The 1938 al-Bassa Massacre and the Royal Ulster Rifles

The massacre by British soldiers you have probably never heard of.

Early on the morning of 7th September 1938 a company of the Royal Ulster Rifles (RUR) a forerunner of today’s Royal Irish Regiment, entered al-Bassa, an Arab Palestinian village then located in north-west Galilee, a few miles from Acre and close to the border with Lebanon. They were accompanied by a detachment of the 11th Hussars riding in Rolls Royce-built armoured cars mounted with machine guns. The Belfast-based RUR had recently been deployed to Palestine as part of the British Army’s forces then in the process of violently crushing the Arab Revolt that had broken out two years before against the colonial British Mandate Authority, itself founded in the wake of the First World War in 1922. On the night of 6th September two members of the RUR had been killed when a roadside mine exploded. Two more died of their wounds later. While its inhabitants may have had little or no knowledge of the attack, Al-Bassa was the nearest village. That is why the RUR unit and other British forces were there.

As they moved toward the village that morning (one of the RUR officers present would later recall) the armoured cars ‘pepper[ed] al-Bassa with machine gun fire’ for about 20 minutes before his own men went in ‘with lighted braziers… set the houses on fire and… burnt the village to the ground’. By the time the British troops withdrew several hours later al-Bassa had been totally destroyed. Worse was to follow. Either before or after the razing of the village RUR soldiers and some ‘attached to the Royal Engineers’ rounded up about 50 Arab men from the village and ‘herd[ed]’ them on to a bus. They then forced the driver to drive over a mine. The bus was completely destroyed. Other villagers were forced to bury the mutilated bodies of the dead in a hastily dug pit. Either sometime that day or a short time after about 100 of al-Bassa’s inhabitants were then taken to a nearby Army camp and four of the group were whipped and tortured in front of the others. Other villagers were also believed to be killed, although suppression of the local press at the time meant little enough of these events were made public.

It would be wrong, though, to think of this massacre as the result of the RUR and other British troops ‘running amok’ or merely acting on their own volition out of a sense of revenge; far from it. A threat of ‘reprisals’ and ‘punitive measures’ against villages if there were mine attacks had been issued a short time before by the local RUR commander. The attack on al-Bassa was ordered and sanctioned. When, in its wake, the Divisional commander for northern Palestine was repeatedly questioned about carrying out any future reprisals by a ‘bewildered’ Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, the British General’s apparent reply each time was ‘I will shoot them’.

Nor was the massacre at al-Bassa an isolated incident. Rather, it was part of a much wider policy of ‘reprisals’ that marked the British Mandate’s repression of the Arab Revolt. As conflict escalated this official reprisals policy saw houses blown up, or groups of houses demolished, property looted, food stores systematically destroyed, forced labour, ‘punitive village occupations’, the imposition of crushing collective fines and wholesale destruction of ‘bad villages’. Torture centres were set up and many Arab prisoners shot ‘while trying to escape’. ‘Special Night Squads’, consisting of British and Jewish settler policemen and moving at night (often disguised as Arabs) terrorised Arab villages, humiliating and killing Arab civilians; ‘something of a model for subsequent Israeli Special Forces’.

In a pattern not untypical of other counterinsurgency campaigns, in theory the British Army in Palestine operated merely as an ‘aid to the civil power’ and British soldiers were supposedly therefore subject to civil law. In practice the legal process ensured the prosecution of British soldiers was all but non-existent, while military courts dispensed something approximating summary justice to Arab civilians and combatants denied the protection of the nascent body of international law (i.e. the Geneva and Hague Conventions). Throughout, while martial law was never declared a de facto state of ‘statutory martial law’ existed. There were no investigations, prosecutions or trials following the events at al-Bassa.

The life of the village, re-established in the wake of the 1938 massacre, was to prove short-lived. Its population of some 3,000 (a mix of Christians and Muslims) made it one of the largest in the area. In May 1948, as the founding of the Israeli state rapidly led to the ‘ethnic cleansing of Palestine’, al-Bassa was among the Arab villages of northern Galilee subject to ‘one of the swiftest depopulation operations in one of the densest Arab areas of Palestine’. Al-Bassa resisted, and was again subject to ‘punishment’, this time at the hands of the newly created Israeli forces. The summary executions of the young men of the village, recalls historian Ilan Pappe, ‘as with all traumatic events in the lives of human beings… remain deeply engraved in the survivors memories’. Al-Bassa was again, this time finally, almost totally destroyed, its population scattered and where it once stood can today be found ‘a military airport, a kibbutz and a development town’.

For more information about this massacre see:

  • Mark McGovern (2015) ‘State violence and the colonial roots of collusion in Northern Ireland’, Race and Class, first published on July 14, 2015 as doi:10.1177/0306396815595200.
  • Much of the detail in this account of the al-Bassa massacre is taken from the article by historian Michael Hughes (2009) ‘The practice and theory of British counterinsurgency: the histories of the atrocities at the Palestinian villages of al-Bassa and Halhul, 1938-1939’, Small Wars and Insurgencies, 20, 3-4, 528-550.
  • Oral testimony held at the Imperial War Museum of Desmond Woods, quoted in Hughes, 2009a, 531.
  • Michael Hughes (2009) ‘The banality of brutality: British armed forces and the repression of the Arab Revolt in Palestine’, English Historical Review, CXXIV, 507, pp. 332–3.
  • Laleh Khalili (2013) Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies, Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 31.
  • Ilan Pappe (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oxford: Oneworld, 141-142.