Explore the BBC
3 Oct 2014
Click for a Text Only version of this page
BBC Homepage
BBC Radio
TodayBBC Radio 4
Listen Again
Latest Reports
Interview of the Week
About Today
Britain at 6am
Have your Say
Contact Today

Gordon Corera The British in Jenin

by Gordon Corera
Fierce debate continues over what exactly happened in the town of Jenin in the West Bank. Israel says that its action was a legitimate move in the war against terror. Now some supporters of Israel have begun to justify those actions with a historical precedent based on actions by Britain. Gordon Corera has been investigating.

In 1936 Arabs living under British rule in Palestine began to revolt. Upset at their failure to be granted independence and the arrival of Jewish immigrants, low level terrorism began. British reports of the time show that Jenin, as now, was a centre for trouble.

The story of the demolition of Jenin begins with the assassination of a local British official, Assistant District Commissioner Moffat, in his office on August 24th. The killer was shot whilst trying to escape, but the British authorities decided that the only way to meet terror was with force. The Arabs needed to be taught a lesson. Whitehall files detailing these communications were released only in 1989 - they were held back an extra 20 years after the normal period because they were considered so sensitive. The files show a decision that there should be a ‘reprisal’ against Jenin and that "a large portion of the town should be blown up". A convoy took 4,200 kilos of explosive to the town. "Minesweeping taxis" were sent in front of the cars, something which did arouse some consternation amongst officials back in London.

Dr Sami Khoury remembers walking around afterwards and taking pictures with his box camera. A whole quarter of the town was destroyed and the pictures he took are remarkably similar to those taken after the Israeli occupation of the last few weeks."It was quite shocking at the time", he remembers.

Bernard Wasserstein, Professor of History at Glasgow University, explains the tactics used by the British in response to the revolt. "Britain fought a ferocious war against Arab guerillas, terrorists, call them what you will. There were 5,000 Arabs dead, although some were killed by other Arabs. In some cases prisoners in custody were shot. It was no vicarage tea party"

And now in the battle of words over what happened in Jenin and the West Bank, supporters of Israel believe that the British precedence justifies recent Israeli actions. Rafael Medoff is a Jewish studies scholar at the State University of New York and has written a column in the Jerusalem Post essentially saying that the British did the right thing. "What the British experience in Palestine shows is that every country when faced by terrorism has to use force to stop that terrorism", he told me by phone. "British tactics in 1930 were considerably harsher than what Israel has been doing. Israel only demolished houses in which terrorists were based rather than blow up innocent civilians towns as part of a general reprisal."

There is no doubt that there is a real comparison between what Britain did then and what Israel has done now. But many who were in Palestine in the period believe it wasn’t so simple. "It was terrorism from the Jewish side that we faced", says Major Derek Cooper who served in the 1940s. He remembers British soldiers being strung up in an Olive grove and their bodies booby-trapped to explode when they were torn down.

But perhaps the key question is, did the British strategy of being tough on terror and demolishing Jenin work? For Bernard Wasserstein the answer is one that may not please those who want to use 1938 as a parallel for 2002 . "In the short term, it might be said to have worked in that the revolt was put down. But in the long run, the repression simply built up resentment against both British rule and against the Jewish people who were emigrating into Palestine under British protection."

Dr Sami Khoury is now 80. He is shocked at the idea of a comparison between 1938 and 2002. "There is no comparison to what Israel did now. Bringing down the roofs of houses on top of people. I wish I had not lived to see such things". For him just because the British went too far in 1938 does not justify Israel doing the same in 2002.

Memoirs of Dr Sami Khoury
Jerusalem Post
News Online in depth report on Israel and the Palestinians

NB. The BBC cannot be held responsible for the content of external websites

demolition operations 1938
Listen - Gordon Corera investigates
demolition operations 1938
rescue operations in Jenin 2002
Rescue operation in Jenin 2002
jenin in 2002
Jenin in 2002
More International Stories

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy