Palestine Police During the British Mandate

Palestine Police During the British Mandate
Law Enforcement in Service of Zionist Goals

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Group of Army & Palestine Police on a Jaffa House-Top

Matson photo service, Library of Congress

After the 1917 conquest of Ottoman Palestine by British military forces, the British assumed responsibility for public security. Formal structures of British military administration of Palestine, including a police force, were established under the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration in 1918 and two years later the Palestine Police was established officially. (The British administration prioritized the transition from military to civil institutions even before it was officially granted the Palestine Mandate in 1923.) As Britain expanded its administrative presence, and especially as its commitment to establishing a Jewish “national home” in Palestine—announced in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and incorporated into the terms of the Mandate—provoked growing resistance from the Palestine’s Arab population, the Palestine Police grew in size, transformed in structure, and was increasingly central to debates over the goals and effectiveness of British administration. Although the Palestine Police employed tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs over the course of the Mandate, many of whom saw in it an opportunity to advance personally and serve their community, it increasingly became an institution used to repress Palestinian political mobilization and through which the Zionist movement established dominance in the security sector.

The Palestine Police was initially structured along the lines of most other British colonial police forces, with a small British officer corps sitting atop a force of locally recruited officers and personnel of other ranks. However, this structure began to change after several prominent incidents of intercommunal violence between Palestinian Arabs and Jews in April 1920 and May 1921, during which demonstrations devolved into violence, Arabs attacked Jews, and the police launched heavy reprisals against Arabs. Zionist leaders decried the police’s inability or refusal to protect the Jewish community and pressured the British to increase the number of Jewish policemen—especially in mixed cities like Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa—and to align British security strategy with Zionist interests by granting Jewish neighborhoods and colonies autonomy in policing.

Initial Structure

Zionist pressure succeeded in forcing the dismissal of Percy Bramley, the Mandate’s first director of public security, whom Zionists perceived to be antagonistic to their movement. Mandate authorities feared that granting Zionist institutions increased autonomy would provoke anti-Zionist public opinion among the majority Arab population. However, they also determined that the police force was too small and too Arab to adequately contain the growing dissatisfaction with Britain’s pro-Zionist policies. (At the end of 1921, fewer than one hundred officers, less than half of whom were British, oversaw a force of less than 1,200, about 90 percent of whom were Palestinian Arabs.) British police officials thus sought to engineer a “balance” of British, Jewish, and Arab policemen, which they believed would bolster overall security in Palestine while building “reliable” institutions that would contribute to the realization of the Jewish National Home policy.

The Mandate administration also introduced a Palestine Gendarmerie, with separate Palestinian and British sections. The Palestinian section of the gendarmerie comprised around five hundred officers and other ranks and was engineered so that about half were recruited from ethnoreligious “minority” populations (primarily Christians, Druze, Circassians, and Jews). The British section was about seven hundred strong, plus officers. Nearly all its original recruits had previously served in the Royal Irish Constabulary and its auxiliary corps—popularly known as “Black and Tans” because of the colors of their uniforms. They had gained a reputation for brutality in the repression of the Irish independence movement, and after the Irish Free State was established in 1922, British colonial officials repurposed these forces for policing in Palestine.

In 1926, after five year of relative calm and growing concerns over its cost, the Palestine Gendarmerie was dissolved. Some of its men were integrated into the Palestine Police, which was divided into British and Palestinian sections. The Palestinian section continued to expand and remained significantly larger than the British section in the second half of the 1920s. By the end of 1927, more than three hundred British officers and other ranks comprised the British section, while the Palestinian section had grown to nearly 1,900 officers and other ranks. The Palestinian officer corps was slightly more than three-quarters Arab, with Muslims outnumbering Christians two to one; its other ranks were about four-fifths Palestinian Arab and one-fifth Jewish.

This balance was again called into question in 1929, when tensions over access rights to the Western Wall of the Haram al-Sharif boiled over into the al-Buraq Uprising. Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safad, as well as Jewish colonies, were attacked, and British armed forces, including the Royal Air Force, conducted reprisal attacks against Palestinian Arabs; by official count, 133 Jews were killed and 339 wounded (mainly by Arab assailants) and 116 Arabs were killed and 232 wounded (primarily by British security forces). The al-Buraq Uprising was a pivotal moment in the development of the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, and it also had a significant impact on policing in Palestine. The British section of the Palestine Police expanded immediately: the combined number of British officers and other ranks increased to about 450 by the end of 1929 and by the end of 1930 reached nearly 750. The Mandate administration also turned to outside expertise: Sir Herbert Dowbiggin, inspector general of police in British colonial Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) was invited to Palestine to make recommendations to improve the preparedness and performance of the police.

