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Much of the reaction in Britain to a crisis that has yet to acquire a specific designation, has concentrated on words used, and not used – their significance amplified by what their use, or non-use, may be held to mean.
“Pogrom is one not much heard outside the classroom or lecture theatre. But it was among the first words spoken when prime minister Rishi Sunak addressed the House of Commons to give a statement on the catastrophic situation in the Middle East. The word – meaning an organised massacre of Jews – was one with which even those regarding the actions of Hamas on October 7 as self-defence, would agree. It distinguishes this moment in the most intractable conflict on the planet.
No other foreign affair has such serious domestic ramifications for the UK. Britain entering Iraq, and leaving the European Union, inflamed public opinion, but briefly. Israel-Palestine has been incendiary for over 50 years, and is itself, for Janna Jihad Ayyad Al-Tamimi, an activist at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s fringe event at the Labour party conference in Liverpool last week, part of the “aftermath of British imperialism”.
The foreign policy dimension is, relatively, straightforward, though not without dilemma. Broadly, the Conservative government and the Labour opposition are in support of Israel: initially “unequivocally”, and then, if not equivocally, with mitigation. The principal one is humanitarianism, and that Palestinians are being made to suffer for the actions of Hamas.
The fracturing of the initial shocked consensus has already begun. The Labour left and, some academics, have described the response of the Israeli government as “collective punishment”. It is a contentious claim, but division among Israel’s allies was doubtless as Hamas had intended. Nor is it without historical precedent. Seventy years ago, voices on the Labour left and academics offered muted resistance to Britain’s targeting of civilians in in the second world war. “Civilians” and “combatants” became blurred. For Israel, being “at war” is the defence made against nuance.
The diplomatic levers Britain can pull have been applied to encourage de-escalation. James Cleverley, the foreign secretary, was dispatched (to have his own brush with peril). Sunak spoke in the immediate aftermath, at least twice, to his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu and met Abdullah, King of Jordan, the regional country with the closest links with Britain, and then flew to Israel for a meeting with the Israeli prime minster.
All was done more nimbly, the government refrained from saying, for the UK being free of EU considerations (although Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Olaf Scholz, German Chancellor, managed to get there before him).
Practical acts – a Royal Navy deployment, surveillance aircraft – to aid humanitarian efforts and interdict arms supplies, are inevitably dwarfed by two US carrier strike groups ordered to the region by president Biden.
The failures are, meanwhile, manifest. US and UK intelligence – always in lockstep – apparently had no inkling of the long-planned atrocity (their relationship spotlighted days later by the first public meeting of the Five Eyes security partners). For longer-term neglect of the region – Britain actually axed its Middle East minister last year – both have been deemed culpable.
The crisis has opened another front in the culture war. The BBC – attacked physically by pro-Palestinians and verbally by pro-Israelis – has defended its legal requirement to impartiality in not itself using the word “terrorists” to describe Hamas – though repeatedly quoting its use by others.
Its coverage has revived calls for the broadcaster finally to publish a report into its own alleged antisemitism. The Daily Mail, the BBC’s most inveterate foe, even managed to co-opt the President of Israel to maintain its own onslaught.
But empathy is wanting in febrile times. Demands that the police ought to have arrested two protesters with images of Hamas-like paragliders taped to their coats overlooked the fact that their bearers were in the middle of a protesting crowd of thousands. Anger there may have been, but a riot there was not.
No less shocking for being predictable has been the huge increase in antisemitic offences since the antisemitic mass-murder. Jewish schools closed, Jewish schools vandalised; antisemitic chants at rallies. The head of the Church of England spoke of the “cancer of antisemitism”.
In a bind
That public opinion is rarely heeded in foreign policy decisions is underlined by the most recent polling revealing that 21% support Israel, 17% Palestine, 29% both, and 33% “don’t know”. The seven British dead, and nine missing constitute a human connection between country and crisis, as do British Palestinians trapped in Gaza, the family of the first minister of Scotland most prominently.
It is easier, if by no means easy, for Sunak to be unequivocal than it is for Keir Starmer, leading a movement of both friends and critics of Israel. Thus can Conservative ministers call for Labour-affiliated organisations to disassociate from Palestinian-supporting groups, with associated inferences of the party’s recent past.
Under Jeremy Corbyn Labour could have split over the crisis – if it had not already done so by likely equivocation over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Labour unity is fraying. If Israel persists with its bombardment of civilians – or launches an invasion – parliamentary consensus will fracture.
How to achieve the destruction of Hamas without the destruction of Gaza, and with it the escalation of the crisis into a regional war, is the pressing matter independent of UK influence or involvement.
But Britain’s chronic central conundrum is now acute: how to support Israel, and Jewish people in Britain, without abandoning Palestine and the plight of Palestinians. MPs were “united” on the need for Israeli-Palestinian “co-existence”. They also spoke with “one voice” for a “two-state solution”, that abiding recourse in discussion of the conflict. It is a concept now, to many, that is merely words.
Martin Farr does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.