1920-1939 | Palestine

English policeman describes extrajudicial killings in Palestine

British troops and police (right) – Jaffa – Palestine – c. 1936.
Via the Library of Congress and Wikimedia.

19 December 1937

On 19 December 1937,  Constable Sydney Burr, based at Haifa in the British mandate of Palestine, wrote home to his parents describing the extrajudicial executions of Arabs suspected of participating in an insurgency against British rule. After expressing his disappointment at the ‘military courts’ which were ‘being so lenient and want too much evidence to convict on,’ he explained how he and his colleagues attempted to avoid any possibility of undue leniency.

‘Any Johnny Arab who is caught by us now in suspicious circumstances is shot out of hand. There is an average of a bomb a day thrown in Haifa now but few of them do much damage. One was thrown in a Jewish bus last night and the culprit caught. We took him to his house but there was no evidence there, so we let him try to escape in the garden, fortunately I will not have to attend the inquest…’1

In another letter, he complained that ‘life for the police is now all work and no play’, and that ‘even at the best of times Palestine is as dull as ditch water but what with curfews and people walking about with the fear of death on them it’s like living in a cemetery.’2  He described the Arabs as ‘wogs’ and informed his parents that if he or his colleagues were involved in a traffic accident it was of little concern, since ‘running over an Arab is the same as ( running over ) a dog in England except we do not report it.’3


  1. Sydney Burr letter to his parents, 19 December 1937, Imperial War Museum cited in A.J. Sherman, Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine 1918-1948, Thames and Hudson, 1997,  p. 108.
  2. Sydney Burr to his parents, 1 June 1938, Imperial War Museum cited in A.J. Sherman, op. cit., p. 114.
  3. Sydney Burr cited in Seán William Gannon, The Irish Imperial Service: Policing Palestine and Administering the Empire, 1922-1966, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, p. 109. and also in Matthew Hughes, The Banality of Brutality: British Armed Forces and the Repression of the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936–39, accessed online at url https://bura.brunel.ac.uk/bitstream/2438/3202/3/Fulltext.pdf

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