CAGED ARAB VILLAGERS DIE FROM EXTREME HEAT AND THIRST
[ 6 May 1939 ]
On 6 May 1939, Captain Neville Blair led troops of B company of the Black Watch Regiment to the village of Halhul, 23 miles south of Jerusalem, where intelligence believed the inhabitants had failed to hand in rifles. The search took place during an anti-British insurgency in Palestine and Blair later recalled that the brigadier commanding had issued him precise orders: ‘I was expressly forbidden to take any notes, nor, I was told, would I get any written confirmatory orders. It was to be a completely secret operation, with nothing put down in writing.’1
In a 1991 BBC Timewatch programme, an Arab witness, Abd Al Hamid Al Anani, recalled that the villagers were made to gather near the mosque, but that when a search and an interrogation failed to reveal any rifles, ‘the Black Watch decided to employ the technique of building cages to put the men in, until they confessed to owning arms.’2 The use of caging was already a routine, if controversial, form of coercion, which probably explains the secrecy surrounding the operation.
‘At night,’ Al Anani recalled, ‘they used to bring cars and keep the engines running and the lights on so we could not sleep,’ adding that ‘during the day because of the heat we could not sit down. We used to take stones before the sun rose and put them in our clothes to stay cool.’3 Another witness remembered how one villager, who’s first name was Rashid, was so desperate that he falsely confessed to owning a rifle and on being led to the village well jumped in, only to be repeatedly shot every time he emerged from under the water. Rashid’s two surviving brothers in the cage both died soon afterwards.4 Edward Keith Roach, the District Commissioner of Jerusalem, noted in a memo that ‘after 48 hours most of the men were very ill and eleven old and enfeebled ones died. I was instructed that no civil inquest should be held.’5
Thanks to tight censorship and the deliberate exclusion of reporters, no word of the atrocity surfaced in the press. which ridiculed accusations of British ‘brutality’ in Palestine. A typical example is the Birmingham Daily Post, which had reassured its readers just a few days earlier that even in ‘the Palestinian (detention) camps there is complete freedom of movement in daylight hours, and the camps, situated in healthy surroundings, are provided with many amenities.’6 Absolutely no mention was made of wire cages or deliberate water deprivation.
- Neville Blair cited in Matthew Hughes, Britain’s Pacification of Palestine: The British Army, the Colonial Sate and the Arab Revolt, 1936-1939, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2019, p. 340.
- Abd Al Hamid Al Anani on ‘Palestine: The First Intifada,’ BBC Timewatch, 1991, transcript obtained at url https://search.alexanderstreet.com/preview/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C1792112
- Unknown witness on ‘Palestine: The First Intifada,’ BBC Timewatch, 1991, transcript obtained at url https://search.alexanderstreet.com/preview/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C1792112
- Edward Keith Roach cited in Matthew Hughes, op. cit., p. 338.
- ‘Conditions in Palestine,’ The Birmingham Daily Post, 1 May 1939, p. 5.
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