Dowbiggin suggested changes in the education, training, and professionalization of the force; an increase in the police presence in rural areas; and the appointment of Roy G. B. Spicer, a protégé of Dowbiggin who was at that time head of the Kenya Police, as inspector-general of the Palestine Police. Spicer arrived in Palestine in 1931 to assume this role and set about implementing Dowbiggin’s recommendations. In the early 1930s, Palestine’s dire economic circumstances, in which the effects of a global depression were compounded by British policies that favored Zionist development at the expense of the Palestinian population, and the police’s new focus on professionalization, led many Palestinians to see police service as a path to economic and social advancement. The number of police—both British and Palestinian—remained relatively stable, despite massive Palestinian demonstrations against British and Zionist colonialism in October 1933, whose forcible dispersal by the police prompted the largest disturbances since 1929. Demonstrators expressed open opposition to all aspects of British administration in Palestine (rather than focusing only on the Zionist project) and indicated a further shift from elite-led to popular politics. These were harbingers of a sea change in Palestinian national politics that found full manifestation in a general strike and militant anticolonial revolt launched by Palestine’s Arabs in 1936.

Repressing the 1936–1939 Revolt

The 1936–1939 revolt spurred significant structural changes in the Palestine Police. Dowbiggin’s recommendations were abandoned and in 1937 the British Mandate administration turned to Sir Charles Tegart, a former head of the Bengal Police, to produce a new security strategy for Palestine. Tegart proposed that the Palestine Police be militarized so that it could help retake vast swathes of territory that had fallen completely outside of British control and were being governed by Arab rebels. On Tegart’s recommendation, Spicer was replaced. In May and June 1938, the British administration erected a barrier of barbed-wire fencing and guard posts through the northern Galilee, along Palestine’s frontier with Lebanon and Syria, which became known as “Tegart’s Wall.” Also in 1938, Tegart proposed the construction of a number of police fortresses, strategically placed to penetrate rebel strongholds, and containing police offices, barracks, mess halls, armories, courts, and prisons. These self-contained regional control centers, called Tegart Forts, were mostly built after the revolt was suppressed, but later became fixtures of the Palestinian landscape, serving as police stations for the remainder of the Mandate and often adopted for the same purpose later by the Israeli and Jordanian governments and the Palestinian Authority.

The size and composition of the Palestine Police also underwent radical change during the revolt. Given the popular support for the revolt among Palestine’s Arabs, British administrators questioned the reliability or effectiveness of Arab policemen in their efforts to put it down. The police brass marginalized Arab policemen and mobilized British and Jewish policemen and auxiliaries to crush the Palestinian uprising. What had been a majority-Arab force became one whose largest component was British. From December 1935 to December 1938, British ranks increased from almost 900 to almost 2,500. The number of Palestinian Arab policemen remained relatively stable during the revolt and even increased in its wake, but it never regained its superiority over the Britons in the force.

The Palestine Police also began recruiting massive numbers of Jewish policemen: between the end of 1935 and the end of 1938, the number of Jewish policemen more than doubled, from 365 to 741. But these numbers tell only a fraction of the story, as many more were integrated into auxiliary forces. During the general strike in 1936, nearly three thousand Jews were recruited into the supernumerary police, and by the end of 1938, this figure was roughly six thousand. These men often worked hand in glove with the British counterinsurgency, including in the notorious Special Night Squads. Organized by Orde Wingate, a British army captain, the Special Night Squads conducted raids against villages suspected of harboring or sympathizing with Arab rebels, gaining a reputation for ruthless violence and state terror. (Israeli leaders Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan were members of these squads.) By 1939, some sixteen thousand Jewish colonists had been recruited into the Jewish Settlement Police, paramilitary units largely acknowledged as a front for the Haganah—the largest Zionist militia in pre-1948 Palestine, which formed the backbone of Israel’s army after 1948.

