Thursday 23rd February 2023
Matthew Hughes is Chair in military history at Brunel University London. His most recent book Britain’s Pacification of Palestine: the British Army, the Colonial State and the Arab Revolt, 1936-39 came out with Cambridge University Press in 2019. He is currently working on a project examining British military force on Borneo at the end of empire, 1962-66.
Thank you to the Balfour Project for inviting me. I’m talking really about the book and the information in the book that was published a couple of years ago. And here is an English version of the book. And here’s the Arabic version published by the Center for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut.
I just like to set up and frame the talk if I may, with just some ideas about the British Empire. And I was thinking in another talk that I gave, and this made me draw up a new slide that from the independence of America in 1783 up until Indian independence in 1947. I can’t think of a single successful insurgency within the British Empire. And some of you might think of Ireland in 1922. But of course, the Irish lost the north of the country to Protestant settlers. There’s a lesson there for what happened later in Palestine, and also Irish officials carried on with fealty, with loyalty to the British Crown, the British kept treaty ports in Ireland and Ireland was it within the dominions, and part of the British Empire until the late 1940s.
So the idea here is about power and about the violence that underpins the British Empire. And I’ve got a definition here from the shorter Oxford English Dictionary on violence, because one of the points in the book is that the British employ considerable excessive violence and atrocities, brutality, torture, shootings, assassinations, during the repression of the Arab Revolt. But the point in the book is that the extreme violence is less important and is less profound than the violence that underpinned the British Empire, which was embedded fundamentally in legal and administrative structures.
So here with the quotation, ‘restriction, or alteration of natural action, behaviour, inclination, undue or enforced constraint, the abuse of power to persecute or oppress.’
The first part of my talk deals with the last part of my book, military power and the effects of military power. But the fundamental thesis is that the British set up a lawfare if you like, rather than warfare, and this is used, this colonial architecture, which is largely legal in form to repress the Palestinians, and it’s done in a fundamentally non-lethal way. Although casualties are high in the Arab Revolt, relatively speaking, they’re fairly low. And also, the pacification is directed more at property than people.
So the British Empire is very powerful because of the way it moderates violence. And what can come out from the book is excessive violence. But the argument of the book is really how the British and manage violence, it might be excessive, it might not, but the British turn the violence on or off, as is required.
And they do this very effectively in Palestine. The British military is very effective in doing what the British government in London requires, which is defeating the Palestinian insurrection before the Second World War to release the British army to fight in Europe.
So the arguments of the book are really about warfare about war and administration. These are the bedrock of Britain’s pacification – warfare, if you like rather than warfare. It’s not a phrase that I came up with it, comes out of David Edgerton, his book on the British warfare state, obviously a play on welfare state.
I talk a little bit at the end of this talk about the variable of resistance, because the British seek loyalists collaborator forces within both the Jewish and Palestinian communities. But the resistance is the variable against a colonial power that, roughly speaking, executes pacification in the same way across the Empire.
Now, the pacification changes from the late 19th century, the High Renaissance of eliminationist racist small wars to the managed brutality of Imperial policing in Palestine in the 1930s. So the British gradually moderate what they do. The League of Nations changes what the British do, Amritsar changes the way the British see things. German atrocities and Belgium make the British consider what they do. But the variable is fundamentally the resistance against a very successful colonial power, which executes the pacification across the Empire in similar ways.
This runs on after the Second World War and becomes quite controversial in terms of recent literature from Caroline Elkins, from David Anderson. Both very good books. Quite harrowing reads about what the British do in Kenya in the 1950s to repress Mao Mao and the rebellion there, although interestingly much of the worst excesses the atrocities are committed by loyalists and by police reserve units. And there’s also been movements within Malaya concerning the emergency during the 1950s. Here you have a Royal Marine with severed heads. And here you have Malays looking for a truth and reconciliation in a court case in London.
And if you want the latest word on the subject all about the British Empire and the violence. Here you have it Caroline Elkins recent book just published last year, History of the British Empire – a legacy of violence. And the work I did is appeared in Tom Bateman’s work more recently for the BBC in terms of apologies being sought for British war crimes in Palestine, might interest some of you listening in today. Tom Bateman picked up on some of the more violent, more abusive elements of British military action in Palestine in the 1930s, in particularly picked up on an attack that the British military launched in late 1938 on the Palestinian village in El Basa, it’s not there anymore. It’s up near the Lebanese border, and there the British both shot people, tortured people but also blew them up under a bus. So it was a contrived explosion which killed 20 to 30 villagers. They weren’t rebels. They weren’t fighters in any way. And this was a punitive raid, launched against a village that was near an incident where a mine blew up a British military lorry, killing for soldiers.
