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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Palestine Emergency

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Palestine Emergency.

When did this conflict occur?

August, 1945^ – 15th May, 1948*

^ – British military reinforcements, including elements from the 3rd Parachute Brigade tasked with maintaining order in the troublesome Jaffa District of Tel Aviv, only assumed their operational positions on the 21st of October, 1945. [1]

* – The United Nations, however, recommended the end of Mandatory Palestine and a partition into separate Arab and Jewish states on the 29th of November, 1947. [2]  

What is the background to this conflict?

Anti-British sentiments in Mandatory Palestine stemmed largely from the publication of the White Paper of 1939 under the government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The document outlined three key facets of British policy in Palestine: the imposition of strict immigration quotas for Jews arriving in Palestine, restrictions on settlement and land sales to Jews, and constitutional steps to create a unified state under Arab rule with provisions to guarantee the rights of the Jewish minority. [3] In response, two armed groups, the Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organisation) and Lohamey Heruth Israel (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel or the “Stern Gang”), spearheaded initial armed actions against British military and government targets; however, it was only following the 1945 British refusal to lift immigration limits for Jews seeking to emigrate from displaced-persons camps in Europe that the armed wing of the officially recognised Jewish leadership, the Haganah, entered the struggle. Over the course of the next two years, the three groups engaged in a campaign of insurgent violence including bombings, prison escapes, and the targeted assassination of British security forces, government officials, and Palestinian loyalists. By the end of the Palestine Emergency, 141 British soldiers and police had been killed at the cost of 40 confirmed Jewish insurgents. [4]  In 1947, the United Nations recommended the partition of Palestine through UN Resolution 181, and, in 1948, the British government surrendered its mandate in Palestine and withdrew its remaining military forces.

What role did British military forces play?

British security forces in Palestine were composed of approximately 100,000 uniformed members of all four services – the Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, and Royal Marines – in addition to 10,000 members of the Palestine Police Force. [5] Together, this force of 110,000 undertook a traditional policing role, responsible for tackling an increasingly violent and sophisticated Jewish insurgency while also addressing instances of inter-communal violence between the Mandate’s Jewish and Arab populations. Having emerged just months earlier from the Second World War battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, British forces struggled to adapt doctrinally to counterinsurgency in Mandatory Palestine; rather than effectively containing Jewish armed groups, the use of tactics such as large-scale cordon and search operations in which entire settlements were searched house-to-house, mandatory curfews, and restricted access to public spaces only served to engender popular support for anti-British forces. 

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

Yes. Over the course of the Palestine Emergency, there were 25* confirmed killings of civilians by British military forces. In contrast to these 25 civilian deaths, 754 British military personnel died in the conflict. [6]

* – This figure includes the killing of one Ma’apilim, a Jew attempting to immigrate to Mandatory Palestine illegally, by a Royal Navy boarding party in the 1946 Knesset Israel incident and the deaths of two civilians as a result of the Royal Navy’s seizure of the SS Exodus on the 18th of July, 1947.

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

Of the 23 civilian killings, at least three of the victims were confirmed to have been minors under the age of 18 with all three deaths occurring in 1947.

  • March 2nd – March 17th: In response to a series of attacks by the Irgun and Lehi, including the bombing of the British officer’s club in Jerusalem’s Goldschmidt House which killed twelve British officers, martial law was declared across Mandatory Palestine. British rules of engagement permitted the use of lethal force to address violations of martial law and resulted in two Jewish civilians in Jerusalem, including a 4-year-old standing on her balcony, being shot and killed by British troops. In the process of coming to the aid of her mortally wounded sibling, the girl’s 6-year-old sister was also shot and wounded. [7, 8]
  • May 6th: Alexander Rubowitz, a 16-year-old alleged to have been an unarmed Lehi volunteer, was captured by a Palestinian Police Force squad led by British Army Major and Special Air Service veteran Roy Farran. These squads were staffed by local police constables and directed by British officers who had previously served in unconventional units such as the SAS, Special Operations Executive, and the Commando battalions; officers were chosen not for their “police experience” but for their “experience and knowledge of terrorist methods”. [9] During his interrogation of Rubowitz, Major Farran picked up a stone and beat Rubowitz in the head repeatedly, killing the teen. The group then stripped Rubowitz of his clothing, mutilated his corpse with bayonets to create the appearance of a bandit attack, and returned to Jerusalem. [10, 11]
  • July 18th: The SS Exodus carrying 4515 Jewish migrants to Palestine was intercepted by Royal Navy vessels who employed firecrackers and tear gas to forcibly stop the ship. A Royal Navy boarding party followed and attempted to seize control of the craft resulting in the deaths of Bill Bernstein, an American volunteer fatally struck in the temple by a British sailor’s club, and 16-year-old orphan Hirsch Yakubovich, shot by a boarding party member who thought he had seen a hatchet in the youth’s hand. [12, 13]


[1] Charters, David A. The British Army and Jewish Insurgency in Palestine, 1945 – 1947 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1989): 111.

[2] United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, 2008,

[3] British White Paper of 1939, The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy, 2008,

[4] Charters, The British Army and Jewish Insurgency, 205.

[5] Clarke, Colin P et al., Paths to Victory: Detailed Insurgency Case Studies (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2013): 1.

[6] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021,

[7] Bell, J Bowyer, Terror Out of Zion: The Shock Troops of Israeli Independence (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977): 238.

[8] Four Year Old Girl Killed By Soldiers in Jerusalem; Sister Wounded, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, March 3, 1947,

[9] See primary source

[10] Bowyer, Terror Out of Zion, 283.

[11] Cesarani, David, “The war on terror that failed: British counter-insurgency in Palestine 1945–1947 and the ‘Farran Affair’”, Small Wars and Insurgencies 23, no. 4-5 (2012): 648-670. DOI: 10.1080/09592318.2012.709762

[12] Bowyer, Terror Out of Zion, 288-289.

[13] Haron, Miriam, “Note: United States- British Collaboration on Illegal Immigration to Palestine, 1945-1947”,  Jewish Social Studies 42, no.2 (1980): 177-182.