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Analysis | The UK Is Awaiting More Difficult Tests on Israel and Gaza

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    As an advertisement for a successful multi-faith, multi-ethnic society, the memorial service on Tuesday held at St. Margaret’s Westminster for Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s tax-cutting chancellor, was little short of a triumph.

    In Parliament’s parish church, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gave the address for Lawson, a prominent Jew and an “adamantine” atheist, who cherished venerable British institutions like the established Anglican church. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a practicing Hindu, also gave a eulogy from the pulpit. Sitting in the congregation not far from me was his predecessor as chancellor Sajid Javid, who is Muslim.  

    That is the British way. The UK establishment congratulates itself for being the most inclusive and diverse in the western world. But as the death toll mounts in Israel and Gaza, tensions between religious and ethnic communities will rise. This war will put British institutions and society — as well as those across Europe — through a stress test. The controversy generated by the bombing of the al-Ahli Gaza hospital in Gaza is a harbinger of divisions to come.

    The prime minister aims to bring moral clarity to the conflict. No. 10 fears that people will forget why the fighting started once the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) take the offensive. Sunak will remind voters how an avowedly antisemitic terrorist organization, Hamas, set out to derail peace efforts in the Middle East by slaughtering Israeli civilians en masse. The hospital bombing has prompted Sunak to use his bully pulpit to make a clear distinction between the two sides: The IDF protects Israeli citizens, whereas Hamas uses ordinary Palestinians in Gaza to protect itself by embedding its military within civilian structures.

    The prime minister is also warning the media not to rush to judgment and risk inflaming ethnic tensions. Careless talk costs lives, as they say in wartime. Although Sunak’s ministerial colleagues have cried wolf far too often about alleged BBC bias, this time criticism of the corporation is justified.

    The BBC has a global reputation for objective coverage earned over many decades and a fine record for promoting harmony at home. Its policy of referring to Hamas fighters as “militants” not terrorists is, however, contested. Although Hamas is designated as a “terrorist” organization in British law, the BBC doesn’t like to use such value judgments in its day-to-day reporting. Other UK independent television companies agree. But when the news of the al-Ahili hospital bombing first broke, the BBC news team should have hit the pause button. Were the IDF to blame or was the strike a misfire by Islamic Jihad, another Gaza based terrorist organization? How many casualties were there?

    The fog of war can be very thick. Yet the BBC’s 24-hour news channel declared within hours that, “It’s hard to see what else this could be, really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli air strike, or several air strikes.” Social media amplified this report and another questionable claim on the main evening bulletin, inflaming Arab opinion. Ministers briefed the newspapers that the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Jordan aborted their meeting with President Joe Biden partly in response to this narrative. 

    A number of military experts outside Israel and the US — and even film footage broadcast by the Arab news service Al-Jazeera — called the BBC’s judgment into question. They say the evidence points to a misfiring Islamic Jihad missile. In the face of criticism, the BBC “clarified” its coverage of the story some 48 hours later.  

    Following the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, the UK police have also been criticized for their failure to arrest demonstrators who chanted bloodthirsty slogans in support of Hamas outside the Israeli embassy. The police were initially slow to react, unfamiliar with the flags and iconography of the terrorist group. At demonstrations last weekend, they showed greater vigilance. All the same, three Jewish schools shut their doors temporarily for fear of intimidation.

    The authorities are clearly alarmed by the prospect of domestic “blow back.” Ken McCallum, head of the domestic intelligence service MI5, has warned that UK-based Islamists are likely to mount lone-wolf terror operations. He also revealed that the UK foiled 15 terror plots linked to Iran, Hamas’s sponsor, last year.

    Sunak’s Tories have been firm supporters of Israel since Thatcher. Labour’s Keir Starmer has the harder task. According to pollster YouGov, Labour has the lowest percentage of those more sympathetic to Israel than to Palestinians among all three major parties. British Muslims overwhelmingly vote Labour.

    At his party’s conference in Liverpool, Starmer firmly condemned Hamas terrorism and backed Israel’s right to defend itself. In a radio interview, Labour’s leader this week condoned Israel’s decision to cut water and power to Gaza, although he reiterated that Israel must also abide by international law. That 40-second sound bite — which didn’t include his clearly expressed sympathy for the plight of ordinary Palestinians — caused a furore on social media.

    Thirteen Muslim local councillors promptly resigned the Labour whip and quit the party. Many others have threatened to follow suit. Shadow cabinet ministers with large Muslim minority constituencies have expressed their concerns to their leader. The shadow of the second Iraq war looms over Labour. Tony Blair’s support for the American invasion helped cost him his job. The party’s left-wing has called for an immediate ceasefire — which in practice means calling on Israel not to retaliate against the mass murder of Oct. 7. 

    Starmer has the political capital to see off his left-wing opponents — he is on course to be the UK’s next prime minister after two thumping by-election victories over the Tories on Thursday. But sterner tests await him in keeping both the Jewish and Muslim communities on board. This war still has a long way to run.

    More From Bloomberg Opinion:

    • Crypto Is a Small Slice of Hamas’ Funding — But It’s Deadly: Lionel Laurent

    • Gaza Hospital Tragedy Escalates War Risk, No Matter Who’s to Blame: Marc Champion

    • Biden Lights the Beacon, for Israel, Ukraine and the World: Andreas Kluth

    This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its chief political commentator.

    More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

    ©2023 Bloomberg L.P.


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