by Ian Black
The 1936–9 Arab Revolt against British rule in Palestine, and its suppression by the British army, was a precursor to the devastating war against the nascent Israeli state that the Palestinians lost a decade later. Matthew Hughes‘s extensively researched new study shows how, with a ruthlessly effective combination of brutality and ‘non-lethal oppressive collective punishment’, the British quelled the revolt and crushed any chance for effective Palestinian resistance against colonial rule.
Britain’s suppression of the Arab revolt in Palestine in the second half of the 1930s marked an important stage in the history of the enduring conflict in the Holy Land. Matthew Hughes’s research, collected in this groundbreaking study, is grounded in the wider context of the use of the military in colonial states, the specifics of the Arab struggle against the Zionist enterprise and rests on an impressive wealth of primary sources. Like other periods and aspects of the history of Palestine, this one has been examined closely over many years – starting with contemporary accounts, through an array of PhD theses (including my own at LSE in 1978), as well as the memoirs of soldiers and policemen and documentary films.
Hughes summarises the British army’s pacification as ‘devastatingly effective,’ based on emergency laws that went unchallenged because of the absence of any indigenous legislature (and which were inherited by the state of Israel in 1948). Britain’s commitment to the promotion of a Jewish ‘national home,’ enunciated in the Balfour Declaration and written into the terms of the League of Nations mandate, ensured that the institutions of the Jewish Yishuv (community), opposed any democratic oversight. The rebellion (al-thawra al-kubra in Arabic) lasted from April 1936 to May 1939, when Britain’s White Paper, curbing Jewish immigration and land sales – but still rejected by the Palestinian leadership – marked its effective end.
Comparisons are made throughout the book with the suppression of colonial revolts in Ireland, Kenya, Malaya and Aden, as well as French-ruled Algeria, but the overall analysis is blunt and straightforward: ‘Without the post-Vietnam War era counter-insurgency managerial jargon and modernisation methodologies so fashionable today, British forces in Palestine killed rebels and punished civilians.’
Britain’s task was made easier by the fact that the rebels were disorganised, undisciplined and starved of funds. Field commanders were not coordinated with political leaders. With the exception of Fawzi al-Qawuqji (a former Ottoman army officer at odds with the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini) the revolt had no effective military men. The army remained master of the battlefield. British casualties amounted to 244 dead, half of them non-combat related. Palestinian fatalities numbered around 5,000 – but up to a third were killed by rebels. ‘British violence was political and targeted,’ Hughes writes, ‘while Palestinian violence was personal and politically indiscriminate.’ The British carried out 112 executions, two of them of Jews.
Cooperation with Palestine’s Jews, who in 1936 constituted just under a third of the population, worked to the government’s advantage by mobilising them as supernumerary policeman. Others were members of the Special Night Squads, commanded by Orde Wingate, which were guilty of ‘excessive and irregular violence’. The Jewish Haganah militia was an important source of intelligence for the British military. All were ‘force multipliers for pacification.’ Police powers were transferred to the army, which was heavily reinforced after the Munich agreement in September 1938 just as the insurgency peaked with the capture of Jerusalem’s Old City and an attack on the Jewish quarter of Tiberias.
Hughes provides meticulous documentation of infamous abuses at al-Bassa in northern Galilee (20 dead) and at Halhoul near Hebron, where men were left to die in open cages in the sun because the village failed to collectively hand over weapons – or perhaps did not have any. Abducted locals, known as ‘mascots,’ were tied to the bonnets of lead vehicles in army convoys. Detainees were frequently shot while trying to escape. But Hughes argues convincingly that the bigger picture matters more than individual atrocities: ‘Focusing on sadistic outrages and death squads detracts from the controlled use of quotidian, atomising, non-lethal oppressive collective punishments such as draconian fines, tight censorship, and extensive summary detention that cumulatively ended insurrection and sustained imperial rule.’
Unsurprisingly, the official version was largely one of restraint and legality, undermined by ‘a darker take glimpsed through deep archival mining.’ In Silwan village, outside Jerusalem, in late 1937, a North Staffordshire Regiment officer recorded how men of the Black Watch beat to death 12 Palestinians with rifle butts after the death of two comrades left with their kilts raised and buttocks exposed – ‘an insult the local Arabs suffered for.’ Euphemistic language like ‘gentle persuasion’ and ‘third degree methods’ was rife in descriptions of fighting ‘oozel-barts’ (a delightful corruption of the Arabic ‘Isabat, or gangs).
The richness of this important book comes as much from private correspondence, diaries, regimental archives and in-house unit newsletters as it does from high-level military and colonial office records. Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of ‘primitive rebels’ is invoked to characterise the Arabs as a movement rather than an organisation, parochial rather than national, a ‘rural peasant-based insurgency.’ Arabic sources make clear that urban-rural divisions were hugely damaging. Carefully-honed British ‘divide and rule’ strategies worked – but against an already divided community. The officially-backed ‘peace bands’ (fasail as-salam) were the peak of collaboration in 1938. Hughes makes the important point that after 1945, when Jewish resistance to the Palestine Mandate began in earnest, the British never managed to split the Jews.
British military and administrative superiority was overwhelming. ‘Only superbly-organised, united and ruthless guerrilla resistance could undercut such powerful civil military structures, and Palestinians fought with determination and little else, and often against each other,’ he concludes. The main effect of that defeat was to shatter the Palestinians for the existential war, known as the nakba, that they lost a decade later.