And this is the military part, in a way the easy part of the book, military action, military force British soldiers, guns, shooting people, repressing people, brutality. Here you have General Deal one of the three British senior generals who in succession rule the British Army and the British military forces through the period of the Arab revolt from April 1936 up until the summer of 1939. And here he has a march passed outside the YMCA building in West Jerusalem.
Here’s another image going by the Old City walls, the Jaffa Gate, and then you have the Scots Guards. Again, lots of British regiments go through Palestine. It’s a very considerable British military deployment, if not one of the largest military deployments in the interwar period outside of India.
And here you have a sense of the military power that was surge, to use a sort of phrase from Afghanistan, a wave or a surge of troops that comes in to repress the rebellion. The military force is very important, but is underpinned by what I want to talk about for the next 20 minutes or so, which is the legal administrative structures of repression. I’m not an expert on Israel today, but many of them carry over into the new Israeli Government in 1948. And then up until the current situation, I mean, ideas of collective punishment, for instance, and house demolition, which go back to the 1931 British Order in Council.
The surges of troops are quite considerable. But if you stretch your minds beyond Palestine to Europe, the British have to deal firstly with the Abyssinian crisis, with Italy in 1936. And then there’s the Czechoslovakia crisis in late 1938, which isn’t solved until September ‘38. And so the politics in Europe, they affect what happens in Palestine. When the British surge troops in in the summer of ’36, once Abyssinia has been resolved and Haile Selassie has been defeated. And then once the Munich settlements affected by Chamberlain in September ‘38, the British surge troops in October ‘38. And in both of those cases, they’re holding troops back because of possible flashpoints elsewhere
When you talk about the security forces, this is a picture from the American Colony Hotel archive, a really good photo archive. Here you have an image of Royal Marines, so soldiers off of ships, and they’re in white, but you also have working alongside the British Army, of course the RAF but you have the Arab Legion from Jordan. You have CID. There’s no special branch in Palestine, but the Criminal Investigation Department has a political department that works with the police. You also have auxiliary forces. I’ll talk more about them both mostly from the Jewish community, but also some auxiliary forces from the Palestinians, and the Secret Service as well, MI5 and MI6 runs operations in Palestine, it’s within the empire.
MI6 runs a very successful operation in Damascus, through the British Consul General there, a man called Gilbert Mackereth, who works very hard to stop the smuggling of guns and the passage of would be rebels from Syria and from Iraq, who are going into Palestine to fight the British. So in a holistic way, the British deal with the Arab revolt against the British, and they use not just the army, but as I’m saying, all the different elements of the security forces.
These men are on the streets of Haifa, which makes sense because that’s the only place that could accept large British ships.
So I wanted to go back a little bit now and do a sort of Politics 101, if you like, back at university, legislature, judiciary and executive, because the issue in Palestine is there’s no legislature. The only legislative influence that the Palestinians or the Jews can have is through the parliament in London or informally through the High Commissioner.
Because what you have here is prerogative power, there is no restriction or no influence on the High Commissioner from the local community, through the normal balance of power, the checks and balances that you would have in a western political system.
The one exception is the judiciary. But in June of 1936, as I’ll show you, in a moment, the British destroy a large part of Jaffa, the judiciary objects to that and after that, the British colonial administration, neuters the judiciary in Palestine, and with no legislature, a neutered judiciary, and then an executive, which is wholly run by the British, there’s very little interference or restriction that the local communities can make to this.
The laws in Palestine come about through Orders in Council. These are quite unusual in Britain. They’re not unknown. We’ve used them for the European Union in the 1970s and ‘80s. But they’re always subject to the scrutiny of parliament in London. But these are the foundation of the system of rule in Palestine, and the Orders in Council, which started in 1922, then snowball down into Emergency Regulations, all of which are issued, and which have no scrutiny from any legislative body.
