How the British responded to Palestinian terrorists

Some Israelis today are left wondering which makes more sense – England’s current advice, or the positions taken by British leaders when they themselves had to deal with the forerunners of Hamas.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)
British Foreign Secretary William Hague 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi)
In the midst of Israel’s recent action against Hamas, British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that the Jewish State would “lose a lot of international support and sympathy” if it sent in ground troops. Hague’s assertion was widely understood as an attempt to pressure Jerusalem to refrain from going all-out against the terrorists.
Israelis have heard this before – as a matter of fact, they heard it from another senior British foreign affairs official, William Waldegrave, the minister of state in the Foreign Office, when he visited Gaza in March 1989. At a press conference, Waldegrave dramatically brandished four rubber bullets, which he accused Israel of firing “indiscriminately” at Arab rioters.
Afterwards, Waldegrave met with the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. Since Kollek was a longtime Labor Party figure and well known political dove, Waldegrave probably thought they were kindred spirits.
The British official was in for quite a surprise.
Kollek told Waldegrave – and told reporters afterwards – that “the British have no right to preach morals to Israel” on fighting terrorists, considering how the British themselves treated Palestinian Arab terrorists in the 1930s. The mayor pointed out that recently-released British government documents described “British army atrocities against the Arabs in Palestine” during those years.
The documents recounted the British authorities’ response to the assassination of a British district commissioner in Jenin in 1938. The killer was captured, jailed, and then shot to death “while trying to escape.” But the Mandate government decided that was not enough, and that “a large portion of the town should be blown up.”
Other anti-terror tactics employed by the British against the Palestinian Arabs in the 1930s included shooting handcuffed prisoners, blowing up civilians’ homes and forcing Arabs to drive “mine-sweeping taxis” in front of British soldiers searching areas where they suspected mines were planted.
Naomi Shepherd, in her book Ploughing Sand (about British rule in Palestine) describes how eight Palestinian Arabs in Halhul died of heat exposure when, “on a scorching day,” British soldiers “rounded up a group of men during a search for arms and kept them standing without water for hours.” After an attack on a British patrol in the village of Kawkab Abu Haija, the British army “destroyed the entire village.” When a British army vehicle ran over a mine near Kafr Yasif, soldiers burned down 70 houses and machine-gunned nine villagers.
HUGH FOOT, a district commissioner in 1930s Palestine who narrowly escaped assassination by Arab terrorists, later recalled the arbitrary nature of house demolitions: “When we thought that a village was harboring 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 tactic was “drastic,” High Commissioner Harold MacMichael conceded, “but the situation has demanded drastic powers.”
An Associated Press correspondent permitted to travel with a British anti-terror unit in October 1938 reported how he watched them “blow up with dynamite about a dozen houses in an Arab village from which shots twice were fired at the troops... [W]hen the troops left there was little else remaining of the once busy village except a pile of mangled masonry.”
In another Arab town, Miar, the British troops “dynamited about forty stone houses” and arrested hundreds of villagers. Sometimes Arab detainees were “put to to work building roads.”
Reports in The New York Times that month offered similar descriptions of British “clean-up” operations, as the Times called them. In Lydda (today known as Lod), “twenty-one Arabs’ homes were destroyed by British troops because of recent attacks on military police.” In Nablus, “severe measures by British troops resulted in about six casualties.”
While some British officials privately expressed unease at the harsh counter-terror methods, most voices in the Colonial Office apparently supported the crackdown. “I do not feel we have the right to interfere,” Lord Dufferin asserted. “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.”
His colleague Sir John Shuckburgh emphasized that the British authorities in Palestine were faced “not with a chivalrous opponent playing the game according to the rules, but with gangsters and murderers.”
All of which may leave some Israelis today wondering which makes more sense – England’s current advice, or the positions taken by British leaders when they themselves had to deal with the forerunners of Hamas.
The writer is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and coauthor, with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.