Punishment in the form of the destruction of Arab property across urban and rural areas of Palestine was central to British military repression after 1936, the countryside being badly hit although there were some egregious house demolitions in urban areas. Destruction and vandalism became a systematic, systemic part of British counter-insurgency operations during the revolt, and justified by the legal measures in force at the time. Alongside the destruction, soldiers looted properties, something not officially sanctioned; indeed officers often tried to stop the men pilfering. Alongside the blowing up of houses—often the most impressive ones in the village—and the smashing up of Arab villagers’ homes, there were ‘reprisals’ in the form of heavy collective fines, forced labour and punitive village occupations by government forces for which villagers bore the cost.
Abuses went unreported as the British heavily censored the Palestinian Arabic-language newspapers, while commanders such as Major-General Bernard Montgomery in northern Palestine banished newspaper reporters so that his men could carry on their work untroubled by the media.
During army searches, soldiers would surround a village—usually before dawn so that they could catch any suspects before they fled—the men and women then divided off, held apart from the houses, often in wired ‘cages’, while soldiers searched and often destroyed everything, burnt grain and poured olive oil over household food and effects.41 The men meanwhile were ‘screened’ by passing hooded or hidden Arab informers who would nod when a ‘suspect’ was found, or by British officials checking their papers against lists of suspects. If the army was not on a reprisal operation but was following up an intelligence lead and looking for a suspect or hidden weapons, any destruction was incidental to the searching of properties—troops also used primitive metal detectors on such operations. On such operations, however, brutality against villagers could occur as the army tried to extract from them intelligence on the whereabouts of hidden weapons caches or suspects, as happened at the village of Halhul in 1939. In some cases, the brutality would then extend to the vandalism of property as a means of gaining information. The level of destruction varied, the army using the excuse of weapons searches to justify any damage if there were complaints. Army engineers would also demolish houses or groups of houses.
The largest single act of destruction came on 16 June 1936 in the Arab city of Jaffa when the British blew up between 220 and 240 buildings,47 ostensibly to improve health and sanitation, cutting pathways through Jaffa's old city with 200–300 lbs gelignite charges48 that allowed military access and control. By this act—headlined in al-Difa‘ as ‘goodbye, goodbye, old Jaffa, the army has exploded you’—the British made homeless up to 6,000 Palestinians, most of whom were left destitute, having been told by air-dropped leaflet on the morning of 16 June to vacate their homes by 9 p.m. on the same day.49 Some families were left with nothing, not even a change of clothes.
In June 1936, Muslim religious leaders wrote to the High Commissioner detailing how police officers on operations ‘stamped’ on things, destroyed everything, ‘smashed doors, mirrors, tables, chairs wardrobes, glass, porcelain’ and ripped women's clothing and bed linen. Soldiers mixed in margarine and oil with foodstuffs, they trampled on ‘holy books’, and they destroyed wooden kitchen utensils, as well as glasses, clocks, smoking pipes and basins.59 In the same month, another protest complained about police and soldiers hitting innocent people, insulting their dignity, stealing items and destroying furniture, goods and provisions.60As one rebel recounted, servicemen,61Searched houses, each one by itself, in a way that was sabotaging on purpose, and they looted some of the assets of the houses, and burnt some other houses, and destroyed provisions/goods. After putting flour, wheat, rice, sugar and others together, they added all the olive oil or petrol they could find. And in every search operation they destroyed a number of houses of the village and damaged others. They also put signs on other houses to destroy them in the future if there are any incidents near the village, even if that incident is only cutting telephone wires.
A British doctor in Hebron during the revolt, Elliot Forster, recalled the effect of living under sustained British military occupation. Accustomed to local life, Forster worked in Hebron's St Luke's Hospital and held surgeries in outlying villages. He lived through periods of intense military operations as the army and police fought local guerrillas. The rule of law collapsed as troops ran amok, shooting Arabs at random simply because they were in what was, in effect, a ‘free-fire’ combat zone. While some officers tried to restrain the men, local Arabs moved about Hebron and the surrounding countryside in fear of their lives, not from rebel actions but because of the violence meted out by marauding troops and police. ‘Anyone who sees the army nowadays runs like a hare—I do myself!’ wrote Forster.79 In engagements with rebels, the army would shoot Arabs near the battle zone, even when these were old men and boys tending their flocks. Forster daily treated local people brought in to his hospital with gunshot wounds. Candid as to when he was treating a real rebel, most of the time he was tending gunshot wounds inflicted by trigger-happy British troops. He included a well-documented account of policemen executing in broad daylight in October 1938 an Arab suspect travelling in a police vehicle through the Manshiya district of Jaffa, an outrage witnessed by non-British European residents, and repeated examples of troops robbing Arabs of money, including young children who were relieved of their pocket money.
For the soldiers, their activities in Palestine were unremarkable, their job being ‘to bash anybody on the head who broke the law, and if he didn't want to be bashed on the head then he had to be shot. It may sound brutal but in fact it was a reasonably nice, simple objective and the soldiers understood it’.83Regimental histories and contemporary regimental journals did little to hide the reprisals, destruction and collective fines, recording how villages were ‘beaten up’, homes burnt and men detained in cages ‘on orders from above’ because of rebel activity nearby.84 While euphemisms would be used—‘the search was drastic enough to shake the villagers’85—regimental journals would cheerily and sportily describe the trashing of a village, as with the Essex Regiment at the ‘sack’ (obvious pun intended) of Sakhnin, 25–26 December 1937, with physical force that stopped short of outright torture or blatant wanton destruction—or these were not reported.