Now, when you go through the legislation and appears in the Palestine Gazette is quite bewildering, because you have all sorts of notices, curfew orders, they stem back to Orders in Council, but from the Orders in Council, there’s a whole series of subsidiary legislation. I don’t want to bore you with this, but it is important. Here are the key dates – the 1922 Order in Council establishes the constitution of Palestine without a legislature. There are two muted legislatures in 1923 and in 1935, neither comes to anything for various reasons that I haven’t got time to go into. And both of them would still have given the British members in the Legislative Council, the majority.
The key rendering council for repression is the 1931 Order in Council. In fact, the 1931 Order in Council empowers the 1945 Emergency Regulations that the British used against the Jewish insurgency from ‘45 to ‘48, which is then paradoxically or ironically picked up on by the Israeli state in May 1948. And it then becomes Israeli law. So the Israeli law used for its pacification stems back to the 1931 Order in Council.
The British never affect martial law in Palestine, they get very close to it. But they don’t establish full martial law. But they get close to it with Palestine martial law, which is not enacted, although strangely, it actually appears in the Palestine Gazette. And there’s an Order in Council in 1937. And then there are the Second World War ones and ‘39, especially the Emergency Powers Defense Act. If you could be bothered to read them, they’re pretty stringent. They give the government power to ride roughshod over most civil rights. And to be fair, these powers are also affected back in the metropolis in Britain in 1914, and in 1939. But these are the established bases of rule through the Mandate period, and they are very powerfully used against the Palestinians in 1936 and the Jews in 1945. And the two regulations that you have here at the bottom, the ‘36 and ’45, they’re the actual rules that the soldiers and the civil administrators get. They flow from the Orders in Council that come automatically from the government through the colonial office, through the High Commissioner. And the Emergency Regulations. There’s lists of them numbered 1234567. And they give the security forces the power to institute curfews, to destroy houses, for instance, house demolition, and it’s still topical issue today, and detention of people without trial. All of those are laid out in the Emergency Regulations.
And the British adjust the regulations with all sorts of amendments. If you can be bothered to go through the Palestine Gazette, there are the amendments to the curfew, amendments to detention, amendments to censorship, amendments to carrying a gun, amendments to carrying a dagger, amendments to illegal possessions, amendments to making loud music, which could be seen to be a protest. And the amendment, copper bottom and fill any holes that the British Mandate authority things have not been plugged by the original regulations. So they’re very, very flexible. And as soon as the British see a problem in 1937, they amend a particular regulation.
So you have to start from the Order in Council to the regulation and then all the amendments, which in one level is a bit dull, but it is very, very important. And then you have ordinances as well, which sit alongside the Emergency Regulations. And as I said before, very versatile. The collective punishments ordinance in 1936 establishes what it says, although the British collective punishment is more indiscriminate. So if there’s an incident here, the British will institute collective punishment close by, they don’t target, as a rule, particular family, they’ll target a particular area.
The police Ordinance of 1926, I understand is still the basis for the Israeli police today, Israeli police officer told me, We have a press ordinance, which is very strong in censorship, controlling telephones, controlling the publication of newspapers, controlling the import of newspapers which are critical of the British, and they also control the immigration of, or the coming into the country of any journalists from abroad. And the Criminal Code Ordinance of 1936. That brings together a lot of pre existing Ottoman laws which stemmed back to Napoleonic Code, some English case law brings it all together in a common criminal code.
And the result is hangings here, and this is an Arabic cartoon, which was handed out in the marketplaces. And you can see the Arabic translation below from the Central Zionist Archives, and the British hang legally about 112, including two Jews, but otherwise, all Palestinian suspects who are hanged during the rebellion.
The Emergency Regulations give British soldiers the right to shoot any running suspects. The expression is waqif, which the soldiers will then often mangle to corned beef, or later I’m heard they shall they shut it f*@k off three times, and working on the Borneo at the moment in the 1960s. And it’s interesting the continuity of what goes on, because the British soldiers are taught in Malay to say halt, exactly the same, three times. And if the person does not hold them, the regulations give you the right to shoot them. So as long as you say, halt halt halt three times, then you’re within your rights to shoot them as part of the security forces.
