In our democracy, power is dispersed. Ministers don’t ban marches, launch prosecutions, run football or fully control the civil service. With the possible exception of the last, this dissemination of power is a good thing, at least when the country is at peace – protecting citizens and institutions from Ministerial overreach and tyrannical government.
Hamas could have opted for a hudna – a truce that, while not recognising Israel, at least allowed for moves towards normalisation: the granting of work permits in Israel, trade, a crackdown on Islamic Jihad, the relaxation of border controls, the realisation of Daniel Hannan’s dream of a prosperous, bourgeois Gaza. This is the path that western intelligence seems to have expected Hamas to take.
The horrors of its pogrom in Israel – complete with slaughter, atrocity and kidnappings – is a bloody reminder of a perennial truth: ideology matters. Hamas means the Islamic Resistance Movement. It has no interest in co-existence. It refuses to accept Israel’s legitimacy. And it maintains its goal of “liberating all Palestine” – “from the river to the sea”.
So when a crowd chants that slogan on Britain’s streets, it’s saying that Israel should be extinguished. When civilians slaughtered in Israel last week are described, in the word of a Yale professor, as “settlers”, the Islamist claim to the country is being legitimised – as are torture, rape and murder. “Free Palestine”, another catchphrase, means, to many, a Palestine free of Jews.
The police, who can ban marches; the CPS, which launches prosecutions; the Football Association, the game’s central authority in Britain; the civil service, government, local authorities, civil society – none of these are well placed to understand the nature of the threat that Hamas’ supporters in Britain pose to public order, the civil peace we take for granted, and the state’s authority.
The reasons for this incomprehension are both new and not-so-new. The new reason stems indirectly from woke (“the West must always be wrong, and Israel’s part of the West”), and more directly from a certain reading of diversity (which, in Rotherham, left the police unwilling to crack down on the grooming gangs and, in Batley, produced the de facto imposition of a blasphemy code).
The not-so-new reason is the presumption of decency: that I’m a reasonable person, you’re a reasonable person, and that we can settle for half a loaf each. Hamas comes from an unforgiving neighbourhood and has no interest in decency. Offer it half a loaf, and it will demand the rest. And then more.
A Hamas checkpoint in Sheffield demanding “donations”; Jewish schools closed for fear that their pupils will be assaulted; the celebration of known terrorists; the wearing of paraglider logos; open support for the terror attacks; crowds cheering invites to break the law; more support for terror (this time in Leicester)…Hamas is bidding for control of public space in order to dictate the terms of government policy.
Who controls the streets? The mob or the authorities? Last weekend, it looked more like the former than the latter to me. Who do most people think control the streets, as they glance at the news on TV, see a newspaper headline, or scroll through their feed on social media? I’m not sure.
Think next about where events are going. Sooner rather than later, Israel will send ground troops into Gaza. Civilian casualties will climb. Innocents will die (as well as terrorists). Hezbollah may open a second front. The West Bank could rise. Iran and America may be drawn in. There are implications for Ukraine, the world economy, and geopolitics.
Even if the worst doesn’t happen, Ministers must anticipate attacks on Jewish property and people, as Hamas’ media outlets claim genocide in Gaza, with anti-Muslim and mosque violence pari passu: there is no shortage of white working class alienation for English Defence League-type groups to draw on. There is a real risk of government not only losing control, but being seen to.
Rishi Sunak will make a statement to the Commons tomorrow. His immediate priority must be to ensure that the authorities control the streets and are seen to do so. Suella Braverman tells extremists that “the police are coming for you”. Really? How many arrests have there been? How many charged? How many people are the CPS preparing to prosecute for supporting Hamas on social media?
Next, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary must weigh up the arguments for and against banning Middle East-related marches altogether – along the line of France and Germany. There are arguments either way (free speech and enforcability lean one way, public order and safety the other). Some universities need reminding of their duty to ensure student safety.
Third, the Government should refresh Prevent, the counter-extremism plan, and CONTEST, its counter-terror strategy. This will entail it getting a grip on the civil service. Foreign Office officials complain that policy “is being totally driven by politicians”. The horror! At the Department of Health, Israel’s flag was put up and then removed. Ministers are “trying to get it back up again”. Who’s in charge?
Fourth, Sunak should prepare, in the event of violence against Jews, Muslims and others – with Hamas’ supporters pushing for more control of the streets – for an all-party and non-party campaign, featuring sports people, celebrities, “national treasures” (and so on) under the slogan: Not Here. The point being that whatever one’s view of the Middle East, violence in Britain is unacceptable.
Finally, he will need a Cabinet reshuffle, in the event of a deterioration in public order, that prioritises experience, departmental experience and grip. This is not a strong Cabinet – and the need for a stronger one may become urgent. He may even need to call in Sir Keir Starmer to show a united front. James Cleverly and David Lammy are already on the case.