HL Deb 08 June 1920 vol 40 cc523-30

LORD NEWTON rose to ask the Under-Secretary of State for War whether he can state what action is contemplated with reference to the German and Austrian subjects formerly resident in Palestine and now interned in Egypt.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a question that I addressed to the Government before Whitsuntide, and in view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply I felt bound to repeat the inquiry. I am disposed to think that the reason why the reply I received was of so unsatisfactory a nature was because there appears to be some conflict of jurisdiction on the point. Before putting it on the Paper I adopted the usual course of making private inquiries at the Foreign Office, and I was there informed that the Foreign Office considered it to be a War Office question. I thereupon took the same action at the War Office, and I was there informed that it was regarded as a Foreign Office question. For my part I feel very little doubt that it is in reality a War Office question, but I hope that I shall not be told, as on the previous occasion, that it is a matter which concerns a third party.

I have already made a speech upon this question, and 1 wish now to be as short as possible, but I feel bound to remind the House of what has occurred. My attention was first called to this question by the International Red Cross Committee at Geneva, and, so far as I am able to gather, the facts appear to be shortly as follows. In 1918, when the British Forces occupied Palestine, a number of German colonists were removed to Egypt and they are still in internment there, although it is now nearly two years since the Armistice came into effect. The number of these people amounts, I believe, to something like 900 and includes a large proportion of women and children. I am given to understand that these people belong mainly to a religious sect, and, although they are of German origin, none of them so far as I am aware has ever been in Germany at all. All their interest and all their property is in Palestine, and their hope is that they may be allowed eventually to return there in preference to being repatriated to Germany, which, apparently, is the last country they desire to visit.

It has been stated in this House by a noble Lord who has had experience of Palestine that no offence has ever been alleged against these people, and since I brought the question up in this House I have seen that statement corroborated in the British Press by officers who took part in the campaign in Palestine. The testimony of all these people is that these so-called German Palestinian civilians are very good citizens and have been extremely useful in their own particular way. I do not wish to state for one moment that any complaint has been made against the British authorities with regard to cruelty or ill-treatment; our record upon this question is sufficiently good to dispose of any charge of that kind. But the complaint is made, and on the face of it it seems to be a very strong one, that these people, against whom no charges or allegations have ever been made, who also were informed last Easter that they were to be permitted to return to Palestine, are still kept indefinitely in internment in Egypt, although we are now almost in the middle of the hot season.

The allegation is made, for which I do not make myself responsible, that these people are being kept in internment until they consent to being deported to Germany. I sincerely hope it is not true, but it stands to reason if you keep people in internment long enough that they will practically volunteer to go anywhere in order to be released. If these people had really committed any crime, if any definite charges were brought against them, one would understand this procedure perfectly well, but, as a matter of fact, no charges whatever have been 'brought against them at all. We know that Germans who were resident in this country and who gave evidence of disloyalty were expelled from this country and sent to Germany, and I do not think anybody is likely to make any complaint upon the subject. The same thing occurred in the Colonies. Germans and other enemy aliens in the Colonies who had shown any evidence of ill will or disloyalty to the British Empire, were deported, and quite rightly. But it is impossible to bring any such charge against these particular people because Palestine never was a British Colony and is not a British colony at the present moment. Therefore, even if they desired to show any against this country they would not have had the opportunity of doing so.

In any case, it is, to my mind, a very serious thing and it requires a good deal of explanation, that, nearly two years after the Armistice has taken place, there is a large number of persons, including old men, women and children, who are still in internment. It requires a certain amount of hardihood on the part of an Englishman to suggest that any ex-enemy alien is entitled to elementary justice, and anybody who brings forward a claim of that kind is apt to be considered in certain quarters as next door to a criminal lunatic. But I confess myself, and I am not ashamed to confess it, having had considerable experience of the results of the confinement of civilians during the war that I feel the utmost sympathy for civilians who are confined for long periods in internment camps, no matter what their nationality may be. In view of our record with regard to the whole question of the treatment of prisoners of war and interned civilians, I confess it seems to me to be a very unfortunate fact that this particular case should have been brought to the notice of independent observers such as the International Red Cross, and I hope that I shall not be told, as I was upon the previous occasion, that this Question is still receiving the consideration of His Majesty's Government, in view of the fact that the question has been under consideration for something like 18 months.


My Lords, I must apologise to my noble friend in that on the previous occasion when he raised this question I was unfortunately unable to be here. My noble friend Lord Stanmore answered in my place. The noble Lord hopes, and I will try not to disappoint his hope more than is absolutely essential, that I can give a more extended and satisfactory answer than was given on that occasion. The noble Lord has a wide experience of these matters and has had a very long and honourable connection with these questions of prisoners of war and interned persons. I listened, therefore, with special docility to his authoritative statement that this was really a matter for the War Office—he has wide experience of these different Government Departments—because I confess I had my doubts upon the subject, and I thought (one's preliminary ideas, of course, are very often inaccurate) that this was really a matter for the Foreign Office. But, as the noble Lord has decided otherwise, I will do my best to answer his Question.

