The top leaders of Britain’s political parties are publicly showing solidarity in the Israel-Hamas conflict. However, there may be underlying tensions between them.
After the recent attacks on Israel, politicians have been dealing with the aftermath not just in the Middle East, but also in their own countries.
Last week in parliament, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer both expressed a shared stance and denounced Hamas, while also showing support for Israel. They also called on Israel to abide by international laws in its actions.
Underneath the uppermost tier of British government, the tension is causing stress in certain communities – and politicians are feeling anxious.
David Simmonds, the Conservative representative for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner in north-west London, acknowledges an increase in the community’s overall level of nervousness.
This area has a large population of Jewish residents, making it one of the highest proportions in the U.K. For certain individuals, the ongoing conflict hits close to home.
Simmonds was present at a gathering in a synagogue following the recent Hamas attacks. Among those in attendance were individuals who had recently returned from the affected region, as well as others with loved ones who had survived the violence.
A man shared with me a story of his sister who had to take refuge in a secure location for seven hours while waiting for the Israeli army to arrive. During this time, they were aware that there were Hamas militants searching for them within the building.
Not only has the Jewish community in the U.K. been affected by recent events in Israel and Gaza, but others have also felt the impact.
The London Metropolitan Police reported a significant rise in hate crimes against both Jews and Muslims. In the current month, 218 anti-Semitic incidents were recorded compared to only 15 during the same time last year. Additionally, there was an increase in offenses targeting Muslims from 42 to 101.
Alison Thewliss serves as the Member of Parliament for Glasgow Central, a constituency with a large Muslim community and other diverse religious groups.
As one would expect, many individuals are feeling extremely distressed while witnessing this situation develop,” she remarks.
Thewliss estimates she has received about 800 emails on the Israel-Hamas war since last week. “Lots of people who have been there recently or visit quite regularly have been in touch concerned about people that they know,” she says.
According to her, numerous Muslim voters are dissatisfied with the U.K.’s lack of effort in encouraging the Israeli government to exercise restraint. They were also troubled by Rishi Sunak’s recent decision to stand alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sunak’s trip to Israel last week was seen as a display of support, followed by visits to Saudi Arabia and Egypt for discussions on reducing civilian casualties in Gaza.
Prominent political leaders in the United Kingdom have also experienced the impact of the ongoing conflict, including Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf who shared the situation of his parents-in-law who are currently stuck in Gaza. Yousaf has strongly denounced Hamas’ assaults on Israel, while also criticizing the British government for not placing equal value on Palestinian lives as they do on Israeli lives.
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrats’ representative for foreign affairs, stated in Parliament this week that her relatives in Gaza City had to take refuge in a church when their home was targeted by the Israel Defense Forces.
In London, Simmonds is cautiously optimistic about the government’s ability to address growing concerns within the community. Sunak has provided additional funding to the Community Security Trust, a charity that protects Jewish individuals. However, Simmonds has still increased security at his local office due to the general increase in tension, which is known to lead to a higher risk of incidents.
According to Thewliss, there have been instances of hate crimes occurring on both sides in her city. She expresses concern that as tensions continue to rise, the likelihood of these crimes increasing also increases. This is a major concern for the people of Glasgow.
During a recent interview with POLITICO, Defense Secretary Grant Shapps, who is Jewish, stated that law enforcement should not hesitate to address individuals who incite hatred and provoke tensions within communities.
“It is crucial for all individuals, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, to feel secure,” he stated. “Law enforcement should not feel compelled to tolerate those who incite hatred in any way, whether it be through parading flags in front of a specific group or chanting in support of prohibited groups like Hamas.”
While carrying out this task, law enforcement must carefully navigate between controlling possibly provocative protests and allowing for the expression of concerns about the war.
Vigilant, not alarmist
Experts on the multi-religious government of Britain acknowledge the impact of the Gaza conflict as a new source of tension. However, they emphasize the importance of having open and respectful discussions.
Sunder Katwala is the founder of British Future, a think tank that concentrates on matters of identity and immigration. According to Katwala, policymakers should not be overly concerned, but they should remain watchful.
“We require an understanding of the underlying principles that make it feasible to support both Israel and Palestine,” he explains. “We must avoid reducing people’s religious beliefs into political affiliations.”
Both Sunak and Starmer attempted to find a middle ground in their statements in the House of Commons last week. Sunak condemned the attacks on Israel as a threat to its identity as the homeland for Jewish people, while also acknowledging the pain felt by British Muslim communities during this time. He also stressed the difference between Hamas and the innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
According to Luke Tryl, a member of More in Common, a charity and research group focused on fostering unity in British society, there is a risk that those who are the most vocal may exclude others from participating in discussions.
This is why it is crucial to witness high-ranking members of the Muslim community denounce the attacks on Israel. It holds significant influence as it hinders the actions of individuals who exploit conflicts, known as “conflict entrepreneurs,” and promotes unity instead.