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Book review: Policy of Deceit: Britain and Palestine, 1914-1939 by Peter Shambrook

06 October 2023

Today’s Holy Land strife was made in Britain, says John Pritchard

BRITAIN’s handling of the status of Palestine has long been a matter of shameful obfuscation. Peter Shambrook’s forensic analysis of primary sources in this country’s dealings with Arab leaders, particularly in the correspondence of 1915-17, should finally nail the issue of Britain’s double-dealing and lead to an honest acknowledgement of Britain’s failures.

The most likely conclusion that readers will come to is that today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict was made in Britain. The contradictory promises made to Jewish and Arab leaders during the First World War have led to a hundred years of hostility and an intractable political stalemate today. Britain has a moral responsibility to be an active participant in finding a future in which both Israelis and Palestinians can be enabled to flourish.

The central focus of the book is the correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Cairo, and Sharif Hussein of Mecca, the Ottoman-appointed chief religious authority of Islam’s holiest shrines. The Arabs have long maintained that the ten-letter correspondence clearly shows that the region of Palestine was included in the promise to the Arabs of an independent Arab state, in exchange for the Sharif leading a revolt against Ottoman rule. Britain needed the Arabs on its side against the Turks in order to keep the route open to India and the east.

AlamySir Henry McMahon

The British position was that Palestine had not been included in the promise to the Arabs. Much rested on the translation of the Arabic word wilayah, which the British insisted was the same as the Turkish vilayet, but which is linguistically erroneous. The British stuck to their reading of the correspondence when it was finally published in 1939, in spite of much evidence of private misgiving.

The main problem was that in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, Britain made a promise to the Zionist Organisation that was incompatible with the promise to the Arabs. The letter, written by Arthur, later Lord, Balfour, promised to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine as long as “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Britain’s failure in regard to this latter proviso is patent to this day.

Shambrook rigorously explores all the relevant documents and legitimately concludes that the British Government was steadfastly disingenuous in its refusal to publish the McMahon-Hussein correspondence in the inter-war years. It knew that it was on extremely unsafe ground and to publish would have been too embarrassing when it was consistently pursuing a pro-Zionist policy.

Palestine was a twice-promised land, and Britain’s dishonest dealings are irrevocably revealed in the author’s detailed exploration of the documents, both public and private. One could hope for some repentance and resolve in government circles. If both Israelis and Palestinians are to come through their antipathy and thrive together, then some international player needs to step up. No nation has more moral responsibility than the UK.

The Rt Revd John Pritchard is a former Bishop of Oxford.


Policy of Deceit: Britain and Palestine, 1914-1939
Peter Shambrook
Oneworld Academic £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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