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The French connection

February 01, 2013


WHEN a group of Arab ambassadors in Washington called on the president to register their protest over his pro-Zionist bias, he replied:

“I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”

The president was Harry Truman, and the year was 1946. But little has changed since then, apart from the increase in the number of Arabs in the United States. However, they remain just as divided and ineffective as they were 67 years ago.

This quotation is from A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East. Sifting through recently opened archives in London and Paris, James Barr has pieced together a gripping account of the rivalries and intrigues that marked Franco-British relations between the First and Second World Wars. These tensions have led to the borders and the problems that plague much of the Arab world today.

In our discourse on the creation of Israel, the Balfour Declaration looms particularly large. This has become the symbol of perceived British perfidy in encouraging the creation of a Zionist state in Palestine, and the resultant uprooting and occupation of its people.

However, as Barr shows, it was not quite as black and white as this narrative seems to indicate. Britain had a major strategic interest in controlling Palestine after the Ottoman Empire was defeated, and its territories were to be carved up. The Suez Canal was crucial to maintain its imperial presence in India and beyond. Additionally, the oil discovered in Mosul was deemed crucial to the war effort.

Once Ottoman forces in Palestine were pushed out, Britain feared that France would insist on an international presence there. To counter this threat to its interests, the British government decided to espouse the cause of a Zionist homeland. This, they thought, would win them American support to oversee the emergence of a Palestinian and a Zionist state under an international mandate.

And in era of rising demands for independence, the British felt that a dependent Jewish state that secured the Suez Canal would deflect the charge of land grabbing.

The carve-up of Ottoman possessions in the Middle East was largely decided by Mark Sykes, a British politician, and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot.

The French, prickly and always suspicious of British intentions, insisted on control over Syria (which then included Lebanon) in exchange for British suzerainty over Iraq and Transjordan. Earlier, Sykes had explained his vision to the British cabinet thus: “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk”. This was the ‘line in the sand’ that is Barr’s title for his book.

But this behind-the-scenes deal went counter to the promises made by T.E. Lawrence — better known as Lawrence of Arabia — and his masters to Arab allies in the guerrilla war he organised and led against the Ottomans.

At a time when allied forces were stretched thin in Europe, it was useful to have an Arab irregular army harassing the Ottomans, then allied to Germany.

Despite the intense Franco-British rivalry for influence and territory in the Middle East, they tried hard not to allow it to cause a rupture in their anti-German alliance. Thus, Lawrence was overruled when he argued for Arab independence under British ‘guidance’. Not wishing to annoy the French, the secret Sykes-Picot deal was largely implemented after the war.

The inter-war years in the region were marked by constant tension between the two European great powers. Each side spied on the other and used local agents to undermine its rival’s authority. To this end, they armed each other’s domestic opposition, and encouraged uprisings.

When the increasing Jewish population’s political and military pressure in Palestine began building, the French saw an opportunity to weaken the British. Thus began a covert relationship between the French and Zionist terrorist groups like the Stern Gang and Irgun.

During the Second World War, when the extent of the Holocaust became public knowledge, there was a wave of sympathy for Jews. The British came under intense pressure to permit greater Jewish immigration into Palestine.

However, they resisted as they knew this would trigger a violent Arab reaction that might weaken their grip in the region.

With the collapse of the French forces in the Second World War, open warfare broke out in the Middle East between the Vichy and the Free French. The former had made a collaborator’s peace with Germany, while the latter, led by De Gaulle, vowed to fight on. With British help, they overcame the Vichy forces, and absorbed them into their own ranks.

However, many Vichy officials and soldiers retained their strong anti-British feelings. Suspicious and arrogant, De Gaulle, too, was determined to thwart the British at every turn.

The ruthlessness of Zionist terrorists was highlighted when the Patra, a passenger ship carrying Jewish refugees from Germany, was refused entry into Palestine. But before it could leave port, it was sunk by a mine smuggled on board by Haganah, a Jewish group.

When confronted by two French agents, a Haganah operative admitted to his group’s role, asking, in effect, “Do you think modern Jews lack Samson’s courage?”

Even after the newly created United Nations imposed an embargo on the shipment of arms to Palestine, the French continued to send lethal cargoes to their Zionist friends. Apart from politicians and intelligence agents, the Zionists won the support of intellectuals like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

All this, while the British were suffering heavy casualties as they struggled to maintain some semblance of peace between Arabs and Jews. Mostly, they did not retaliate against Zionist attacks because they knew this would draw an immediate reaction from the United States, and their own Jewish citizens.

When the British headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem was blown up, causing nearly a hundred deaths, there was barely any response from London.

Exhausted and demoralised, the British unilaterally announced the end of their mandate in May 1948, and pulled out their forces. This was the signal for the Zionists to launch attacks against the Palestinian population, forcing tens of thousands from their homes. Hundreds were slaughtered. The Arab response was shamefully disorganised and ineffective. The rest is history.

For anybody wishing to understand the Middle East, A Line in the Sand is essential reading.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.