Here is a very visible sign of collective punishment of a whole area. And this is the old city of Jaffa, which I visited a while ago, and this was seemed to be filtering out with gentrification, what’s left a bit in this sort of Caspar area. But this is the demolition in June 1936, following trouble as the British saw it in the old city of Jaffa, so the British wanted to ingress and also punish the area of Jaffa. And so they did this and my cursor can show this too. It looks like an anchor. The British often describe it as like a bow, and it gives the British military powers the ability to get into the old city of Jaffa. This demolition was perfectly legal within the Emergency Regulations established in April ‘36. And it’s interesting that when the Arab Revolt starts in April 1936, the same evening, the British enact the Emergency Regulations, so they’re primed for any trouble. The regulations are there, and they are able to use them very quickly for pacification.
And this is what pacification looks like on the ground. Here are three soldiers blasting trumpets to signal that there is going to be another explosion. And the destruction in Jaffa is the most visible and the most powerful image of collective punishment and house demolition. But if you look pro rata, the smaller villages where the British destroy buildings, the demolition pro rata is worse in some of the small villages, because they destroyed say half or three quarters of the small place, and so fewer houses overall were destroyed but more of the conurbation is destroyed.
The British remove people, not always, but they remove people from the building. The Royal Engineers come in and blow up the buildings. Sometimes the British make the Palestinians destroy the building themselves brick by brick, it depends on the regiment, depends on what’s going on. But my point to you is it’s all perfectly legal. As is this – searching. Now searching can just be searching. But the British would also label some searches punitive raids. And these too are legal, not simply under the Emergency Regulations, but also under the law that guided soldiers. Now this was the Kings regulations. But more importantly, the manual of military law, which had been updated in I think 1931. And the manual of military law gave soldiers the legal right to use any power necessary to repress a rebellion, especially in the colonies. The law was different back in the metropolis, back in Britain, but pretty much any level of force was allowable in the peripheral areas across the Empire.
Now, this is a good photo of what went on across a lot of Palestine, just smashing things up. The British would break cabinets and soldiers didn’t always like doing it. But the officers, when they got the men going, there was a kind of a red mist that would descend, and the destruction could be really quite immense.
And of course, curfew orders, this is one that was on a display at the American Colony Hotel, it’s not there anymore, but I scanned it in from the archive. And here you have it in English and Arabic and Hebrew. And the curfew orders were a very impressive way and a very extensive way that the British could control movement, mostly, but not exclusively at night. And during the day, the British would also institute curfews if necessary, sometimes for two or three days, then releasing it for an hour so people could go out and get food. Sometimes they would be nighttime ones, they would vary. Sometimes they will be daytime curfews.
And other times the British would issue curfew orders along certain vital arteries like roads or railways. So each side of the road or the railway, there’ll be a curfew order. And if anyone was in that area at these times, they could be shot. Now sometimes they were shot. Sometimes they were arrested, depending whether it was the police or the army, depending on the mood of the regiment for local soldiers. The curfew order, along with the right to shoot someone after you shouted, halt halt halt three times in Arabic, or course which British soldiers don’t understand, they just learned the phrase, it’s a powerful way of control and that’s my point really about the pacification. The pacification is about controlling people. They control petrol. They issue ID cards so you can’t travel without ID cards. There’s curfews, there’s detention. They restrict all sorts of issues of permits. There’s restrictions on food. All of these measures of control are as powerful or more powerful, and soldiers going out with guns and attacking rebel bands or punishing villages.
The detention is impressive. This is Acca jail. The main internment camp is north of Acca. But the British also detained people in the Negev desert and they detain them at very large British military base at Sarafan. They also detain them at police stations. Some of which are now Israeli police stations. They also detain them in the countryside in work camps, which they’re not really on the books. They’re not concrete structures. They also detain Palestinians in army camps and often they use them as free labour.
They also banished people from one area to another. Rather like Italian fascists used to, banish people to the southern part of Italy, they banish them to another part of Palestine. So the whole archipelago of detention across Palestine, I don’t know if it’s a gulag. This is not fundamental in the way the gulag was in the Soviet system. But certainly for the period of the revolt, there’s an archipelago of an architecture, an archipelago of prisons that once the revolt ends, it’s closed down.
