Rishi Sunak has voiced “unequivocal” UK support for Israel “not just today, not just tomorrow, but always” in a lengthy statement to mark one week since Hamas militants murdered 1,300 Israeli civilians and soldiers, and took more than 150 people hostage. The prime minister’s remarks – in which he makes no mention of the plight of innocent Palestinians now trapped in Gaza, or the need for their safe evacuation – come amid growing political tensions in the UK over how to respond to Israel’s retaliatory bombing of Gaza, and its orders to more than 1 million Palestinians to flee their homes for their own safety.
Senior Labour figures believe the Conservatives are deliberately trying to paint them as less supportive of Israel, and to suggest that some on the left of the party are somehow sympathetic to Hamas and antisemitic, because they are pro-Palestinian.
“They are definitely trying to play politics with us,” said one senior figure, who suggested the Tories wanted to reopen divisions within Labour over support for Israel and issues around antisemitism.
In his 300-word statement, Sunak tells the Israeli people and the Jewish community in the UK that they will have his government’s unstinting, unqualified support in the face of evil, and that it will do everything in its power to address a surge in antisemitism cases over the past week.
“I know that the days and weeks ahead will continue to be very difficult. To the people of Israel, I say: Britain is with you. What took place was an act of pure evil and Israel has every right to defend itself. We will do everything we can to support Israel in restoring the security it deserves,” the prime minister says.
“To our Jewish community in the UK: I know you are hurting and reeling from these vile terrorist acts. At moments like this, when Jewish people are under attack in their homeland, Jewish people everywhere can feel less safe. We’ve seen intimidating behaviour and shameful antisemitism online and on our streets with attempts to stir up tensions. I say: not here. Not in Britain. Not in our country. Not in this century. We will do everything we possibly can to protect Jewish people in our country. And if anything is standing in the way of keeping the Jewish community safe, we will fix it.”
Sunak’s approach, avoiding any reference to Palestinians in Gaza, where yesterday women and children were killed as they were trying to flee, contrasts with that of the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who has stressed that while Israel has the “right, indeed obligation to defend itself … how Israel does this matters”.
Blinken reiterated his calls for the protection of civilians in both the Gaza Strip and Israel as the Israeli military ordered half of the Palestinian territory’s population to evacuate in advance of an expected ground assault.
Blinken met his Saudi Arabian counterpart in Riyadh yesterday as he began a third day of intense Middle East diplomacy aimed at preventing the Israel-Hamas war from expanding into a regional conflict and worsening the humanitarian crisis. Both stressed the importance of minimising the harm to civilians as Israel prepared for an anticipated incursion against Hamas.
Keir Starmer also released a statement to mark one week since the attack. “In the days that have followed we have heard horrific stories of the murder and mutilation of men, women and children, along with the horror of hostage taking,” he said. “Israel has the right, indeed the duty, to defend herself and rescue these hostages.”
But in contrast to Sunak, the Labour leader urged “all parties to act in line with international law, including allowing humanitarian access of food, water, electricity and medicines to Gaza and ensuring safe humanitarian corridors in Gaza for those fleeing violence.”
The Middle East conflict has created difficulties and challenges for Starmer, who prides himself on having adopted a “zero tolerance” approach to antisemitism since succeeding Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2019. Starmer has been at pains to express strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself but in doing so has angered some in his party.
In an LBC radio interview last week, he appeared to back Israel’s right to withhold power and water from Palestinian civilians, though he did say everything must be done within international law.
Seven Muslim Labour councillors in Leicester have now issued a statement demanding that Starmer retract and apologise for his remarks “otherwise he will be causing irreparable disillusionment towards Labour amongst the voting Muslim community in Leicester and across the country”.
The Observer has seen documents circulated by Labour’s high command ordering senior councillors and officials not to attend pro-Palestinian protests this weekend. The instructions state: “There will be a number of protests and demonstrations taking place over the weekend. Council leaders and group leaders must not under any circumstances attend any of these events.” The party’s general secretary has given similar instructions to constituency officials.
The conflict is also exposing Tory differences. Alicia Kearns, the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs select committee, has said that Israel has a “moral duty” to ensure that Palestinian civilians have access to water, electricity and medical treatment.
But the home secretary, Suella Braverman, suggested waving a Palestinian flag or singing a chant advocating freedom for Arabs may be a criminal offence.
“It is not just explicit pro-Hamas symbols and chants that are cause for concern. I would encourage police to consider whether chants such as: ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ should be understood as an expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world, and whether its use in certain contexts may amount to a racially aggravated section 5 public order offence,” Braverman said.