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Palestinians deserve reparations for Britain's colonial crimes

A Palestinian billionaire is pushing the British government to apologise for the Balfour Declaration and its legacy, but this would not come close to compensating for decades of Palestinian suffering
Thousands of Palestinians died in Britain’s suppression of their 1930s revolt (AFP)

Palestinian billionaire Munib Masri recently announced his intention to sue the British government over its issuance of the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the crimes it committed during its colonial occupation of Palestine, declaring his hope that the fairness of the British legal system would finally force the British to apologise.

This was not the first such attempt: in 2017, the Palestinian Authority threatened to sue Britain if it did not apologise for the declaration. In response, the government issued a statement saying it was “proud” of Britain’s role in the creation of Israel. 

But is an apology really what Palestinians need from Britain, which conquered and occupied Palestine for three decades, during which it opened the country to Jewish colonists, leading to the theft of the Palestinian homeland? What about the atrocities that Britain committed against the Palestinian people during this period, especially during their great revolt of 1936-39? Should Palestinians not demand reparations? 

Would not the money of Palestinian billionaires be better spent in pursuit of reparations for the Palestinian people, rather than a meaningless apology?

The Kenyans did so recently and continue to pursue their demands for reparations for the horrifying and cruel oppression and torture to which Britain subjected the Mau Mau revolutionaries in the 1950s. Would not the money of Palestinian billionaires be better spent in pursuit of reparations for the Palestinian people, rather than a meaningless apology?

Britain’s horrific suppression of the Palestinian revolt was of a different order than its repression of Palestinian resistance in the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s. The Palestinian media at the time, along with Palestinian historians and revolutionaries, documented many of these atrocities, as did the British and international press of the period.

One of its earliest and most egregious acts of wanton destruction was the British military’s blowing up in June 1936 of significant parts of the old city in downtown Jaffa, which was then the major Palestinian commercial and cultural centre, to make room for military vehicles and to prevent revolutionaries from hiding in its narrow alleys. The British also destroyed parts of the rural town of Jenin in October 1938 in pursuit of putting down the revolt.

British repression also included banning Palestinian nationalist songs, flags and anti-colonial processions; censoring or closing newspapers; and deporting foreign journalists covering the atrocities. 

Severe torture

In Nazareth in 1937, Palestinian militants assassinated the district commissioner for Galilee, Lewis Andrews, and his British bodyguard. Andrews, an Australian Protestant Zionist who had supported Jewish colonisation of the Galilee, was deeply loathed by Palestinians. The assassins were apprehended by the British, who arrested hundreds of Palestinians in the process and subjected them to severe torture, including sexual violence and rape against women and men.

Another Australian who worked for the mandate reportedly went out in Jerusalem with revolver in hand, shooting all Palestinians in sight in revenge for the death of his compatriot. The British covered up his murder spree and sent him back to the Australian settler-colony. 

Palestinian political prisoner Subhi al-Khadra described such torture in this August 1938 account: “The types of torture employed are varied. They include beatings with fists and [stomping] with boots … as well as using canes for beating and flogging to death … They also included the starving of dogs and then provoking them and pushing them to devour his flesh … [Another form of torture included the soldiers] sodomizing them, as it seems that this was done to a number of people.”

Khadra added that the torture methods were motivated by “vengeance and a release of the most savage and barbaric of instincts and of the concentrated spirit of hatred that these rednecks feel towards Muslims and Arabs. They mean to torture for the sake of torture and to satisfy their appetite for vengeance, not for the sake of an investigation nor to expose crimes.”

A British soldier aims a machine gun in Jerusalem during the British mandate (AFP)
A British soldier aims a machine gun in Jerusalem during the British mandate (AFP)

Collective punishment against Palestinian towns and villages became uniform through the use of extrajudicial executions and mass demolition of Palestinian homes. British historian Matthew Hughes has documented many of these horrors in his book on Britain’s “pacification” of Palestine, noting that the use of white-supremacist language against revolutionaries was commonplace among soldiers and officers. Palestinian civilians were used as human shields to protect British soldiers on trains and military vehicles. Palestinian detainees were incarcerated in cages under the sun, where many died of thirst and exposure. 

The British also used forced labour to compel Palestinian prisoners to build roads, and imposed financial penalties on their families. Palestinians were placed in concentration camps and behind barbed wire in Jewish colonies, where the colonists would humiliate them. 

Hughes reveals that “soldiers and police detained 528,000 people, for varying periods of time from days to years, some imprisoned more than once, in varying places, and this total - that exceeds the entire Muslim male population of Palestine in 1938 - omits any detentions from December 1936 to August 1937. It equals 37 per cent of the entire population of Palestine in 1938.” 

Repression and massacres

In September 1938, the Royal Ulster Rifles soldiers massacred Palestinians in al-Bassa village, following the killing of four soldiers by a land mine placed by militants outside the village, and survivors were forced to dig a mass grave for the victims, before the soldiers burnt al-Bassa to the ground.

Other massacres followed in the towns of Halhul and Bayt Rima. A British army officer wrote in 1938 after the killing of two soldiers from the Royal Scots, which was punished by blowing up half a Palestinian village: “Our only regrets are that we have not been allowed to flatten the whole village ... I am sure it’s the only way to deal with these people.”

The British also enlisted the help of Jewish colonists in repressing and killing Palestinians, employing massive numbers of Jewish police. One of the more spectacular acts of collaboration was through the Special Night Squads, organised by British officer Orde Wingate in 1938. These death squads summarily killed Palestinians; men were lined up outside in villages, and the squads would shoot dead every eighth man to instil terror in the rest.

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After a Palestinian attack on Jewish colonists in Tiberias, the Jewish death squads machine-gunned Palestinian residents of the village of Daburiyyah, who had nothing to do with the attack. They whipped villagers and put oil-soaked earth in their mouths after militants blew up the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company pipeline. 

All in all, by the time the British crushed the revolt completely in 1939, up to 9,000 Palestinians had been killed (including around 1,500 killed by militants for allegedly collaborating with the British and the Zionists), and more than 20,000 were wounded. British military tribunals sentenced 110 Palestinian revolutionaries to death, and they were hanged

Given this horrific British record of atrocities, would a mere apology be sufficient? Rather than pursuing lawsuits to extract an unlikely apology from an unrepentant colonial power such as Britain, the proper course of action should be to demand reparations for the crimes committed and destruction wrought by the British against the Palestinian people. This could include lawsuits against corporations, banks and insurance companies that were complicit in these atrocities.

While one might admire the octogenarian Masri’s commitment and pledge “to restore my rights and the rights of my people before I die” on this upcoming anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, his money and efforts would be better spent to benefit the Palestinian people by demanding reparations and financial penalties, rather than a mere apology. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad
Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.