Hamas fires rockets into Israel. Israel bombs sites in Gaza. The conflict hots up; then it cools down – until next time. Such has been the pattern of engagement since Israel withdrew its troops from Gaza in 2006. Two thousand and seven, 2008, 2014: all saw the familiar cycle.
Meanwhile, prospects of a two state solution between Israel and the Palestinians have receded. And it has become increasingly clear that such a deal would not in itself bring peace and prosperity to the region, blighted as it is by dictatorship, sectarian confict, poverty, relatively poor education, Islamist terror and limited opportunities for women. As Freedom House puts it, “popular demand for greater freedom in the Middle East continues to run up against some of the most entrenched systems of repression in the world”.
However, Hamas’ terror assault on Israel, and its horrors, are significant for Britain for two main reasons, humanitarian ones apart. First, the attack, timed to take place exactly 50 years after the Yom Kippur war, has the capacity, as its predecessor did, to disturb the rough equilibrium of the region.
Hezbollah haven’t launched a twin attack Israel from Lebanon, but the possibility can’t be ruled out, and rockets have been fired across the border. Palestinians in Jenin in the West Bank have already been celebrating Hamas’ attack. Israel’s own Arab population, roughly a fifth of the total, is increasingly crime-afflicted, restive, and politically engaged. But the most significant repercussions may be for Egypt, whose border with Gaza is closed to trade and sometimes to people, too.
Israel’s military response will be complicated by Hamas’ seizure of dozens of hostages – including children, women, and elderly and disabled people. But for all the country’s internal divisions, which may have contributed to the timing of Hamas’ assault, its Jewish population will come together to demand and support retaliation.
“The naked body of a woman was seen being driven in the back of a pick-up truck. In video footage too graphic to publish, men and young boys are seen spitting on her body,” the Daily Telegraph reports. With 250 Israelis dead, graphic footage on social media, hostages seized and Hamas terrorists smashing and paragliding their way into Israel itself, the country’s government and security services, having apparently been blindsided, will now respond to public outrage and, perhaps, to extremist forces within Israel itself.
“I say to the residents of Gaza: leave now because we will operate forcefully everywhere,” Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday. Hamas’ surprise attack may spell the end for the country’s great political survivor, as the Yom Kippur war brought about the collapse of Israel’s old Labor establishment. But he won’t go without a new coalition government (probably) and a ground invasion of Gaza (almost certainly).
This takes us to the second consequence for Britain of Hamas’ terror assault. Not so long ago, the only Government department concerned with such an event would have been the Foreign Office. And, together with Number 10 and the security services, our diplomats will indeed try to assess what’s going on within Hamas, the extent of Iranian involvement and Hezbollah co-operation, and to what degree Hamas is aiming to destroy the Abraham Accords in its undoubted bid to reassert its prestige on “the Arab street”.
However, events in the Middle East are no longer Rishi Sunak and James Cleverly’s business only. For during the half century since the Yom Kippur war took place, conflict abroad has increasingly meant consequences here. The classic example, to which our media devotes far less attention than Israel-Palestine, is the tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
The two nuclear-armed powers have fought four wars since 1947, and the potential for communal strife in Britain is real – not least because, while hostilities over Kashmir have quietened, India itself has become more noisy, with the growth of Hindu nationalism mirroring that of Islamist extremism in Pakistan. For the potential of knock-on effects here, look no further than Leicester last year.
Yesterday, Britain’s three main political parties stood in solidarity with Israel, with Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrats’ foreign affairs spokesman, forced to denounce Hamas plainly. But if or when Israel’s ground begins – even before – this consensus will come under strain, as casualties begin to climb. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign isn’t waiting for Netanyahu to act: it’s planning protests outside the Israeli Embassy in London as early as tomorrow.
It would be wrong to suggest that only Arabs or Muslims support the Palestinian cause here in Britain. But activists in London, and Pakistani-Kashmiri origin Muslims elsewhere, will bring the most concentrated constituency pressure to bear – even if it’s less eye-catching than the people on the streets of Acton who, in the wake of yesterday’s atrocities, tooted their car horns and waved Palestinian flags.
Conservative MPs who hold seats with substantial numbers of Pakistani-Kashmiri constituents, especially some of the northern and midlands ones won in 2019, will come under constituency pressure to campaign against Israel. Sunak and Cleverly will take no notice, since the Parliamentary party, with the departure at the last election of some of its most senior Arabists, has become more visibly pro-Israel (and pro-India too, for that matter). Sir Keir Starmer is more exposed.
One of his main projects has been to restore Labour’s standing in the Jewish community after the damage to it of the Corbyn years. The coincidence of the party’s conference opening as hostilities between Israel and Hamas spiral is unhelpful to him. He won’t want noises off (let alone noises on) from constituency activists whose inclination, like those people in Acton, is to wave Palestinian flags.
There is already a to-do about an event planned for the conference fringe by Labour Friends of Palestine. Meanwhile, the BBC is being slated for not plainly referring to Hamas as terrorists, and for backing off showing footage of the worst atrocities. It will have been leaned on by the Government, in one form or other, not to broadcast the most graphic pictures – precisely because when casualties rise in the Middle East there are ramifications here.
Israeli military action in Gaza, with the civilian casualties that follow, see anti-semitic incidents spike here. “F*** the Jews… F*** all of them. F*** their mothers, f*** their daughters and show your support for Palestine. Rape their daughters and we have to send a message like that. Please do it for the poor children in Gaza,” men shouted from a convoy of cars driven in 2021 through parts of Finchley.
Much of Britain’s Muslim and Arab population isn’t glued to the BBC. (It will be interesting to see how GB News covers the conflict.) Rather, they are watching Al Jazeera and other channels based abroad, whose collective take on Hamas will sometimes be neutral and often supportive. If, that is, they aren’t getting their news from Hamas-generated social media clips.
The Department for Levelling Up leads on cohesion and the Home Office on policing. Michael Gove is one of Britain’s most pro-Israel politicians. But cohesion has a relatively low profile in the department, and some within government are sceptical of its ability to deliver much. “Covid and Grenfell have hollowed out much of the department’s integration one,” one source told me.
Another said that Ministers have few levers to pull. Suella Braverman’s responsibilities are more straightforward. She must ensure that the police are on the case and that incitement is prosecuted – while also ensuring that the Contest and Prevent strategies are not, as is sometimes the case, compromised and downgraded.