The detention is a very powerful tool. And it’s willy-nilly. I mean, you can see jokes in soldiers’ papers about we’re just detaining anybody, any able bodied man or woman, there’s a women’s prison in Bethlehem. There’s a section in the book on the experience of women in the Arab Revolt. The soldiers will often make comments that someone’s got a bad squint, or an ugly looking face, he’s likely to get arrested. But in other times, the soldiers take the arrested people to the local colonial official, and the colonial official just detains them, just one after the other.
And the detention period can be renewed. So you’ll have people who will be in jail, they don’t come before a court, there’s no habeas corpus. There’s no trial, and they’ll be in detention for two or more years. And also, people who are detained and released and then other elements of the security force will arrest them. So they will be be released from Acca, jail, or Sarafam, and then the police will arrest them and take them somewhere else.
There are also secret detention camps. There’s one on the Allenby camp. It’s called Talavera, which is a battle in the peninsula war. And it’s a sub part of the Allenby barracks, which is in the southern part of Jerusalem, it’s now a housing complex. And there, they had a torture house. So it was a separate secret detention centre in a police area, but is in a police military part of the camp.
And so here is a list of the detention that came in many forms, really just summing up what I’ve said. They kept villagers in cages in their own village. There’s also reporting to police stations, there’s house arrest, all sorts of different styles of detention, they also banished some people, some of them they deported to the Seychelles, like the Arab higher command, leadership. But they also banished people actually from the country, including the Jewish communists. There’s some quite interesting work on how the British obsession in the Jewish community was more with Communists than with Jewish nationalists.
Here’s one of the results, starvation. This is 1936, from the American Colony archive, a nurse handing out bread. And there’s a real problem with poverty, dislocation, social dislocation, homelessness, hunger, it doesn’t extend to famine. But it’s a very difficult time. And of course, this has an effect on the Palestinian community when it comes to the next war with Israel in 1948.
And it’s about control. Here’s a nice image of one of the gates going into the Old City of Jerusalem. here you can see some schoolgirls coming in. And here you can see the little needle eye of the door that’s going to let people in and out. And later on, they put barbed wire at the top. So control.
And here you have control with dogs. Interestingly, the man at the back is from South Africa, they brought in South African handlers for tracker dogs. The dogs were used largely for tracking rebels. It wasn’t for sniffing out explosives. Here are the Palestine policemen. And on the right, you have two British soldiers in shorts, Lee Enfield rifles, and the old-style hats. And this is just outside the Jerusalem city walls.
It’s interesting, they had searchers, so they would search Palestinians and they didn’t search the women, but they had some women searches that they would use in the Armenian community. And they also use some Russian Christians or Russian Jews, women for the searching.
Here’s surveillance. Here’s an army camp, search lights ranging out over the hills near Jerusalem. And during the day, during the night, it was almost like a permanent prison really. Curfews at night. The Palestinians had a long strike in 1936. So they were supposedly not working through the daylight hours. And the American Consul in Jerusalem, he remembers how quiet it was. He says he was walking through the Old City on a usually busy Thursday. And he said, just absolutely silent, just some soldiers at checkpoints, but nobody was out. And here’s a nice image on the curtain wall of Jerusalem. British officers called the watchers. Here we have five British officers looking out, search light behind them.
That’s the idea of surveillance, the idea of control, and of course, censorship as well. The British not only controlled, there weren’t that many telephones, they controlled the telephones. They also refused visas to recalcitrant journalists, and they redacted and closed newspapers. So if you read the Arabic press at the time, you’ll get to the March issue of a paper, and then you’ll think that they’ve missed out, the next issue is October, and looking through going to see the archivist – where’s the issues from April to September, nothing. The newspaper has been closed down.
They also made newspapers publish information that was favourable to the British government and some parts of the newspapers will be redacted. The newspapers weren’t allowed to publish anything about Hajj Amin, about any of the operations of the British Army in the countryside. And one of the Hebrew language newspapers got into trouble because it redacted so much, it was almost as though they were making fun of the authorities and the authorities are pushed back against them. The censorship is a very important part and control of information.
