1920-1939 | Curfews | Palestine

Missionary doctor’s shock at Arab casualties of British violence

Hebron Hospital Operating Theatre – c. 1930s –
Matson Collection via Library of Congress and Wikimedia.

20 August 1938

On 20 August 1938, Dr. E. D. Forster, a physician working with the Church of Scotland, wrote in his journal of his shock at the ferocious wholesale violence inflicted on the Arab inhabitants in the Palestinian town of Hebron.  British soldiers and police officers were resorting to terror tactics to crush an anti-British insurgency. ‘From the small hours of (last) Sunday morning,’ he noted, ‘I received at this hospital a series of casualties inflicted by the British, presumably on curfew breakers… I have the greatest sympathy with individual members of the Forces and the Police, subjected to great strain and provocation for months on end. But I bitterly deplore as much the folly as the immorality of such indiscriminate retaliation.’1

The same day, readers of a British newspaper were given a different version of events.  Under the headline ‘City Attacked by Brigands, the Portsmouth Evening News described how a ‘handful of British and Arab police’ held out ‘gallantly’ against ‘strong terrorist gangs who descended on the city.’2  It is interesting to contrast this portrayal of the balance of violence with the doctor’s views, based on dealing with the actual casualties. The doctor’s verdict was no less damning when he reflected again on the subject ten weeks later.

‘I have heard,’ he wrote in his diary on 5 November, ‘that British rule is just and merciful. It must surely be true. But here in Palestine we see the opposite established. I do not defend all the rebels’ actions in other parts of the country, but I speak of my personal experience in this district. And I fear wherever one tries to balance the cowardly and cruel dealings of the two sides, there is no doubt which party comes with least credit from the comparison. The rebels fight fairly and chivalrously, and rule with kindness. The British kill the innocent, when no other enemy is near, and loot and rob the poor and destitute…’3


  1. E.D. Forster, Journal, 19-20 August 1938 cited in A. J. Sherman, Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948, Thames and Hudson, 1997, p. 115.
  2. ‘City Attacked by Brigands,’ The Portsmouth Evening News, 20 August 1938, p. 9.
  3. E.D. Forster, Journal, 5 November 1938 cited in A. J. Sherman op. cit., pp. 115-116.

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