From World War II to the Mandate’s End

After brutally suppressing the Palestinian revolt in 1939, Britain’s priorities were redirected by the outbreak of World War II. The Palestine Police supported the British military in Palestine, guarding infrastructure (railroads, ports, pipelines), patrolling borders, and monitoring potential “enemies” (including Germans and Italians, as well as Arabs who hoped the war would diminish Britain), among other tasks. In the war’s wake, the police became embroiled in the tense, often brutal, conflict between British security forces and Zionist organizations, especially the more radical Irgun and Lehi. The number of British remained relatively stable through the 1940s, hovering around 2,500 until the end of 1946, when it climbed to more than three thousand. The Arab component of the force remained around 2,500 in the Mandate’s final years; numbers of Jewish regular policemen ranged from 650 to 750, but these were supplemented by 13,000–15,000 Jewish Settlement Police.

In 1947, Britain announced its intention to leave Palestine the following year, and the Palestine Police were drawn into the conflict for Palestine’s future. The roles of Palestine’s policemen in this period, and their post-1948 trajectories, reflect the fractured nature of the force and the divergent futures of its different parts. Through 1947 and 1948, British policemen (whose number consistently topped 3,700) protected British citizens and property in the lead-up to Britain’s retreat and, after 1948, found postings across the British Empire, where they drew on their counterinsurgency experience in Palestine to combat emergent liberation struggles from Malaya to Kenya and beyond. Jewish policemen, meanwhile, supplied intelligence, materiel, and manpower to Zionist militias and formed the core of the Israel Police after 1948. Many Palestinian policemen joined Arab efforts to defend Palestine in 1947 and 1948; some assumed leadership positions, like Khalid al-Husseini, head of Jerusalem’s municipal police force, who commanded the Army of the Holy War [Jaysh al-jihad al-muqaddas] after Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini’s death. These efforts ultimately failed, and Palestinian policemen, like the rest of the Palestinian population, experienced the catastrophe of mass expulsion and the dismemberment of the Palestinian body politic.

Over the course of the Mandate, the Palestine Police underwent a number of transformations, but all of them produced a force less representative, and more repressive, of the indigenous population. Ultimately, despite the tens of thousands of Palestinians who joined its ranks over nearly three decades, the legacy of the Palestine Police was one of British imperial counterinsurgency and Zionist institution building.

Selected Bibliography: 

Alon, Yoav. “Bridging Imperial, National, and Local Historiographies: Britons, Arabs, and Jews in the Mandate Palestine Police.” Jerusalem Quarterly 75 (Autumn 2018): 62–77.

Cahill, Richard Andrew. “‘Going Berserk’: ‘Black and Tans’ in Palestine.” Jerusalem Quarterly 38 (Summer 2009): 59–68.

Khalili, Laleh. “The Location of Palestine in Global Counterinsurgencies.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42, no.3 (August 2010): 413–33.

Knight John L. “Securing Zion? Policing in British Palestine, 1917–39.” European Review of History: Revue europeenne d’histoire 18, no.4 (August 2011): 523–43.

Saleh, Mohsen Mohammad. Al-quwat al-‘askariyya wa al-shurta fi Filastin wa dawruha fi tanfidh al-siyasa al-Britaniyya [Military Forces and the Police in Palestine and Their Role in Enforcing British Policy]. Amman: Dar al-Nafa’is, 1996.

Winder, Alex. “With the Dregs at the Sambo Café: The Shrouf Diaries, 1943-1962.” Jerusalem Quarterly 54 (Summer 2013): 31–55.

Winder, Alex, ed., Bayna manshiyat Yafa wa jabal al-Khalil: yawmiyat Muhammad ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Shuruf (1943–1962) [Between Jaffa and Mount Hebron: The Diary of Muhammad ‘Abd al-Hadi al-Shrouf (1943–1962)]. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2016.

Yahya, Adel. “Quwat al-shurta al-Filastiniyya fi fatrat al-intidab al-Britani” [The Palestine Police Force in the British Mandate Period], in Zakaria Muhammad, Khaled Farraj, Salim Tamari, and Issam Nassar, eds. Awraq ‘a’iliyya: dirasat fi al-tarikh al-ijtima‘i al-mu‘asir li-Filastin [Family Papers: Studies in the Contemporary Social History of Palestine]. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2011.