Contributing AuthorA contributing author.
The documents were declassified by London in 1989. They provide details of the British Mandatory government's response to the assassination of a British district commissioner by a Palestinian Arab terrorist in Jenin in the summer of 1938. Even after the suspected assassin was captured (and then shot dead while allegedly trying to escape), the British authorities decided that ?a large portion of the town should be blown up? as punishment. On August 25 of that year, a British convoy brought 4,200 kilos of explosives to Jenin for that purpose. In the Jenin operation and on other occasions, local Arabs were forced to drive ?mine-sweeping taxis? ahead of British vehicles in areas where Palestinian Arab terrorists were believed to have planted mines, in order ?to reduce [British] land mine casualties.? The British authorities frequently used these and similar methods to combat Palestinian Arab terrorism in the late 1930s. British forces responded to the presence of terrorists in the Arab village of Miar, north of Haifa, by blowing up house after house in October 1938. ?When the troops left, there was little else remaining of the once busy village except a pile of mangled masonry,? the New York Times reported. The declassified documents refer to an incident in Jaffa in which a handcuffed prisoner was shot by the British police.
Under Emergency Regulation 19b, the British Mandate government could demolish any house located in a village where terrorists resided, even if that particular house had no direct connection to terrorist activity. Mandate official Hugh Foot later recalled: ?When we thought that a village was harbouring rebels, we'd go there and mark one of the large houses. Then, if an incident was traced to that village, we'd blow up the house we'd marked.? The High Commissioner for Palestine, Harold MacMichael, defended the practice: ?The provision is drastic, but the situation has demanded drastic powers.? MacMichael was furious over what he called the ?grossly exaggerated accusations? that England's critics were circulating concerning British anti-terror tactics in Palestine. Arab allegations that British soldiers gouged out the eyes of Arab prisoners were quoted prominently in the Nazi German press and elsewhere.
The declassified documents also record discussions among officials of the Colonial Office concerning the anti-terror methods used in Palestine. Lord Dufferin remarked: ?British lives are being lost and I don't think that we, from the security of Whitehall, can protest squeamishly about measures taken by the men in the frontline.? Sir John Shuckburgh defended the tactics on the grounds that the British were confronted ?not with a chivalrous opponent playing the game according to the rules, but with gangsters and murderers.?
There were many differences between British policy in the 1930s and Israeli policy today, but two stand out. The first is that the British, faced with a level of Palestinian Arab terrorism considerably less lethal than that which Israel faces today, nevertheless utilized anti-terror methods considerably harsher than those used by Israeli forces. The second is that when the situation became unbearable, the British could go home; the Israelis, by contrast, have no other place to go.
Dr. Medoff is Visiting Scholar in the Jewish Studies Program at SUNY-Purchase. His most recent book is Baksheesh Diplomacy: Secret Negotiations Between American Jewish Leaders and Arab Officials on the Eve of World War II (Lexington Books, 2001).