At 4:00am on Saturday June 3rd, 1950, an officer of the Jordanian Arab Legion was sent from headquarters to investigate a report of dozens of Palestinians having been taken by Israeli soldiers and abandoned in the Negev desert.

28 people, four of whom were children aged 7 to 11, were all that remained of a group which originally numbered over 100. These 28 had made their way on foot to the Wadi Dhahal Police Post nearly 20km from where they had been left by Israeli Army soldiers. Exhausted, dehydrated, and showing signs of torture and abuse, they were aided by Arab Legion officers who later took their stories; these testimonies are stored today in the UK National Archives and are the basis of this article.

Transjordan was a British protectorate until it gained independence in 1946, changing its name to Jordan in 1949. While the country was officially ruled by King Abdullah I of the Hashemite family, descended from prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the British maintained significant political and economic influence even after independence. The Arab Legion was the country’s police force, created in 1920 along with the Emirate of Transjordan itself. The force had considerable British presence, was financed by Britain, and was commanded by British officers until 1956, at which point it was renamed the Arab Army (the present-day Jordanian Armed Forces) and all senior British officers were dismissed and replaced with Arab commanders.

The original mission of the Arab Legion was to keep order among the Bedouin tribes of Transjordan and to protect villages from tribal raids. Following the creation of Israel in 1948, in what was also a British protectorate (Palestine), the Arab Legion found itself increasingly involved in disputes along Jordan and Israel’s shared border at the edge of the Negev desert.

From the autumn of 1949 to the spring of 1950, roughly 120 Palestinians “were arrested in various parts of Israel and had undergone periods of imprisonment varying from a few days to seven or eight months.” Some were tried in court, but many others were not. Near the end of May 1950, all were brought to a prison camp at Katra where they were turned over to the Israeli Army. Around 7:30am on Wednesday May 31st, they were blindfolded, loaded into trucks, and driven into the desert with an escort of Israeli soldiers in what would later be termed “the Wadi Araba incident”.

The survivors reported to the Arab Legion officers that they were not given any food or water or allowed to relieve themselves once they’d been loaded into the trucks. When they asked for water, Israeli soldiers removed their blindfolds so they could watch it be poured on the ground in front of them.

After roughly 16 hours of driving, at what was believed to be around midnight, the convoy finally stopped, and the detainees were ordered to get out of the trucks. While unable to determine their exact location, Israeli soldiers pointed to some hills in the distance and indicated that was the Jordanian frontier. The group was told that

they would be taken forward in groups of four, and on the count of one-two-three, they were ordered to run as fast as they could into the desert, and to keep running or they would be fired on. The general direction indicated to them seemed to be south-east. They were told that anyone who ran north would be shot. This procedure was then applied, the men being taken forward in groups of four. As each party ran off into the darkness, bursts of fire were opened on them by the [Israeli soldiers].

As a result of their being split into groups of four, the original party of 120 became scattered across the desert, with individuals continuing to arrive at various police outposts in Jordan over the next several days. Rescue efforts of the Arab Legion continued for two more weeks, after which point 87 of the original 120 had been recovered and it was determined none of the others were likely to have survived.

Those who were found were severely malnourished, owing partly to their extended time in the desert, but also to the “extremely meagre” food given to them in Israeli prisons during their detainment. Many showed signs of beating and had bruises and broken teeth, “which they alleged were the result of blows with rifle butts by [Israeli] soldiers.” One man reported that the soldiers had kicked him in the stomach until he vomited blood, at which point an Israeli doctor gave him “medicine” which was later determined to be morphine. Another man, accused of being an Arab spy, had been tortured for information he did not have, and the fingernails on his right hand had all been ripped off. Photos of these individuals, showing bruises, broken teeth, torn-off fingernails, cigarette burns, infected cuts, scars from recent whipping, and other abuse, are included in the archival materials available to the public at the National Archives. I have not reproduced them here due to their disturbing nature.

This report of the Arab Legion officers was verified by Captain Bonteille of the Belgian Army (UNO Observer on the Mixed Armistice Commission), Peter Toynbee (correspondent of the British newspaper The Observer), and Dr Sahyoun, surgeon at As-Salt Hospital and representative of the International Red Cross and UNRWA. The latter examined and treated 58 of the survivors, submitting his own report verifying the victims’ claims.

Originally from towns and villages across the whole of Palestine, the 120 individuals had been accused by Israeli police of various offenses, including:

  • Trying to visit another village in Israel without a special permit,
  • Illegally crossing the border between Jordan and Israel (in most cases to retrieve family or property that remained in now-Israeli territory), or:
  • Having fought against Israeli forces in the Arab-Israeli war two years earlier.

Many others were living legally in Israeli territory and had been arrested arbitrarily without being told which crimes they were supposed to have committed. Once expelled across the border to Jordan, their return would have been treated as an illegal border crossing, rendering them unable to go back for their families, land, homes, or property. Some only hoped to retrieve goods to take back with them to Jordan, as their villages had been rendered uninhabitable by Israeli biological warfare during the 1948 war.

On June 15th, the Israeli newspaper Jerusalem Post published an article titled “Infiltrators not maltreated, Army declares.” The article alleged that 120 Arabs had been released by Israeli soldiers near the southern end of the Dead Sea and within sight of an Arab Legion post. It also claimed that the detainees had been “adequately fed” and that any injuries they showed must have been inflicted on them after they had crossed into Jordanian territory. The article concluded by suggesting responsibility for the incident be placed on Arab Legion officers:

It was clear that the Jordan authorities lacked effective control of their border regions, for it is as much their duty to prevent infiltrators from crossing the lines into Israel, as it is the right and duty of Israel to prevent such entry.

The UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) verified the claims of those who survived and the Arab Legion officers who found them. No further investigation was conducted into the incident, and it appears the officers who deserted these ten dozen individuals in the desert did not face any punishment.

While this specific incident occurred within the context of the 1949-1956 Palestinian expulsions, events like this would continue to occur periodically over the next seven decades, where Israeli forces would arbitrarily detain Arabs throughout the country, and these individuals would either be executed, held indefinitely in prison, tried before a judge prejudiced against them, or driven into the desert near the Jordanian frontier and abandoned. Despite UN investigations verifying this was a de facto policy of the Israeli Army, responsibility for Arab-Israeli hostilities was largely placed on the displaced Palestinians themselves.

Of course, the new Jewish inhabitants of Israel also found themselves in an adverse position following the UN partition of Palestine. Citizens of the new state emerged from the 1948 war surrounded by neighbouring countries that resented the disenfranchisement of Palestinians and criticised Israel’s profitable relationship with Britain and the United States - western powers which had long exploited the Middle East, its populations, and its resources for their own interests. Jewish communities across the Middle East, which had long lived in relative peace with their Arab neighbours, were increasingly viewed as domestic threats and were exiled en masse to Israel, the new state to which they presumably held more loyalty. These expulsions, of both Palestinians and Jews, set the foundation for what has now been 75 years of an internecine conflict which has led to thousands of casualties and displaced refugees.

As we reflect on a complex and tumultuous history, it’s crucial to keep in mind the shared suffering experienced by all those who live in conflict zones, a reminder of the human cost of geopolitical miscalculations. Moving forward requires a collective commitment to understanding the nuanced layers of the conflict and fostering dialogue that transcends historical grievances, aiming towards a future of collaboration and mutual respect.

For those who are interested in reading more about the history of Israel and Palestine (and particularly western interventions in the region), I would suggest some of the literature listed below.


1 A. Sahyoun, “U.N.R.W.A.,” 14 June 1950, Box 624, Folder 191, Foreign Office, The National Archives, 1.
2 Arab Legion, “Incident in the Wadi Araba,” undated, Box 624, Folder 191, Foreign Office, The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom (“The National Archives”), 1-5.
3 “Extract from the Jerusalem Post of 15th June 1950,” undated, Box 624, Folder 191, Foreign Office, The National Archives, 1.
4 Ahouie, Mahdi. “Ali Shariati on the Question of Palestine: Making a Sacred Symbol for Uprising against Injustice and Domination” in Ali Shariati and the Future of Social Theory: Religion, Revolution, and the Role of the Intellectual. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017. 200-211.
5 Aharoni, Ada. “The Forced Migration of Jews from Arab Countries.” Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice 15, no. 1 (2003): 53–60. DOI:10.1080/1040265032000059742.
6 Antonius, George. The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement. New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1939.
7 Baban, Feyzi. “Nationalism and the Crisis of Community in the Middle East.” Dialectical Anthropology 42 (2018): 351-357.
8 Campos, Michelle. Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. 1-58.
9 Citino, Nathan J. “Out of the Blue? Historical Scholarship on U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East.” OAH Magazine of History 20, no. 3 (2006): 8-12.
10 Corbett, Elena D. Competitive Archaeology in Jordan: Narrating Identity from the Ottomans to the Hashemites. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014.
11 Dugard, John. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967,” 29 January 2007. United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, fourth session, A/HRC/4/17.
12 “End-of-Mission Statement of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices,” 15 July 2022, UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, United Nations Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories.
13 Falk, Richard. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967,” 13 January 2014. United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, twenty-fifth session, A/HRC/25/67.
14 Gendzier, Irene. Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, & the Foundations of US Policy in the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
15 “Israel/OPT: Continuing Patterns of Unlawful Killings and Other Crimes Further Entrench Apartheid.” 11 May 2022. Amnesty International, file MDE 15/5589/2022.
16 Kattan, Victor. “Palestine and the Secret Treaties.” AJIL Unbound 110 (2016): 109-114.
17 Kelly, Matthew Kraig. “The Revolt of 1936: A Revision.” Journal of Palestine Studies 44, no. 2 (2015): 28-42.
18 Lynk, Michael. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967,” 21 March 2022. United Nations General Assembly, Human Rights Council, forty-ninth session, A/HRC/49/87.
19 Morris, Benny and Benjamin Z. Kedar. “‘Cast thy bread’: Israeli biological warfare during the 1948 War.” Middle Eastern Studies 59, no. 5 (2023): 752-776. DOI: 10.1080/00263206.2022.2122448.
20 Ne’eman, Renana. “Settling the Unsettled: Forced Shelter in the Negev Desert” in Tom Scott-Smith and Mark E. Breeze (ed.s) Structure of Protection? Rethinking Refugee Shelter. New York: Berghahn Books, 2020. 97-108.
21 Renton, James. “Changing Languages of Empire and the Orient: Britain and the Invention of the Middle East, 1917-1918.” The Historical Journal 50, no. 3 (2007): 645-667.
22 Robson, Laura. States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017.
23 Rogan, Eugene. “The Palestine Disaster and its Consequences” in The Arabs: A History. New York: Basic Books, 2009.