Speech given at Middle Temple Hall, 2 July 2021
It is great to be here to celebrate the centenary of the Palestine Police so energetically organised by Ralph Cairns. I wish the BPPA many happy returns.
The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem lasted for almost a century, but crusader times which were very different from our own.
In Palestine conditions, today are of course completely different from when the Palestine Police were there during British Mandatory rule from 1920 to 1948. In particular Israel now exists and is a strong, tough power with every indication of permanence. In 1920 it was a dream in the heads of some Jews with inherited memories of Old Testament pre-Roman times.
When we think of the First World War we think first of Flanders and the Western Front. The Turkish Empire was the ally of Germany and Austria Hungary and a formidable ally. They defeated us in Mesopotamia and at Gallipoli in 1916. In trying to advance into Palestine from Egypt we lost the first two battles of Gaza. The arrival of General Allenby changed the situation. He was known as “The Bull” – these days you can be sacked in disgrace for bullying. In the film of course T E Lawrence won the war by leading the Bedouin tribes and they did made a contribution. But the more conventional war up the coastal plain was the important part. After the capture of Jerusalem the vital battle was fought at Meggido in plain of Jezreel otherwise known as Armageddon. No wonder he became Viscount Allenby of Meggido.
We ruled Palestine by conquest in war, like others before us through history. When we started in 1920 10% of the inhabitants of Palestine were Jews and the vast majority Arabs some Christian but mainly Muslim.
After the Armistice came the Peace Conference at Versailles. Lord Wavell is reputed to have said “We fought the war to end all wars, but I fear we have agreed the peace to end all peace”. That is certainly true about the Middle East. It led to the setting up of the League of Nations and to the British Mandate for Palestine. That meant that we had to try and fulfil two promises we had made in getting support during the war. The promise of self-determination to the Arabs and the separate promise in the Balfour Declaration of support for a National Home for the Jews in Palestine without affecting the rights of the existing Arab majority.
By 1921 Winston Churchill was Colonial Secretary and speaking in Jerusalem he emphasised that our wartime promise – The Balfour Declaration – promised if we won, support for “a National Home” for the Jews in Palestine subject to the rights of the existing inhabitants. Churchill said clearly that it did not mean “A Jewish government to dominate the Arabs”. He said that the “success of Zionism would depend upon the good it will bestow on the whole country.” Unfortunately the Zionists were not there for the benefit of the existing inhabitants but were determined to dominate the country.
The Government and the Palestine Police made huge efforts over the years to limit Jewish immigration into Palestine and prevent the Arabs being swamped. But in the face of the Nazi Holocaust it was hard to achieve. One of the most striking episodes in the history of the PP is the sinking of the ship SS Patria in 1940. She was a former French trans-atlantic liner confiscated by the British from the Vichy French and was in Haifa harbour full of Jewish immigrants due to be deported to Mauritius and was bombed by Jewish terrorists to prevent her leaving. She sank in 16 minutes. 240 Jews died in the water together with some crew members and 2 Policemen who joined the rescue efforts.
The solution to the problem of both Jews and Arabs wanting to control Palestine was put forward by the Royal Commission under the Earl Peel in 1937 (the year I was born). They set out at length the incompatible aspirations of the Arabs and Jews and explained that the policy of impartiality was not achieving agreement between the two.
They concluded that “conflict was inherent in the situation from the outset” (p371) and “intensification of the conflict will continue” and said “bad as it now is, it will grow worse”.
So the Peel Commission put forward their recommendation of the partition of Palestine into two states one Arab and one Jewish with Jerusalem and a corridor to the sea kept separate directly under the League of Nations. Their suggested boundaries are not the same as now proposed but the logic of their proposed “two state solution” is still the basis of British and UN policy now – and still not agreed 84 years later.
That is a most depressing thought. The Peel Commission said “His Majesty’s Government cannot stand aside and let Jews and Arabs fight their quarrel out”. (p. 147) In fact that is what happened in 1948. In India in 1947 we had drawn some boundaries at the very last minute before leaving Hindus and Moslems to fight it out at huge cost in civilian life. In Palestine nobody took any notice of the lines we and the UN tried to draw. The 1948 borders between Palestine and the new state of Israel became where the fighting stopped – until 1967 at least.
Above all we did not leave behind in Palestine an effective and agreed Government. The Jews had built an embryo Government for themselves, including an army in the Hagana. America, and soon we Britain, recognised Israel as a country, but even now neither we nor the USA has recognised Palestine. It is designated as “occupied territory”. But the international law on occupied territories is not applied there.
That is the background to the Palestine Police. It tells you what we were doing there and why we tried to be impartial. In fact the British members of the Police had a good record of impartiality and some of the Arab and Jewish members of the Police had too and all credit to them, although sadly some were secretly in league with terrorist criminals.
You can read books from one side or the other which accuse us of having favoured one side or the other. The fact is at the time we were attacked by both sides. And I mean attacked – murdered in fact. I think the record shows that the Palestine Police remained impartial and determined to do their duty fairly as we would expect.
Their sense of comradeship and the shared danger lived on in the Old Comrades Association. And many rose to high positions in other Police Forces. This centenary of the foundation of the Palestine Police is 73 years from the Stand Down parade at Buckingham Palace on 20 July 1948 with King George VI. He paid a moving tribute to the Palestine Police. Inevitably with the passing of the years, few are left who were on parade to hear it, but one is Bill Smith our Chairman and another is Her Majesty The Queen who was then Princess Elizabeth and was there with her father. That is I think a good moment to think of the example of duty she has set and to propose the Loyal Toast.
Click here to read more about Policing the Holy Land, 1920-1948