- Palestine Investigated: The Criminal Investigation Department of the Palestine Police Force, 1920–1948 by Eldad Harouvi
Great Britain ran its empire on a shoestring, relying on local comprador groups and a select, elite colonial civil [End Page 163] service to uphold imperial rule. British-officered colonial police forces stiffened local forms of government and, in times of crisis, London would rapidly move in British troops from elsewhere to suppress dissent. Good political intelligence was vital to prevent and, if necessary, to act as a force multiplier to help suppress rebellion. Across the British Empire, Special Branch units within colonial police forces fulfilled this function — and with it the brutality that went with interrogation, as happened in places such as Kenya and Rhodesia after 1945. The story of police intelligence is a central strand to how we understand imperial rule, and one ably told recently in books such as Calder Walton’s Empire of Secrets (2013) and Martin Thomas’s Empires of Intelligence (2007). In Palestine during the Mandate period, political intelligence was the preserve of Royal Air Force Special Service Officers, of Military Intelligence, Section 5 (MI5), the agency that collected intelligence on imperial territory, and of the political division of the Palestine police Criminal Investigation Department (CID) that acted as a de facto Special Branch, handling sensitive security matters.
Eldad Harouvi’s account of CID activities across the Mandate era focuses more on the period’s later years and the fight between the British and Jewish insurgents during and just after World War II, up to and including the formation of Israel in May 1948. Disentangling CID work from broader police activities — and intelligence more broadly, as used by the British — is not easy, but Harouvi has the advantage that Jewish operatives under the Mandate copied many CID files, which are now stored in Israeli archives. The individual stories as recounted by Harouvi of, say, police chasing down underground right-wing Zionist militant Avraham “Ya’ir” Stern in 1942 and shooting him (or executing him as many Jews claimed) as he tried to reach for a bomb are fascinating and show the painstaking work that went into intelligence gathering and processing. This was hands-on CID work, with Jewish rebel hit squads targeting police intelligence men, and CID officers hitting back hard, including brutalizing prisoners. (A Palestinian rebel, the late Bahjat Abu Gharbiyya, recounted to this author in a 2012 interview in ‘Amman how CID men tortured him and others during the Arab revolt of 1936–39.)
The CID’s focus in the 1920s was on a supposed Communist threat, a leitmotif in intelligence work across the British Empire. This was a distraction to more pressing anti-British violence and intercommunal Palestinian-Jewish clashes. The Palestine Communist Party only played a marginal role in fomenting revolution, preferring to join up with leftist elements in the Independence Party (Hizb al-Istiqlal), and after 1929, to “Arabize” the party under instructions from Moscow. The relatively small CID unit, a mix of British, Jewish, and Palestinian officers, worked hard to understand and suppress nationalist Palestinian and Jewish violence, with some success, but the army when called in to clamp down on insurgents looked down on police intelligence work, preferring to set up its own intelligence networks. Language expertise in Hebrew and Arabic was one challenge for the CID, resulting in the unit employing local native speakers, who were often compromised by their attachments to their communities and therefore unreliable. Palestinians and Jews who worked for the CID were under immense pressure to leak information to their respective communities. This book has many vignettes of life in Palestine for the CID men, and it recounts the vicissitudes of the struggle by the British to gather good intelligence through informers and spies. In the end, while the CID had some success against Arab rebels in the 1930s, it was unable to master and infiltrate the well-organized Jewish insurgency of the 1940s, despite local successes against more extreme Jewish terror groups. [End Page...