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Britain’s legacy of brutality in Palestine

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Israeli attacks on Palestinians today rightly horrify millions of people. But the Zionist state has learned many of its repressive techniques from Britain, writes Nick Clark
Issue 2659
British troops in Palestine in 1917
British troops in Palestine in 1917

For more than 100 years Palestinians have endured systematic brutality and humiliation under military occupation.

The violence and abuses meted out under the Israeli military occupation today echo those Palestinians suffered at the hands of the British.

Britain occupied Palestine as part of its empire after the First World War.

From the moment the occupation began in 1919, until the moment it ended in 1948, Britain needed ways to suppress resistance.

Accounts of the brutality of the British occupation often turn to the story of British officer Orde Wingate—with good reason.

During a major Palestinian revolt between 1936 and 1939, Wingate ran “night squads” of British soldiers and Jewish settlers that terrorised Palestinian villages.

They are some of the most shocking examples of the violence of British rule.

They also show how the Zionist settler movement—which aimed to establish the state of Israel on Palestinian land—and the British Empire worked together.

But behind the worst atrocities lay a regime of bullying, humiliation, impoverishment and collective punishment backed up by punitive laws.

That’s the subject of military historian Matthew Hughes’ recent book, Britain’s Pacification of Palestine.

It looks at how this machinery of occupation was used to quell the revolt of 1936-1939.

The British fought the Palestinian rebellion, Hughes says, “through the daily grind of low-level punishments”.

This strategy deliberately targeted all Palestinian people—partly because the revolt against British rule had such widespread support.


Palestinians had fought the British occupation since it began. But the great revolt that began in 1936 was on a much bigger scale than anything that came before it.

It involved most of Palestinian society in a general strike that ran from April to October, and an insurrection across much of the countryside.

It was a revolt, “from below,” writes Hughes, echoing the words of Thomas Hodgkin, a British official who worked in Palestine at the time.

“The strike is a spontaneous movement which has the support of almost all sections of the Arab people,” Hodgkin reported. “It started as a movement from below, not from above, and it has been kept alive by pressure from below.”

Hughes says the British responded with an “all-encompassing legal system” that facilitated widespread and humiliating repression.

This “restrained, detained, and impoverished Palestinians, hanged and killed them, and demolished their homes.

“It banned newspapers, interned people, fined and exiled them, censored their mail and telephone calls, took away livestock and crops, whipped them, imposed curfews and police posts, exacted corvee, and restricted travel.

When Israel carries out atrocities, it’s worth remembering that Palestinian oppression began with the British Empire.

“It made singing, shouting, and waving flags illegal, along with processing the wrong way down a street, buying a toy children’s gun, or meeting in a cafe.”

Before the revolt had even begun, the British authorities gave their soldiers and police powers to demolish Palestinian homes and to fine entire villages. They’d also made it a crime to “connive” with resistance or to fail to support police.

They were given even more freedom to do what they wanted as the revolt went on—helping them to dole out collective punishments to entire villages.

British laws explicitly decided that whole villages were responsible for “crimes” committed by Palestinian fighters in their area.

They were designed to justify constant, systematic, mass repression of Palestinians—to “screw them down”.

British soldiers in Galilee “exhausted Palestinians through a daily grind of fining, searching, mass detention, forced labour, whipping and shooting of running suspects”.

“Most if not all of this was legal, including shooting people after soldiers had shouted a challenge,” says Hughes.


“Searches” of Palestinian villages were little more than excuses to loot and destroy houses, detain Palestinians or beat them into becoming informants.

These often resulted in villagers being locked in vast cages for hours or even days on end. Palestinians—captured or not—were used as free labour.

One report from the Leicester Regiment said, “Many sticks were broken over unwilling backs but the road was eventually finished.”

“A Palestinian woman recalled how the British used whips in such searches,” Hughes says. “A police officer used a wooden club with such force on suspects that he ‘thought that the wood would snap under the impact,’ alongside fellow policemen who wielded hammers and tyre levers.”

One officer’s method was to capture two men and then “take one man over to a wall and give him a ‘wee tap on the head’ and fire a shot into the ground and then cut the throat of a cockerel over the man’s face and the other man always talks”.

All it took for a village to be responsible for a crime was for it to be close to where it happened.

Fines were imposed on entire villages for crimes such as not cooperating with security forces, collected by soldiers and enforced with violence and property destruction.

As most of Palestine’s rural, peasant population lived in poverty and with heavy debts anyway, this could ruin them.

Palestine Arabs at Abou Ghosh in 1936

Palestine Arabs at Abou Ghosh in 1936

When British soldiers went to collect fines from one village, they found it empty. “The inhabitants had left as ‘when last fined they stated they were leaving the country, as they could no longer afford to live in it’”.

But the defining form of punishment, says Hughes, was widespread and systematic house demolition.

Often houses that were demolished after a “crime” had already been singled out—maybe for being the biggest or nicest—and marked for demolition. On other occasions soldiers might destroy so much of a village that it was effectively wiped out.

“The most spectacular single act of demolition,” says Hughes, “was that of Old Jaffa in June 1936.”

It carved three, vast gashes through the old city which remain there today. “Artisanal craft shops and Israeli gentrification now fill the remains.”

Giving just two days’ notice, the British airdropped leaflets in Arabic onto the city informing residents their homes were about to be destroyed.

Then, using explosives, the army wiped out about

220 buildings, making as many as 6,000 people homeless.

One British officer remembered, “There was the most enormous bang and about

10 percent of Jaffa went up in the air. I said enthusiastically, ‘that will fucking well teach them,’ and was promptly put under arrest by Major Perrott on the charge of using ‘obscene language whilst on active service’!!”

Demolition “was a devastatingly effective military and social measure,” writes Hughes. “It struck terror into and impoverished Palestinians’ lives.”


This strategy of “pacification”—targeting the mass of Palestinian people—was meant to destroy popular support for the revolt.

Hughes also says that it meant the British relied less on massacres and extreme brutality in Palestine than in other parts of its empire.

He’s at pains to make clear that he doesn’t think this means the British Empire was more benevolent than others.

Only that in Palestine, British rule was cemented through an “attritional” campaign of punishments backed up by repressive laws.

These often “blurred the line” between what security forces could get away with, and encouraged them to commit acts of torture or organise death squads. But Hughes argues this wasn’t “systematic”, or the main way that Britain operated.

Other historians will disagree. But either way, Hughes’ book exposes how the British Empire controlled Palestinians through relentless abuse and humiliation.

It also helps to explain the Israeli occupation of Palestine today.

Some methods used by the British—collective punishment, house demolitions, a repressive legal system—are used by the Israelis.

Early in the book Hughes describes how one law allowed the British to co-opt Zionist settlers as police officers during the revolt.

The Zionist militias “carried over colonial methods learned from the British to the Israeli state after 1948.

“Israel’s collective punishments and house demolitions of Palestinians convicted of terror offences stem from” laws first imposed by the British.

When Israel carries out atrocities, it’s worth remembering that Palestinian oppression began with the British Empire.

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