The Legacy of Colonial Policing, from Occupied Palestine to the United Kingdom
August 28 2022

On May 19, 2022, Police in the London Borough of Hackney put out a tweet welcoming a visit by a delegation of Israeli police to the area. A series of accompanying photos showed smiling officers in private meetings, shaking hands with faith leaders, and out and about on patrol on the streets of the borough.

For Palestinians, the complicity of British authorities in our oppression – all the way down to local police forces – is neither surprising nor unexpected. Indeed, most of the brutal policies used by Israeli police today are directly inherited from the British colonial administration during their 1917-1948 military rule of Palestine.

The development of these inherited laws and practices was not confined to Palestine but part of a global network of colonial administration in which personnel travelled between various sites of imperial policing and counterinsurgency, innovating and developing tactics as they went. As Laleh Khalili has argued, this created an epistemic community that took lessons from various campaigns —suppressing Irish uprisings, the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt, the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, the Malayan Emergency, and struggles for freedom elsewhere — and created from them manuals, trainings, and shared methods for countering the efforts of national liberation movements.

Virtually all of the tactics of surveillance, punishment, and control used by Israeli forces today have a direct lineage in practices initiated by the British occupation, particularly in response to the Arab Revolt. This includes the creation of identification cards, the erection of physical barriers, the recruitment of spies, curfews and closures, mass confinement, collective fines, house demolitions, and strategies of individual and clan patronage designed to create internal division and pit Palestinians against each other. These approaches formed part of a wider doctrine of war and counterinsurgency that categorized entire populations as legitimate targets of punitive action in order to force a separation between them and the liberation movements they supported.

Although initiated in the age of empire, these tactics did not long remain confined to the colonies, but soon wound their way back to inform policing on mainland Britain. One typical career path that illustrates the trajectory of personnel and ideas in the twilight of the British Empire is that of Kenneth Newman, who served as an officer in the Palestine Police Force for two years before being recruited to the Metropolitan Police in 1948. From there, his career took him to serve as Deputy Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in the occupied north of Ireland. His essential mission was to turn the RUC into an ‘effective policing force’ based on the doctrines of counterinsurgency later set out in the writings of his colleague, Frank Kitson, in his Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping.

Kitson’s book is less a seminal work than a codification of experiences in different arenas of colonial counterinsurgency and occupation. Its central thesis is typical of a supposedly iconoclast tradition within counterinsurgency studies, which characterizes existing doctrines as obsolete, whilst calling for more dynamism and flexibility, along with a heavy focus on intelligence gathering. The elements of existing doctrine deemed most restrictive, both by Kitson and by other writers in the tradition, inevitably include humanitarian and human rights law designed to limit the actions of the military and police, and protect civilian life.

Kitson put his ideas into practice in the north of Ireland, in the development of his Military Reconnaissance Force which was instrumental in the assassination of Republican supporters. Although he was moved out of Ireland after the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, his ideas were taken forward by Newman, who replaced him in the job of reforming the RUC. Newman’s most notable legacy was the construction of a network of interrogation centers that became notorious in Ireland for brutality and torture, and significantly escalated the confrontation with the Republican community.

In 1982, Newman was made Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police Force. His appointment came just one year after a nationwide rebellion by marginalized Black and Asian youth had shaken Britain’s cities, alerting the establishment to the urgency of reorganizing policing. As described and immortalized in Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s essay From Resistance to Rebellion, this was an uprising was not of “the unemployed, but the never employed” whose total exclusion from social and economic life had led them to acquire “a different hunger — a hunger to retain the freedom, the lifestyle, the dignity which they have carved out from the stone of their lives,” and against a police force experienced as “a threat, a foreign force, an army of occupation — the thick end of the authoritarian wedge.”

These events in 1981 can be seen an attempt to liberate British inner cities from constant police presence and harassment, and to carve our spaces of freedom in a manner not dissimilar to the efforts of anti-colonial movements. To counter this, Newman drew on his extensive counterinsurgency experience, as well as his characteristic blend of brute force and intelligence gathering, by expanding undercover squads to monitor and disrupt dissident organizations, creating the notoriously violent paramilitary Territorial Support Group to police protests, and introducing tasering and the use CS gas and firearms on mainland Britain. These reforms represented the end of any pretense of “policing by consent,” and set in motion a process of police militarization that continues until today. 

Resisting Police Militarization

With this historical background, the visit to Hackney of a delegation of Israeli police can be better understood. The concern is not that Israeli police might teach otherwise friendly London Bobbies their cruel methods of violence and oppression, but that two forms of colonial policing, with similar origins, might reinforce and embolden one another – albeit with Israel, as an active site of colonial rule, now playing a more seminal role in innovating new and more violent methods of control and subjugation.

This is why I wrote, with a number of other Palestinians residents, to the Mayor of Hackney to protest the Israeli police delegation (to which no reply has been received), followed by petitions and protests organized by the local community. In the months preceding the visit, Hackney police had made national news for strip searching a Black schoolgirl after teachers accused her of smelling of cannabis. This had led to an enormous local uproar, protests, and calls for the resignation of the Borough Commander. Only a few weeks later, Hackney police beat and arrested local residents defending Deliveroo drivers from a raid on Ashwin Street, a backstreet where drivers gathered to wait between jobs. All these actions undertaken by a police force already notorious for deaths in police custody stretching back to the 1980s.

In these circumstances, the last thing Hackney needed was greater association with an Israeli police force involved in the brutal enforcement of settler colonialism in Palestine. Earlier in May, they barged their way into the house of assassinated journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, harassing family and friends who had gathered to mourn her death. A few days later, they attacked pallbearers carrying her coffin inside the grounds of a hospital, in shocking scenes that were broadcast globally. As the letter we wrote highlighted, these are merely two examples of their behavior towards Palestinians who are “routinely shot, beaten, tortured, sprayed with skunk water and tear gas, and subjected to the most cruel and brutal treatment”.

With a worsening economic and environmental crisis, policing around the world will continue its lurch towards greater violence, militarization and authoritarianism. This must be met by equally determined efforts to create spaces in which movements can conceive and build genuine solutions to these looming global catastrophes. This can start by first understanding, and then breaking, the links between the forces of colonial oppression, and forging alternative links of solidarity from below that unite campaigns against racism with those demanding social and international justice.

About The Author: 

Akram Salhab is a Palestinian organizer, researcher and PhD student at Queen Mary University of London focusing on Palestinian anti-colonial history. 

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