How Israel's war on Gaza is dividing UK politics

Illustration - In-depth - Gaza/UK
7 min read
13 November, 2023
In-depth: Pro-Palestine solidarity in the UK has caused a crisis within Britain's two main political parties, with the Conservatives seeking to suppress popular activism and Labour divided over whether to call for a ceasefire.

From weekend marches and sit-ins at train stations to protests at weapons factories and university lecture walkouts, the United Kingdom has seen escalating activism sparked by the harrowing events unfolding in Gaza.

On Saturday, what was dubbed one of the UK’s biggest-ever protests attracted hundreds of thousands of protestors demanding a ceasefire.

With Gaza enduring an increasingly grave humanitarian crisis, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recently stated that “if there is hell on earth, it is in the North of Gaza”.

On Monday, health authorities in the besieged enclave said that hospitals in the north were no longer functioning, while the death toll from Israel’s war has now risen to over 11,180, including 4,609 children, in just over a month since Hamas’ attack on southern Israel which killed around 1,400 Israelis and took over 200 hostages.

"From weekend marches and sit-ins at train stations to protests at weapons factories and university lecture walkouts, the UK has seen escalating activism sparked by the harrowing events unfolding in Gaza"

Last week, Home Secretary Suella Braverman's calls to ban the weekend’s pro-Palestine protests and the call for the immediate jailing of anyone who vandalises the Cenotaph during Armistice Day, a prominent war memorial in London, were seen by many as deliberately divisive. She has also repeatedly called protests calling for a ceasefire "hate marches".

Braverman, who was sacked on Monday, also compared the protests to sectarian rallies in Northern Ireland and accused police of “playing favourites” towards protestors in an article she wrote for The Times. She was accused of breaching the Ministerial Code for that unauthorised article, a charge she has also faced several times in the past.

Others in government claimed that Armistice Day was inappropriate for protest action, yet protesters responded by pointing out that commemorating the end of military hostilities provided an ideal occasion for a pro-peace march.

Braverman's push to quash the protests hit a legal roadblock as her move clashed head-on with the principles upheld by Sir Mark Rowley, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who underscored the legal right to protest.

This tussle was further amplified with Neil Basu, former Assistant Commissioner of the Met, warning that the government's crackdown against the protests teetered dangerously close to illegality.

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Political backlash

Underscoring the backlash from her rhetoric, Labour leader Keir Starmer accused Braverman of "sowing the seeds of hatred," linking her statements to violence by far-right counter-protesters and football hooligans who have clashed with police and pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

Despite some violence in the capital, the Metropolitan Police said the pro-Palestine march unfolded in a largely peaceful manner and did not threaten the Cenotaph. Most of those arrested on Saturday were counter-protesters, including those linked to the far right.

Braverman's latest comments follow her suggestions in October that displaying a Palestinian flag could be deemed illegal, apparently attempting to associate it with supporting Hamas.

There have been regular weekly marches in London and across the UK condemning Israel's war on Gaza. [Getty]

This approach, denounced by some as a conflation of sympathy with Palestinians and backing extremism, has raised the spectre of the era of McCarthyism, reflecting fears of repressive tactics and unfounded accusations stifling free speech in Western politics.

With the Conservative Party's already nosediving popularity, Suella Braverman's recent actions are perceived by many as a political misstep that could deepen her party's crisis. Sunak’s sacking of Braverman followed speculation that he may need to do so to salvage his government’s credibility, despite initially opposing the protests himself.

Yet this comes in the wake of Sunak's own condemnation over the weekend’s violence, including denouncing the far-right violence as well as what he called “Hamas sympathisers”.

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Hardening UK-Israel relations

In the context of the ongoing war on Gaza, Sunak has maintained a firm stance in support of Israel. The government has consistently echoed Israel's "right to defend itself" within the boundaries of international law.

Yet the UK's threshold for drawing a definitive red line in response to violations remains unclear, particularly amid widespread concerns over collective punishment, forced population transfer, and the use of disproportionate force in Gaza.