And just sort of moving towards the end about resistance. Resistance is not the main part in the book, but it forms two chapters. And in fact, I started the chapter with al Qassam, and the resistance is the variable against a colonial power that executes pacification in a fairly consistent way. And the argument in the book is that resistance is incoherent. Now there are two very good resistance leaders. One is al Qassam and the other one up on the right, topless, is Fawzi al Qawuqji. Qassam was killed in 1935, Qawuqji fights for about a seven week period in September, very late August to October 1936. After that, during the revolt, he never reappears in Palestine. So the leadership devolves to Hajj Amin al Husseini, on the bottom left, who in 1937, he flees, or in some accounts, the British police let him leave and he goes to Beirut, to Lebanon and the leadership is very poor, although the resistance in Palestinians is very strong. There’s a question here about the need for disciplined leadership.
And I take you back to the comment in the first slide. I can’t think, from the American Revolution till the Second World War, of any insurrection that was organised enough and powerful enough to defeat the might of the British Empire, the largest empire the world had ever seen.
Fawzi al Qawuqji is interesting. The British engineer his escape in October 1936. When there’s a ceasefire, precisely because they know that he is an effective leader. And al Qassam is interesting, because I heard anecdotally, but didn’t put it in the book, that when he has his final battle in November 1935 against the British police, with the head of British CID flying in a light plane overhead. They’re determined to destroy this key resistor to British rule. When they capture him, and one of the stories is they just shoot him, so he’s not shot in battle, they execute him. They want to get rid of him because they know that he is such a threat in terms of insurrection within Palestine.
And I do mention in the book, I’m no expert on Vietnam, but I was struck by the power of Mao Tse Tung’s thinking from the 1930s picked up by the Viet men and then the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. And I had an image here of Ho Chi Minh, because comparing what happens in Palestine to what happens in Vietnam is comparing chalk and cheese, two very different insurrections and the discipline of the communist resistance, both against the French and then against the Americans, stands in stark contrast to the incurrent forms of resistance put forward by the Palestinians. Reading the accounts of what happens to the ordinary Palestinians at the sharp end of British pacification, it’s hard to wonder what the leadership in the both the national committees and the Arab higher committee were thinking in terms of how they launched the insurrection, because although there are elements of disciplined insurgency with the Palestinians, it’s certainly not enough to overcome the British.
And of course, divide and rule, the British are so skilled at doing this all across the Empire, all through time, most recently up into Northern Ireland and the war in the 1970s and 80s, where the British security forces infiltrate so successfully the dissident insurgent Republican groups. And here you have the collaborators very famously, this is the British General in charge giving a talk at a meeting at Yata in the southern part of the West Bank, October, I think 1938. And on the right, you can see Nashashibi. So the British also pick up on fissures within the Palestinian community and exploit them very effectively.
I don’t think that this is a deciding factor in any way to the defeat of the Arab Revolt, but it certainly is a contributory factor to the colonial intelligence, collaboration architecture, that helps discombobulate the Palestinian resistance. It makes it very hard to know who’s friend, who’s foe. The British set up what they later called pseudo gangs, troops which are dressed up as the other side. So nobody really knows who is fighting whom.
And the Yatta meeting is not terribly successful, the Palestinians prefer Hajj Amin’s means resistance to the Nashashibi collaboration. But it’s nevertheless part of a wider movement that includes also auxiliaries from the Jewish side. And I was struck by just how many auxiliary units there were within the Jewish community. Some of these are synonymous, so they’re different names for the same unit. But nevertheless, I found all of these different names that the British use to describe the Jewish auxilary forces that fight alongside them. And the most famously, there’s Orde Wingate’s special night squads, fighting in Galilee, as in the picture below, in 1938. It’s pretty brutal force.
But I would add that one of the reasons its operations end is partly because colonial officials complain about the excessive violence, but also the British army doesn’t like the special nights squads. It doesn’t like the irregular quality to them. The British Army is conservative as an institution and also doesn’t like the excessive violence.
One of the issues is decimation. So the Roman legions of classical proportions, the special night squads would execute every 10th man, but sometimes they execute one in seven or one and six, usually to stop any trouble, to encourage information or to get guns.
But the special night squads are actually fairly small. The Jewish supernumerary and auxiliary police forces and Settlement Police forces, some of which are funded by the Jewish Agency, they get support from the British, they get military training. So there’s a combination here of the British military, keen to repress the Arab revolt and the Jewish community, very keen to both get military training and also get support from the British military and protect their community from the violence of the Arab Revolt.
But many of the future Israeli leaders like Moshe Dayan, go through training with in his case, the special nights squads, but for other Jewish leaders, it’s with other parts of these auxiliary forces.