The Terrorism Act, passed under Labour, is unrelentingly written. The Home Secretary may proscribe an organisation if he believes it is concerned in terrorism. Proscription not only makes it a criminal offence to belong to a proscribed organisation: expressing opinions supportive of one, inviting support for one (including moral support), arranging meetings supportive of one (and addressing them), and wearing clothes or displaying images “in such a way or in such circumstances as to arouse reasonable suspicion that the individual is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation” – all are also offences.
It is impossible to eradicate all support for terrorist organisations in a country of some 60 million people. But the problem has, thankfully, been a small-scale one – at least until now. Though a proportion of the Irish-origin population backed the IRA during its campaign, support for it was seldom publicly expressed, and tended to ebb during the worst of its atrocities, such as the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing. The most authoritative polling of British Muslims found support for terror at two per cent as ISIS waxed and Al Qaeda waned.
Those more consensual times may be ending very suddenly. Context is everything. Spraying “Free Palestine” is one thing in, say, Forest Green, when terrorism in Israel is in remission; doing so in Golders Green while it is rampant is quite another. The first might simply show support for the Palestinian cause, which is legitimate and lawful. The second can only be read as backing for Hamas’ massacre of some 250 people at the Supernova music festival, and its other atrocities this week, plus the kidnapping of over 100 hostages.
And Hamas is proscribed under the terms of the Act. But the problem runs wider than intimidating graffiti, or even vandalism targeted at Jewish property (though it may be that damage in a kosher restaurant in London on Sunday was done during a burglary). It threatens public order and public safety.
In Kensington yesterday evening, fireworks were directed at Israel’s Embassy, in imitation of Hamas’ rockets. Hundreds of demonstrators brought the area to a standstill at an event organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. There were chants of “Allahu akhbar” and “Free Palestine” – in the context, of course, of this week’s events. The problem should be seen in proportion. The crowd at yesterday’s pro-Israel rally near Downing Street, where pictures of hostages were displayed, seem to have been larger, and was addressed by politicians, which the Kensington protest was not.
Nonetheless, some at that protest, together with others recently in Manchester, Birmingham and elsewhere, were evidently demonstrating support for Hamas. Sometimes, it’s explicit – at public events or, more often, on social media. Who was the speaker at a rally in Brighton who on Sunday described Hamas’ terror as “beautiful and inspiring”? Has she been identified, arrested and charged – and if not, why not? What about the student Palestine Society, which wrote on Instagram: “the Palestinian people have the right to resist occupation by any means necessary”?
It would be a mistake simply to identify support for Hamas with British Muslims. Some are strongly opposed to it, while many non-Muslims are vehemently supportive. But this simply demonstrates the potential scale of the problem. Backing for Hamas and Hezbollah runs in an arc from the adolescent left (pro-trans, pro-sexual freedom, pro-drug liberalisation) to the Islamist right (anti all of the previous, and pro pre-modern law). This alliance of convenience may be incoherent – united only by its hatred of western liberalism – but it adds up to a number that must run to tens of thousands. At the most conservative of estimates.
The challenge is scarcely new. There are reports that a Jewish school in London has advised its pupils not to wear their school blazers in public. But such schools have required extra fencing, gates and CCTV for many years. The Community Security Trust recorded 2,261 antisemitic incidents in 2021 – “a record high sparked by antisemitic reactions to the conflict in the Middle East that year”. “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,” men shouted that year from a convoy of cars driven in 2021 through parts of Finchley. There is no reason to believe that the total will be lower in current circumstances.
Suella Braverman has urged the police to use the full force of the law to crack down on support for Hamas. The Met says that it will increase the number of officers on the streets. But there is evidently a gap between what the law says and how it is enforced. So what should the state do when lots of people support a terrorist organisation? Here are five principles to steer by.