For those in Palestine, it can sometimes seem like the Palestinian cause has been abandoned by the international community. Little pressure is put on Israel to change, even when its policies, particularly settlement building, as well as the recent bombardment of Gaza, come under intense criticism. As a UK volunteer in Palestine, I feel that the stance of my own government toward this issue is one of deep neglect, and unfortunately one led by our interest in maintaining our relationship with America. However it’s important for me and my fellow volunteers from the UK that Palestinians are aware that the views of the UK government certainly do not reflect the views of many UK people. Even if nothing appears to have changed, momentum and pressure is building in the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, and there is real promise the public opinion of British people is shifting towards the Palestinian people.
The bombardment of Gaza in 2014 brought intense scrutiny to the policies of Israel towards Palestine. And while the official position of the UK government remained the same, there was more disharmony in the UK government than ever before. The most dramatic sign of discontent was the resignation of Foreign Office minister, Sayeeda Warsi. In a statement following her dramatic departure from the government, Lady Warsi said in a statement that the government’s “approach and language during the current crisis in Gaza is morally indefensible, is not in Britain’s national interest and will have a long term detrimental impact on our reputation internationally and domestically”. She added that the UK’s stance was “not consistent with the rule of law and our long support for international justice”. In a sign of further disharmony, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, urged an immediate suspension of arms export licenses to Israel, saying Israel had breached the conditions of arms deals by bombarding civilians in Gaza. It was later announced that many export licenses were under review because of this situation, and that if a Gaza ceasefire was breached by Israel, many licenses would be suspended. This was the most serious government disagreement about Israel’s military actions within the UK government to date, and demonstrates a substantial shift in opinion. Progress may be glacially slow on this issue, but things are moving.
The viewpoints of British people are also shifting in favour of the Palestinian cause. An August 5th 2014 survey by Yougov suggested “British public opinion has moved significantly towards the Palestinians over the past month” (the time of the bombardment of Gaza). 25% of British people in this survey said their sympathy lay with the Palestinians, while just 12% said the Israelis. This represents a significant change in Britain, and an all-time high for public sympathy with Palestine, and an all-time low for pro-Israeli sentiment. Amongst the Labour Party, one of Britain’s two largest political parties, 41% are sympathetic towards Palestinians, compared to just 26% a month earlier, and even the right-wing Conservative party saw an 8% increase in sympathy for the Palestinians. However 36% of British people, the largest group of those surveyed, said they weren’t sure, demonstrating a lack of public knowledge of this issue that it is crucial for campaigners in the UK to address if they are to continue petitioning the government. Crucially, however, 62% of the British public believe that Israel committed war crimes during the Gaza bombardment. Younger voters are also significantly more sympathetic to Palestine than older voters, also demonstrating the shift in opinion across generations.
Large-scale protests were also held across the world during the Gaza bombardment. In London, there were weekly protests throughout the bombardment, the largest involving an estimated 100,000 people, including many British Muslims and Jews. While there were examples of very minor violence from a tiny minority of protestors, the protests were largely peaceful. Across the UK there were also demonstrations in Manchester, Edinburgh and Dublin. Protests also took place across the world, including the largest post-apartheid demonstration South Africa has ever seen, attended by more than 50,000 people. The Disasters Emergency Committee, an emergency response group consisting of a diverse group of UK charities, raised more than £4.2 million pounds (₪24.6 million) in just 24 hours from a public appeal for donations.
I was one of the protesters present at the march, and was amazed by the solidarity and peacefulness of the protestors from many different backgrounds. There are many challenges that we still face in the UK in order to get our government to change its position, but I am heartened by the shifting of public opinion. In perhaps the most encouraging sign yet, a vote in the UK Parliament to recognise the state of Palestine passed in a landslide, with 274 voting in favour to just 12 against. While this vote is symbolic, and will not change UK policy, it is the surest sign yet that slowly, but surely, the UK public and government are moving towards a fresh outlook towards the Palestinian struggle.