My information is somewhat different from his with respect to those who are now interned in Egypt. He alludes to persons of a particular religious persuasion, the Templars, who have been living round about Haifa and the adjacent districts under Mount Cannel. I understand these persons are now in Germany, so that there are either none, or, at any rate, very few, at present interned in Egypt. Further, the figures that he gives do not coincide with our official figures. He gave the number as 900, but time figure I was going to give was about 456. Undoubtedly these persons have been interned for some considerable time. Originally they were interned at Sidi Bizra in Egypt, and they were all deported from Palestine for military reasons. Moreover, a great deal of discretion has to be allowed to the local commander on the spot as to the disposal of these Germans who have been so deported from Palestine. My noble friend said he hoped it was not true that these persons were kept interned in Egypt and that they were going to be kept there unless they were willing to return to Germany. I do not think that is quite a fair way of putting it.


I said I did not vouch for it. That is the allegation.


Yes. I was trying to deal with the allegation. I know the noble Lord did not make himself definitely responsible for it. But, of course, it is true that a number of these persons have gone to Germany.


Against their will.


I do not know about that. They have gone, anyway. I think they preferred to go to Germany to staying in Egypt. No doubt they wanted to go back to Palestine, but I think your Lordships will agree that there must be a good deal of discretion in the military authorities in Palestine, while it is under military occupation, as to who should return to Palestine and who should not. My noble friend tried to draw distinctions between Palestine, which is in military occupation, and German colonies and other places; but, whatever the distinction he may draw, Surely liberty must be allowed to the Governors on the spot to say who is and who is not to be allowed to return to that particular area. Fortunately the military occupation is not going to last very much longer in Palestine and will very soon be transferred to civil authority. As my noble friend knows, the High Commissioner has been appointed, and is proceeding there shortly. I believe he takes up his duties at the beginning of next month. All these questions will then come up immediately for his decision, and no doubt Regulations will be drawn up to define the position of these persons, and of others. Therefore a solution of these questions will shortly be arrived at.

My noble friend will also have noticed that in this matter very wide questions of international law and interpretation of Treaties are raised—matters which are far beyond any mere War Office question; and there I am afraid I must leave it. I can assure him—though he rather preferred that I should not give him that assurance— that, in fact, I know that even yesterday this matter was being carefully discussed, so that the whole settlement will be shortly arrived at. I agree with my noble friend that a settlement ought to be arrived at rapidly on this question, and I am very much indebted to him for having raised the matter in the way he has.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord who put down the Question will say that the answer given by the noble Viscount is extremely disquieting and most unsatisfactory. First of all, I understand he draws a distinction between the German settlers who occupied Haifa and Mount Carmel, and others. I did not know there were other German settlers than those at Haifa, but I understood him to say that those who have been taken down to Haifa had been sent from there back to Germany, presumably compulsorily. Who is occupying their lands and houses? Who is responsible for it? Were they compensated? The noble Viscount only lightly touched on the point as to what right we have to treat these Gel mans in Palestine in this manner. I understood him to put it down to military occupation. I welcome his extraordinary optimism when he thinks that our troops will be withdrawn shortly.


I did not say that I wish we could say it. I said it would pass under civil authority.


Based en British bayonets. I do not draw a very vital distinction between the two. I hope a means will be found to get these unfortunate Germans back; but many months will elapse before Mr. Samuel will be in a position to go thoroughly into this question and get them back into Palestine. I cannot imagine what danger they are. I have never heard of any dangers attributed to them, though I was in the country last year. Now that you have signed the Peace Treaty, what right have you to keep these people interned? I know of no right; but perhaps some legal authority will enlighten us upon the matter. On the whole, I think the noble Lord who has raised this matter has done so wisely and, as he said, it is extremely unpleasant to think that it had to originate from a neutral country like Switzerland, which pointed out the grave injustice that was being inflicted upon these German settlers.


My Lords, I do not think that the answer made by the noble Viscount is altogether satisfactory. He seems really not to have had any information. He has answered with his usual courtesy and skill, but he does not tell us that any one has really considered this subject. These people may have been deported from military reasons; we must assume that they were. They may be kept for military reasons; but we have no ground for supposing that any person has formed any opinion on the subject at all. If he had been able to tell us that the authorities in Palestine had considered the question, and said these people ought to be kept out of Palestine, it would be something; but all he can suggest is that they may have been deported for military reasons and may be kept away for those reasons. With regard to the internment in Egypt, if it is really compulsory I confess, as an international lawyer, after Peace has been declared between England and Germany, I cannot understand how it can be. I can only presume they are not really interned in Egypt but are not allowed to go back from there to Palestine, and are therefore staying in Egypt unless they choose to go back to Germany. But the real question is, has any one considered whether, since the Armistice, these people could go back?


My Lords, I am obliged to my noble friend for his answer, but, although it is a considerable improvement on the one I received on a previous occasion, I cannot pretend that it is altogether satisfactory. My noble friend threw some doubt upon the question whether this was really a War Office concern. I understand that these people were deported for military reasons and, if that is so, clearly it is a War Office question. But, here again, we are confronted with the difficulty that a large proportion of these people consist of women and children. Surely they cannot have been deported for military reasons. Then we have the further difficulty that no decision is going to be arrived at until Mr. Herbert Samuel goes to Palestine. He is a civilian, and not a judge of military reasons at all. When will he start? I do not imagine that there is the remotest prospect of his starting for a month or so. Meanwhile, what is the position of these wretched people? Here they are with the prospect of remaining indefinitely through the hot months in internment camps in Egypt. I am very reluctant to trouble the House with this Question again, but I am afraid that unless something definite is stated before very long I shall have to return to it.