Theresa May’s election manifesto contains a pernicious lie. Near the bottom of page 37, it says: “Britain is already a significant influence for good around the world.”
With May as prime minister, Britain is a force for ill in global affairs. Far from defending the downtrodden, her government has courted dictators and oppressors.
May has sanitized the history of Britain’s meddling in the Middle East. She has made a commitment to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration “with pride.”
That 1917 pledge to support Zionist colonization in Palestine “demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people,” May has said.
Her government has ruled out apologizing to Palestinians for the injustices inflicted on them because of Britain’s alliance with the Zionist movement.
The injustices are bigger than most people realize. While researching my new book Balfour’s Shadow, I learned that the British administration which ruled Palestine between the two world wars set up a concentration camp.
Although the term “concentration camp” has become synonymous with the Holocaust, it was in use long before then.
Early in the twentieth century, Britain established the first concentration camps of the 20th century during the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa. And British archives dating from the 1930s are peppered with references to a “concentration camp” in Palestine.
During 1936, a major revolt against Britain and its support for Zionism erupted in Palestine. The authorities responded with a policy of mass incarceration.
In June of that year, Arthur Wauchope, the British high commissioner in Palestine, received a telegram from London officials. The officials informed him about a parliamentary query on “what steps are to be taken” to provide “reasonable conditions at Sarafand concentration camp.”
A British military base had been installed next to the village of Sarafand al-Amar on Palestine’s coastal plain and was, in Wauchope’s view, a “healthy locality.”
Wauchope tried to depict the camp positively by noting that it had been approved by an unnamed director of medical services and that access to tobacco was “unrestricted” and “facilities are given for daily exercise.”
Wauchope was less rosy in a letter he sent to the Colonial Office in London the next month. He acknowledged that one of the two sections in the camp had “no water closets and bathrooms.”
The section in question was initially reserved for villagers and peasants (fallahin in Arabic), whereas the other section was used for “the urban and effendi [noble] class of inmates,” according to Wauchope. As it was disliked by prisoners, Wauchope “abandoned” that system of segregation, he stated.
A paper drawn up for British diplomats in Geneva the following year was less rosy again.
Emergency regulations, it noted, had enabled harsher punishments against Palestinians who shot at British forces or possessed illicit weapons. More than 460 “agitators were confined for months in the concentration camp at Sarafand without trial” as a result, the file added.
The Palestinian revolt lasted from 1936 to 1939 and the British resorted to large-scale detention and killed thousands of people in that period.
Reputation of cruelty
In 1939, Malcolm MacDonald, then Britain’s colonial secretary, was asked a parliamentary question about “how many concentration camps are established in Palestine.” He replied that there are “13 detention camps at present in existence in Palestine.”
Another question was put to him about “the number of people interned in concentration camps in Palestine and how many of them are fallahin.” MacDonald stated that “the total number of persons at present under detention in Palestine is 4,816, of whom about 2,690 are fallahin.”
Harold MacMichael, Wauchope’s successor as high commissioner, reported to the Colonial Office in June 1939 that “1,154 Arabs and 63 Jews were detained in concentration camp.” It is not clear if he deliberately wrote “camp” in the singular.
Britain ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate that gave it the task of creating the conditions required for building the “Jewish national home” – a euphemism for a Jewish state.
And the British response to the 1930s revolt demonstrated how it was wedded to the Zionist project. Jewish colonists were hired in significant numbers to the British police force tasked with quelling dissent. Among the tasks assigned to Jewish police officers was to guard over the huts and stores in the Sarafand camp.
Many of the Jewish police officers belonged to the Haganah, a Zionist militia and the forerunner of today’s Israeli army.
One British soldier, Orde Wingate, brought Haganah commanders into the “special night squads” that he led. Those squads gained a reputation for cruelty; their tactics included rounding up all the male inhabitants of villages who lived near an oil pipeline connecting Palestine and Iraq and whipping their naked torsos.
Israel glorifies this cruelty to the indigenous Palestinians to this day with a number of memorials dedicated to Wingate.
The British resorted to great brutality in crushing the revolt. The use of torture against Palestinian detainees was approved at a high level in the British administration; villagers were forced into cages; patients were shot dead in their hospital beds; and the Old City of Jaffa was largely demolished, leaving hundreds without shelter.
Around 5,000 Palestinians were killed during the revolt. On a proportionate basis, that casualty rate was higher than those caused by Israel during the intifadas which broke out in 1987 and 2000.
It was through such violence that Britain laid the foundations of the Israeli state.
That is the history in which Theresa May has expressed pride. Her claims that Britain has been a force for good merit nothing but contempt.
•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 1 June 2017.