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Britain follows the US into isolation over Israel's Gaza war

Britain follows the US into isolation over Israel's Gaza war
6 min read
19 December, 2023
Analysis: The UK has followed Washington in asserting explicit support for Israel's war, but amid global isolation, its political discourse is slowly shifting.

As the United States opposed two successive ceasefire resolutions in the UN Security Council and General Assembly (UNGA) amid Israel’s war on Gaza, the United Kingdom abstained from supporting both motions, revealing its solid alignment with Washington.

This somewhat isolates Britain from other European nations, including Ireland, France, Spain, and Belgium and British allies Canada and Australia, who all backed the recent UNGA ceasefire motion.

While a few European states like Germany didn’t back the UNGA motion, and others like Austria even opposed it, London appears to be following the US and Israel’s increasing descent into international isolation over the war.

Following Hamas’ attack and hostage-taking on 7 October, London, among other Western nations, declared its “unequivocal support” for Israel and sent naval and military assets to protect it in the event of a regional war.

And while British ministers repeated the line that “Israel has the right to defend itself in line with international law,” the same voices were often mute over what would happen if Israel broke international law.

As Gaza faces an intensifying humanitarian crisis, and the death toll nears 20,000 Palestinians, there’s certainly been a shift in political discourse.

The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said that the carnage in Gaza “is more or less or even greater than the destruction” of World War II, namely German cities such as Dresden.

This comparison stems from the widespread destruction of infrastructure and buildings and the fact that around 85 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza have been made homeless.

There’s now also a worrying emergence of diseases that are difficult to treat as Gaza's healthcare system has collapsed, including staph infections, chickenpox, rashes, urinary tract infections, meningitis, mumps, scabies, measles and food poisoning.

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Shifting political discourse

With urgent calls to address Gaza’s plight, Britain has faced growing scrutiny, including legal and civil society pressure, over its involvement in the war. On 12 December, Human Rights Watch’s UK Director Yasmine Ahmed warned that Britain’s weapons sales to Israel may make it complicit in war crimes.

As this criticism has mounted, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron appeared to have broken ranks. In late November, he spoke critically about the crisis in Gaza and said the death toll is “too high,” comments later echoed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

And it’s not the first time Cameron has made such comments about Gaza; during his tenure as Prime Minister, he warned that Israel’s blockade had turned the enclave into a “prison camp”.

Last week, Cameron also declared that Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank, responsible for attacks on Palestinians, will be banned from entering the UK.

And in perhaps the greatest rebuke of Israel from a leading minister yet, Conservative MP and former Defence Secretary Ben Wallace wrote in The Telegraph on Sunday that Israel’s “killing rage” may fuel conflict for another 50 years, while highlighting its “collective punishment and forced movement of civilians”.

Israel's war has killed nearly 20,000 Palestinians - over 70% women and children. [Getty]

Despite this toughening language, however, Britain has closely collaborated with the US to back Israel. The British air force base on the island of Cyprus, RAF Akrotiri, has been used by the US to receive arms and weapons transfers, which are then shipped to Israel. British surveillance drones, meanwhile, have been working with the Israeli military to track Israeli hostages in Gaza.

Moreover, while both the UK and US have backed Palestinian Authority (PA) security and political control over Gaza, there has been little pressure on Israel to pursue London and Washington's stated foreign policy of a two state solution.

Indeed, last week, Israeli ambassador to the UK Tzipi Hotovely further indicated Israel’s aims to fully occupy Gaza, declaring “absolutely no” when speaking of a two-state solution. Cameron, addressing these comments, said it is “disappointing” yet added Israel’s security is “something I care deeply about”.

With the Sunak government beginning to feel the heat, discourse has begun shifting towards what it calls a "sustainable ceasefire,” which puts the focus on Hamas’ actions. Britain remains reluctant to demand an immediate ceasefire though, opting instead to maintain its support for Israel’s military operations.

A balancing act

Despite its alignment with the US and Israel, Britain has historically shown a unique interest in maintaining relations with the Arab world, partly due to its historical influence in the Middle East.

Although Britain’s role in facilitating the modern state of Israel is well-known, London gravitated more towards its Arab Gulf partners in the post-war period, seeking to prioritise commercial ties with the Arab world.

In the Yom Kippur war of 1973, then Conservative PM Edward Heath refused to allow American aircraft to land and prevented weapons transfers to Israel, seeking to appease the Gulf states as the Saudi Arabia-led oil embargo loomed, angering both Washington and Israel.

Later, Margaret Thatcher condemned Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon in 1982, owing to pressure from Arab Gulf states, with whom Thatcher’s government deepened commercial ties. She even imposed an arms embargo on Israel that wasn’t lifted until 1994 – a stark difference to what today’s Conservative Party would back.

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Even the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition temporarily suspended arms licenses to Israel after its “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014, following pressure from the war which killed 2,251 Palestinians in under two months. However, this action was partly seen as a gesture to appease local voters rather than a strategic move.

Since then, Britain’s alignment with Israel has tightened, partly driven by Brexit, partly driven by geopolitical shifts. The Conservative Party has also become aligned with the Likud Party, which rules a far-right coalition in Israel.

Indeed, both Rishi Sunak and his short-lived predecessor Liz Truss considered moving the UK’s embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, following the US’ footsteps in recognising it as Israel’s capital.

Given the legal and political controversies over Israel’s ambitions in Jerusalem, several Arab officials, including Kuwaiti and Emirati MPs, issued warnings to London last year.

They said that should Britain proceed with the embassy move, it would threaten its coveted free-trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Amid this pressure, Sunak eventually backtracked on the proposal.

UK Foreign Minister David Cameron recently declared that Israeli settlers in the West Bank, responsible for attacks on Palestinians, will be banned from entering the UK. [Getty]

Risks of isolation

As Britain has pursued a policy of “commercial pragmatism” in the Middle East it has strengthened its relations with Israel as well as the GCC. Following Brexit, it has sought a free-trade agreement with Israel, while in March 2023, they signed a long-term agreement to enhance cooperation in defence, security, and technology, underlining Britain's view of Israel as an important partner in the Middle East.

Britain's desires to maintain a global presence, especially in the Middle East, has, however, increased its reliance on Washington, which Brexit also accelerated. This dependency has made Britain more susceptible to US pressure, amplifying its junior partner role further.

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Ultimately, both the US and Britain are recognising a loss of international support for the war on Gaza, which is escalating the pressure for them to reconsider their approach. Like the US, Britain’s current alignment risks alienating many in the Arab world and beyond.

And despite the touted mantra of “Global Britain” as an influential global player that advocates for human rights, its continued alignment with Israel may further undermine this stance.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey