One hundred years before President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George proclaimed that the city would be a “Christmas gift for the British people.” Using Jerusalem as a means to impress the public, the prime minister insisted that a symbolic victory in Palestine would bolster morale as they fought battles on the Western Front. And in June of 1917, with his sights set on defeating the Ottoman Empire, Lloyd George appointed General Edmund Allenby as the high commissioner of Egypt and gave him one of the most consequential orders in modern Middle East history: to capture Jerusalem by Christmas.
Allenby’s military campaign for Palestine was swift. In October of that year—only four months after he was sent to Egypt—the general defeated the German-led Ottoman forces in southern Palestine in what became one of the last successful cavalry charges in modern warfare. The British continued to move northward and effectively captured Jerusalem within six weeks, prompting Allenby to ceremoniously walk through the gates of the Old City on December 11, 1917—or exactly 100 years ago yesterday.
That moment, which marked the beginning of a generation of British rule in Palestine, set the stage for two divergent nationalist movements, one Arab and one Jewish.
Allenby’s arrival was welcomed by Jerusalemites. A small but growing Arab nationalist movement, mostly consisting of Muslims and Christians, had aided the British in battles against the Turks in the region, and Jews were reassured by the British government’s early endorsement of Zionism. The fact that adherents of the three religions welcomed the British was a testament to the multifaceted schisms within faiths that Jerusalem has always been a battleground for, as Albert T. Clay wrote in The Atlantic in 1921.
The general, aware of the religious weight of Jerusalem, famously dismounted his horse as he reached Jaffa Gate—one of the entrances to the Old City—as a show of respect. His decision to enter on foot was a deliberate attempt to contrast Kaiser Wilhelm II’s visit two decades prior, when the last German emperor rode through the city on horseback, much to the locals’ disgruntlement. Residents and worshippers had perceived the Kaiser’s quick ride through the city to be irreverent and dismissive of its holy stature.
After Allenby’s victory, Lloyd George’s government sent in administrators to govern their new territory. But as the British began to settle in, Muslim and Christian Palestinians grew wary of their new ruler. In the month before Allenby’s arrival, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which announced their support of a Jewish national home in Palestine and that they would “use their best endeavours to facilitate” that objective. “From quite early on in the British rule in Palestine, you had the beginnings of an opposition against Zionism calling for Arab independence, and it manifested with demonstrations in 1919 and with riots in 1920 and 1921,” said Bernard Wasserstein, author of the book The British in Palestine. The riots evolved into a formidable Palestinian Arab nationalist movement. It demanded self-determination for the Palestinians and an end to the British push for a Jewish national home policy.
Indeed, Allenby’s military victories paved the way for a Jewish state. “Without the British Mandate, there would not be today a state of Israel,” Wasserstein said. “It was under that British umbrella that Jews were able to move their percentage of the population up, from less than 10 percent at the moment that Allenby arrived, to little over 30 percent by the time the British left.” Still, British rule did not uniformly favor the Jewish people in Palestine and Europe. As Jews were fleeing persecution in the Second World War, the British drastically limited Jewish immigration in Palestine toward the end of the Mandate. Those who did come helped build new cities, a robust—and to a degree industrialized—economy, and self-governing institutions, all of which helped them decisively win the 1948 war among the Arabs and Jews and establish the State of Israel.
British repression of the Arab nationalist movement over the decades set the stage for violence in 1948. Palestinian opposition to the establishment of a Jewish homeland grew violent, and the result was an Arab revolt that depleted the forces of Arab militaries. After the British led a substantial military campaign to curb Palestinian nationalists, “the movement was not destroyed, but greatly weakened in its capacity to resist the Zionists,” Wasserstein said. This left the Arabs in a more vulnerable position as both nationalist movements, Arab and Jewish, geared up for conflict as Mandatory Palestine was coming to an end in the 1940s. “All of that was the outcome of General Allenby’s victory” back in 1917.
But the Arab and Jewish nationalist movements were not created by British rule. They were galvanized by it. In the end, Allenby’s walk through the gates of Jerusalem is remembered for its benevolence, in contrast to the Kaiser’s ride on horseback, but it was merely emblematic of imperial Western powers playing chess on colonized land. In spite of the goodwill Allenby inspired when he seized control of the city and called for religious tolerance, both Arabs and Jews wanted to take charge of their own fate. They knew that the contest for Jerusalem’s rule was far from over, a reality that the U.S. must still reckon with today if it’s to be a serious peace broker in the Middle East.
The establishment of Israel, the haphazardly drawn borders of post-colonial nation states, and the ongoing conflicts are all a part of Allenby’s legacy. And as for Jaffa Gate, both military and civilian vehicles use it to enter the Old City today.
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