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How do empires police their colonies? In the case of Britain for much of the twentieth century, it could be by using the very same personnel: veterans of World War I who did the work of its “dirty war.” As Britain reluctantly retreated from its prewar imperial prowess, it needed to police and pacify its colonies, which were growing assertive. Militarized police brutality, including beatings, torture, extrajudicial assassination, and collective punishment were commonplace.

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Historian Matthew Hughes looks to the British Mandate for Palestine (1918-1948) for examples of “private, hidden histories of police service.” The story of policing in Palestine, he writes, “resonates more broadly with colonial pacification across the British Empire.”

The British took control of Palestine at the end of World War I under a League of Nations mandate. The British Army in Mandate Palestine, as it was called, was considered both too expensive to maintain on site and too Arab friendly. (The British government of Prime Minister Lloyd George officially supported Zionist colonization.) Under a plan shepherded by Winston Churchill, hundreds of men recruited as reinforcements for the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) were brought in to police Palestine in the early 1920s.

Nicknamed for their bicolor uniforms, these reinforcements had become notorious as the “Black and Tans” during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). In fighting guerrilla war against the Irish Republican Army, the Black and Tans employed brutal tactics: torture, execution, death squads, civilian reprisals. Once truce was declared in July 1921, it was easy to export what critics in Palestine called “Black and Tan methods.”

“The men who first went to Palestine in the early 1920s were acclimatised to violence,” writes Hughes. “They were war veterans twice over, most having served in the First World War and then in Ireland[.]” It was all too easy to take violence to the new setting of Palestine.

Hughes notes that the brutality of the police surprised even the British Army in Palestine, which was known to lodge complaints about how brutal the police were. Reprisals against civilians and entire communities were “standard practice among European colonial powers.”

According to Hughes, the colonial state’s “collective punishment regime” helps to explain the violence in Palestine, which “was meted out to civilians, old men, women and children who had nothing to do with rebel fighters[.]” Collective punishment included “fines, house destruction, seizure of goods, etc….and violence (assault, torture, detention) towards Arabs[.]”

When British control ended in 1948, elements of the Palestine police went to Malaya to fight insurgency there. Then on to Kenya, Cyprus, and Aden, as the wave of collapsing empires swept the post–World War II world.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the relationship between the “Black and Tans” and the RIC.

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Journal of Modern European History / Zeitschrift für moderne europäische Geschichte / Revue d'histoire européenne contemporaine, Vol. 13, No. 2, The Crisis of Empire after 1918 (2015), pp. 268-284
Sage Publications, Ltd.