It was common British army practice to make local Arabs ride with military convoys to prevent mine attacks. Often, soldiers carried them or tied them to the bonnets of lorries, or put the hostages on small flatbeds on the front of trains, all to prevent mining or sniping attacks. ‘The naughty boys who we had in the cages in these camps’ were put in vehicles in front of the convoy for the ‘deterrent effect’, as one British officer put it.89 The army told the Arabs that they would shoot any of them who tried to run away.90 On the lorries, some soldiers would brake hard at the end of a journey and then casually drive over the Arab who had tumbled from the bonnet, killing or maiming him, as Arthur Lane, a Manchester Regiment private candidly recalled:91… when you'd finished your duty you would come away nothing had happened no bombs or anything and the driver would switch his wheel back and to make the truck waver and the poor wog on the front would roll off into the deck. Well if he was lucky he'd get away with a broken leg but if he was unlucky the truck behind coming up behind would hit him. But nobody bothered to pick up the bits they were left. You know we were there we were the masters we were the bosses and whatever we did was right …. Well you know you don't want him anymore. He's fulfilled his job. And that's when Bill Usher [the commanding officer] said that it had to stop because before long they'd be running out of bloody rebels to sit on the bonnet.
British accounts also detail soldiers bayoneting innocent Arabs and Arab fighters in battle being machine gunned en masse by men from the Royal Ulster and West Kent regiments as they came out to surrender near Jenin. ‘At one time the Ulsters and West Kents caught about 60 of them [Arab guerrillas] in a valley and as they walked out with their arms up mowed them down with machine guns. I inspected them afterwards and most of them were boys between 16 and 20 from Syria …. No news of course is given to the newspapers, so what you read in the papers is just enough to allay public uneasiness in England.'
Up to fifteen men died in Halhul, mostly elderly Palestinians (the youngest victim was thirty-five, the oldest seventy-five) who died after being left out in the sun for several days in a caged enclosure with insufficient water. Halhul villagers also claim that soldiers shot a local man at a well during the same operation—in fact, it seems that soldiers beat the victim and then left him to drown in the well.
"Before or after destroying the village [of Al Bassa,], almost certainly the latter, RUR soldiers with some attached Royal Engineers collected approximately fifty men from al-Bassa and blew some of them up in a contrived explosion under a bus. Harry Arrigonie, a British Palestine policeman at al-Bassa at the time, recalled what happened in his memoirs, with the British ‘herding’ about twenty men from al-Bassa ‘onto a bus. Villagers who panicked and tried to escape were shot. The driver of the bus was forced to drive along the road, over a land mine buried by the soldiers. This second mine was much more powerful than the first [i.e., the rebels’ mine] and it completely destroyed the bus, scattering the maimed and mutilated bodies of the men on board everywhere. The villagers were then forced to dig a pit, collect the bodies, and throw them unceremoniously into it."
A letter in Arabic of 8 September 1938 giving the Palestinian side of events extends the atrocity to include premeditated torture. The letter dates the rebel mine explosion to 10.30 p.m. hours on 6 September, following which, on the morning of 7 September, soldiers came to al-Bassa. They shot four people in the streets, in cafes and in the homes of the village, after which the soldiers searched and looted the village, before gathering and beating inhabitants with sticks and rifle butts. The British then took one hundred villagers to a nearby military base—Camp Number One—where the British commander selected four men (the letter lists their names) who were tortured in front of the rest of the group. The four men were undressed and made to kneel barefoot on cacti and thorns, specially prepared for the occasion. Eight soldiers then told off the four men and two per Arab detainee set about beating them ‘without pity’ in front of the group. Pieces of flesh ‘flew from their bodies’ and the victims fainted, after which an army doctor came and checked their pulses. The army then took the group of villagers to another base—Camp Number Two—while soldiers destroyed the village of al-Bassa. All of this happened on the morning of 7 September, with the army withdrawing at 1 p.m. on the same day.
The article goes into much more detail and gives many more examples.
The British destroyed other villages as well - Kaukab Abu al-Hija, for one. Yet it is extraordinarily difficult to find details on these events.
Yet even after the author goes to great lengths to detail these horror stories, he concludes this way:
Britain lost control of Palestine in the late 1930s during the Arab revolt. Faced with similar disturbances, other imperial powers responded much more harshly than the British did in Palestine, as even a cursory glance at other twentieth-century counter-insurgency campaigns shows, whether it is the Spanish in the Rif mountains, the Germans in Africa before the Great War and during the Second World War, the Japanese in China, the Italians in Libya, the French in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, the Portuguese in Africa or the Soviets in Afghanistan. These actions included systemic, boundless violence, large-scale massacres of civilians and POWs, forced starvation, overt racism, gross torture, sexual violence and rape, the removal of legal process, the use of chemical and biological weapons against civilians, ethnic cleansing, extermination camps and genocide. This does not excuse British abuses in Palestine but it provides some comparative context. Put simply, in Palestine the British were often brutal but they rarely committed atrocities. Indeed, by moderating its violence, Britain was probably more effective as an imperial power. Perhaps this is the best that can be said for the British ‘way’ in repressing the Arab insurgency in Palestine: it was, relatively speaking, humane and restrained—the awfulness was less awful—when compared to the methods used by other colonial and neo-colonial powers operating in similar circumstances, an achievement, of sorts.
This study was released in 2009. Yet it made no discernible impact. No news articles about the revelations, no calls for public inquiries, no angry British demanding answers, no apologies from British who feel bad that these actions were done in their name.
The next time any smug British journalist or politician decides to talk about supposed Israeli atrocities against Palestinian Arabs - ask them how it compares with Britain's record against those very same people.
(h/t CHA for research)