Potent Presence

The British built 55 police stations in Palestine in 1940-41, designed by Charles Tegart, a British Army officer and expert in political terrorism.

"Tegarts" was the nickname the Jewish community in Palestine gave the 55 police stations the British built in the country in 1940-41. The name refers to their designer, Sir Charles Tegart, a British Army officer and expert in political terrorism who was dispatched to Palestine in December 1937.

He visited Palestine twice, in 1937 and 1939, and wrote two reports. One of his 28 recommendations involved a vast project known as the Police Building Program: the construction of 55 police stations that would house all the branches of the British Army and police. The police stations were built of reinforced concrete and had armored doors. They were rectangular or square in shape and had an inner courtyard and two observation towers, which were intended as deterrence - they were too high to be of practical use.

The 55 forts, of which the largest was in Nazareth and the smallest in Megiddo, were built by the Public Works Department. They were situated at most of the strategic junctions, at a high point of the terrain, and were exposed and isolated but dominated their surroundings. Two fortified stations were built in Nablus, Safed, Bethlehem and Beit She'an. The fortresses housed the police and military forces and contained supplies sufficient for three months. Army, police and CID headquarters were located in the Tegart forts, together with courts, detention cells, weapons storerooms and garages. Water was kept in rooftop tanks or in underground spaces.

Police station in Hebron in 1940-41
Haganah archives

Tegart was the source for the planning of the stations, but the principles of their architectural design and the inspiration for their building style derived from the PWD and its director, Wilson Brown, and from the architect Foster Turner. "Despite their low height, the buildings possessed a strong presence in the open hilly terrain," says the architect Ada Karmi-Melamede.

One of the construction companies was Solel Boneh, which belonged to the Histadrut federation of labor. Many of the Tegart forts are now used by the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Police. Some have become civil prisons (among them Ashmoret at Beit Lid and Ashkelon Prison ) and military stockades.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, the Tegart forts in Palestinian cities were used as headquarters for the Israeli military government. Following the Oslo accords of 1993, they were handed over to the Palestinian Authority. The Muqata in Ramallah, for example, is a complex of structures whose basis is a Tegart fort. In 1941-42, when the office of the secretary of state for the colonies instructed the Mandate government's antiquities department to photograph the police stations, it was only natural for Schweig, who was then a photographer in the department, to be chosen for the mission. He started the project on January 15, 1942. His son, Chanoch Ido, remembers accompanying his father to photograph the stations in Hebron, Nablus and Be'er Sheva.

"A 1938 four-seater Ford 8 was placed at his disposal, along with a chauffeur and an officer from the CID who opened the doors of the fortified stations," Ido relates. "Sometimes my father took my mother along, or my big sister or me. 'You can make up the schoolwork later,' he would tell me. At every station he took a large number of interior photographs.

"The Tel Hai exhibition," Ido continues, "includes the large landscape photographs that were sent to the British War Office, to be used for planning the country's defense in the event of a German invasion. (In 1941, the German army, under Rommel, was advancing in the Western Desert in Egypt. )

"At each station he wandered around, looking for the best angle. He positioned his wooden tripod, assembled a frame with a cassette containing two films, and shot in natural light. He spent several hours at every station and I watched the way he worked."

The photography researcher Ruth Oren notes in her article in the exhibition catalog that Schweig made use of architectural photography for the stations "that left no doubt as to its intent: to overwhelm and present government authority through a contemplative view of landscapes, which are related to security buildings and yet are also enchanted, surreal and utopian."

The archives of the Haganah - forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces - in Tel Aviv contain a resplendent album of Tegart forts, entitled "From Dan to Be'er Sheva." Also called "The Police Stations Plan 1940-1941" or "The Wilson Brown Buildings," the album was published by the British Mandate government in Palestine and is the handiwork of Schweig, who photographed, printed, wrote and designed it. Inside are 64 black-and-white photographs of the police stations.

"In this project several themes typical of his artistic endeavor seem to have crystallized," Haikin writes in the catalog, "a dark sky, white clouds, and a wide range of gray tones; compositional wholeness achieved through a combination of distinct, contrasting elements; drama and movement tempered by printing."