excluding Hebron and all land east of the Jordan from what he proposed to give the Jewish state. Sykes commented that this proposal meant that “the Mosque of Omar [in occupied Jerusalem] becomes the only matter of vital importance to discuss with them [the Arabs] and further does away with any contact with the bedouins, who never cross the river except on business. I imagine that the principal object of Zionism is the realisation of the ideal of an existing centre of nationality rather than boundaries or extent of territory”.

Mainstream British policy was finally defined by the 1917 Balfour Declaration issued by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour that, “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”. This betrayed the British promises given to the Arab leader, Sharif Hussain Bin Ali of Makkah, to seek an Arab government of the territories liberated from the Ottomans.

Different legal footing

At the Versailles Peace Conference after the First World War, Balfour himself thought that the acceptance of League of Nations mandates ended the effectiveness of the Sykes-Picot agreement, and put French and British rule of their territories on a different legal footing that did not allow for any annexation, trade preferences, or other advantages.

In addition, any French hopes of being involved in Palestine under the international element of the Sykes-Picot agreement gave way to British authority on the ground. Under the British-administered mandate in Palestine, the Zionists worked steadily to strengthen their position year by year, initially helped by their sympathiser Samuel who was appointed British High Commissioner to Palestine from 1920 to 1925, giving him administrative authority over the newly mandated territory, which he used to the favour of the incoming Jews.

The following decades of British government saw Jewish colonies and Zionist aspirations steadily advance until the shattering moment in 1948 when the British finally abandoned their mandate with little political preparation for any orderly handover. The Israelis then unilaterally declared their state of Israel, fought their way to establish as large boundaries as they could. In a few months they evicted more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, and started the decades of brutal Israeli occupation which have lasted to this day.

The Palestinians have been forced to live for a hundred years with this particularly savage legacy of the decisions of Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, as the effects of the mandate government allowed the Zionists to take control and dominate the Palestinians right up to the present day, causing untold suffering and misery.