The British Empire Library

Palestine Betrayed: A British Palestine Policeman's Memoirs (1936-1948)

by Robin H Martin

Courtesy of OSPA

C W Squire (2nd Lieut The Suffolk Regiment, Jerusalem, 1948 HM Ambassador to Israel, 1984-88)
This is a first hand account of life as a policeman in rural Palestine - a world that has disappeared. The author, in charting his own experiences from raw recruit to experienced officer, indirectly describes how the largely static and traditional way of life in rural Arab communities was transformed and ultimately blown apart by external forces and a failure of internal leadership - an early example of globalization before the term was invented.

The context was the declaration by the British Government in 1917 at a low point in the First World War of their commitment to a "national home" in Palestine for the Jewish people without prejudice to ".. .the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities...". This was interpreted by many, Arab and Jew alike, as an endorsement of a Jewish state in Palestine. Subsequent Jewish immigration and land purchase was seen in this light.

The Palestine Police were a classic police force in the British tradition, largely British led, but with British, Arab and Jewish constables at grassroots level. Its task as usual was to keep the peace and apprehend criminals. In Palestine under the Mandate, maintaining law and order increasingly became a task beyond a civilian force, whilst criminal activity expanded into illegal activities up to and including murder 'justified' on moral and political grounds. Both communities unhappily spawned terrorists and criminals of this kind.

As the author makes clear, there were one or two bad apples in the Lorce. In the main, however, it was a courageous and professional body of men given what in the end (and probably from the beginning) was an impossible task, as the two main communities in Palestine moved from reluctant tolerance to violence and ultimately war.

Robin Martin's story begins in 1936 when he, the son of a policeman in the Kent Constabulary, arrived in Palestine as a new recruit, just prior to the Arab disturbances and general strike in April that year. His initial training in Jerusalem was interrupted after a few days when he and his fellow recruits were sent to reinforce the police in restoring law and order near Jaffa where Arabs had rioted and killed Jewish inhabitants, including women and children.

In these early months his duties involved coping with armed Arab rebels, bent on attacking normal life by disrupting transport links, and in protecting Jewish settlements. His account of his time in Har Tuv is most evocative of daily life at that time. Yet trouble was already brewing. "During this period several British constables were killed in action...and some by cowardly terrorist attacks" (p 34). Most of his first three years was spent "...virtually at war with the Arab people of Palestine over this vexed question of Jewish immigration...(yet) there was no personal animosity" (p 87).

As WWII approaches, Martin recounts vivid incidents of which he has personal knowledge showing how the Arab 'rebellion' fizzled out and deteriorated into random criminal activity. Even so the elimination of these gangs cost the lives of more policemen, Arab and British (see Chapter 7 on Jenin 1939).

The impression left is of an ineffectual Arab leadership striking blindly against the Mandatory power and the Jewish presence in the hope of stirring up wider opposition among the Arab population. The Palestinian Arabs never succeeded in creating an internal leadership or channel to the Government, whether in Jerusalem or London, which could speak for Arab Palestine as effectively as did the Jewish Agency. Internally the Arabs were divided by clan and family rivalries, as well as by the differing objectives of neighbouring Arab states, none of which were yet fully independent.

The 1939 White Paper removed the principal Arab grievance by setting a limit on Jewish immigration. This changed the climate of opinion in which Arab terrorism had benefited from the passive support of the general population. Roles were now reversed, with the Jewish community opposed to British policy. The author recalls the first murder of an unarmed British policeman (with whom he had served in Har Tuv) by a Jewish terrorist during a demonstration in Jerusalem in 1939 (p 91).

Meanwhile, outside forces were working against even the possibility of a local settlement as the Second World War approached. The Mandate Government faced a small but growing problem of Jewish terrorism even as Nazi forces were advancing on Cairo. If General Montgomery had lost the Battle of El Alamein, the fate of the Jewish settlement in Palestine might have been very different.

The Jewish population were well aware of the dangers and their dependence at this stage on the success of British arms; and Jewish terrorists remained a tiny and unpopular fraction. But the dangers of Nazi military success, coupled with Arab hostility, meant that increasingly the Jewish Agency was making its own military preparations - contrary to the Emergency Regulations against military training and weapons stockpiling other than by the Government's security forces. Police action to enforce the law simply provoked anger and defiance, as the author amply illustrates from his own experience (pp 120-122).

Meanwhile Jewish terrorist activity against British targets, begun even while the result of the war against Hitler Germany was still undecided, continued. It intensified after the end of the war. Popular support amongst the Jewish community for anti-British activity grew as a result of continued British efforts to limit illegal immigration. Again the author illustrates the local effect on the ground of British policy in recounting Jewish attacks on two coastguard stations in 1945 (pp 192-194).

Growing public awareness in Palestine and in the wider world of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazi regime was having its effect. The Government of Palestine was now losing control of whole areas to Arab or Jewish militias. British policy had less and less support in international bodies. The Holocaust had raised Palestine to a global issue.

There was no lack of grisly incidents by both sides in the closing days of the Mandate. The author and his colleagues in supplementary notes at the end of the volume lists several of them. Global forces had and continue to have a major impact on the Palestine Question. The policies of other governments, notably Nazi Germany and the USA had as much influence on the outcome in 1948 as the British Government. The Soviet Union was one of the first to recognize the new Jewish state of Israel.

As the author boarded the SS Samaria in Haifa harbour on 12 May 1948 - three days before the formal end of the Mandate - he writes that "I felt sad and ashamed of the British Government and politicians concerned in the whole sorry affair over the last 30 years..." (p 224).

This reader was left with a different feeling: respect and admiration for a policeman and his colleagues who did their duty with humanity and courage in impossible circumstances.

British Empire Book
Robin H Martin
Seglawi Press
978 0 9556211 0 9


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