The UK's role in supporting Israel through arms sales has also come under scrutiny from protestors and advocacy groups. The London-based Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has revealed that between 2018 and 2022, the UK sold arms worth £146 million to Israel under Single Issue Export Licences, with additional exports under the less transparent Open General Export Licences.

"Suella Braverman's response to pro-Palestine activism, denounced by some as a conflation of sympathy with Palestinians and backing extremism, has raised the spectre of the era of McCarthyism"

A critical point of contention is the UK's contribution to Israel's F-35 stealth combat aircraft. Components provided by the UK make up 15 per cent of these aircraft, which have been employed in the recent bombardments in Gaza. This involvement has ignited criticism and debate over the UK's complicity in the war.

Legal attempts to curtail the UK's military support have emerged but with limited success. For example, Bill 144, presented in July 2021, aimed to restrict export activities to Israel. However, by 2022, the bill's progression was halted due to parliamentary prorogation.

The UK's economic ties with Israel extend beyond arms. These relationships span technology, investment, research, and security sectors. Post-Brexit, the UK government has pursued an ongoing free-trade agreement (FTA) with Israel, indicating a strategic shift to view Israel as an economic and defence ally following its departure from the European Union (EU), while the UK aligns itself with the US.

While the Conservative government has consolidated relations with Israel, Westminster’s stance over the current conflict has not resonated with the concerns of the public. While a poll indicates 76 percent of the British public thinks there should be a ceasefire, a recent parliamentary vote saw just 13 percent of MPs cast their ballots in favour of one.

Among the total 93 MPs out of the 650 in parliament who currently back a ceasefire, the majority came from Labour, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and independent MPs. Caroline Lucas, the sole Green Party of England and Wales MP – which uniformly backs a ceasefire - and Sir Peter Bottomley, a lone Conservative MP, also supported the motion.

Suella Braverman was sacked as home secretary on Monday after she defied No 10 over an article accusing the Metropolitan Police of bias in the policing of pro-Palestine protests. [Getty]

Divisions within Labour

While the Conservative Party is all but aligned in backing Israel, the Labour Party is facing internal fissures due to its response to the Gaza war. Like Sunak, Keir Starmer has so far backed Israel and refused to support a ceasefire and has instead backed temporary “humanitarian pauses”.

Starmer also appeared to declare his support for what he described as Israel's "right" to cut power and water supplies to Gaza, which sparked concern and led to resignations among Labour councillors.

Several frontbenchers have denounced Starmer’s position, including Imran Hussain, a Labour lawmaker, who resigned from his policy role, emphasising his support for a ceasefire. London and Manchester mayors Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham are among those who have broken ranks with the Labour leader.

"While the Conservative Party is all but aligned in backing Israel, the Labour Party is facing internal fissures due to its response to the Gaza war"

Indicating the Labour leadership’s attempts to maintain control, senior party figures reportedly urged MPs not to back an upcoming SNP-led motion for a ceasefire, according to The Guardian.

Despite Starmer being predicted a landslide victory in the upcoming 2024 general election, this growing rebellion within the party may challenge his efforts to maintain party unity, especially given the varied opinions among its members.

As leader of the opposition, Starmer’s international engagements have caught attention, having courted political figures official across Europe and the West. Former Defence Secretary Michael Portillo commended Starmer for opposing a Gaza ceasefire, proclaiming the importance of aligning with the United States, and suggesting that Starmer's foreign policy might not deviate from the “special relationship”.

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While Starmer is looking ahead to govern Britain, he may also be preparing to consolidate London’s position as a key junior partner of Washington.

As Gaza's humanitarian plight deepens and Israel's relentless campaign shows no signs of abating, the steadfast support once offered to Israel by various governments is now teetering on the brink of untenability.

The tone has shown signs of shifting, with Emmanuel Macron calling for a ceasefire and condemning Israel’s actions, while senior figures in Belgium, Spain, and Ireland are calling for pressure on Israel to halt its operations.

Despite ongoing domestic pressure, the red lines of the UK and other Western nations remain shrouded in uncertainty, raising further concerns about how much more suffering the people of Gaza will have to endure as the war rages on.

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