Israel, Palestine, and the Role of the Bystander: The View from London

Bring Them Home demonstration on Parliament Square 04

Since Hamas’ attacks against Israel on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent invasion of Gaza, London has been deeply affected. Grief, anger, and pain permeate the city which so many Muslims and Jews call their home. It has also shaken the British political system to its core, with both major parties divided, and asked questions about the UK’s role as a bystander to the horrors.

Underlying Tensions

The leaves have fallen in London, and half-forgotten Christmas lights still hang from the branches of the skeletal trees lining my street. The crisp, cold air and hustle-and-bustle of  tourists could seem a long way from the humanitarian disaster currently unfolding in the Middle East. However, there are small signs everywhere of its heavy presence: if you look closely at the bus stop, you’ll see posters calling for the return of Israeli hostages taken by Hamas, and if you stop under a lamppost, you’re likely to spot a ‘Free Palestine’ sticker or hastily scrawled graffiti. 

My corner of North London is a true melting pot; I am a stone’s throw from the North London Mosque as well as several large Hasidic Jewish communities. In some ways, the UK’s position in this conflict feels distinctly distant. The country is a former colonial power whose history of self-interest, broken promises, and blind drawing of borders is often cited as a cause of the conflict. Understandably, many no longer care what we have to say. On the other hand, it is deeply present — communities here are closely tied to the events happening in this conflict, and there is palpable tension. 

From Fear to Rage

The conflict is not just visible in posters and graffiti, but also in the treatment of individuals. At a Tube station recently, I witnessed a Hasidic Jew being harassed by a group of young men shouting “Palestine will be free.” When I asked him if he was alright, he smiled tiredly and said, “It’s okay, I’ve got used to it.” This is reflected in crime statistics: The Metropolitan Police say that there has been a 1,350% increase in hate crimes targeting Jewish people and that Islamophobic hate crimes are up 140%. London is a vibrant, multicultural, and multireligious city, but many now live with fear and anxiety about showing their faith.

This fear has also turned to anger. There have been regular protests in Central London calling for a ceasefire, with over 300,000 attending one march that took place on November 11. This provoked an angry counter-protest from the far right, with over one hundred arrested for aggressive and threatening behavior. In this way, the conflict between Israel and Hamas has become a new battleground for the ongoing culture wars in the UK, with violence on the streets of London indicative of the rising animosity. 

Politics Upturned 

These new divisions challenge the old Left-Right divide. Both of the UK’s major political parties, Labour and the Conservatives, struggle to know how to handle the crises and face internal discord. The divisive Conservative former Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, was forced to resign after calling those attending ceasefire protests “hate marchers.” Senior Labour Party opposition politicians have had to leave their positions after voting in favor of the UK calling for a ceasefire. Even more confusingly, the far-right is now marching in defense of Jews and is disrupting Remembrance Day events honoring veterans. This degree of polarization and anger, which too often descends into hatred and prejudice, is very dangerous. 

Social media activism has also played a role in this trend. Sites have seen a massive increase in infographics, tweets, and images relating to the conflict. Although messaging can be a helpful and heartfelt way of raising awareness of the suffering and gathering funds to alleviate it, social media can also be highly reductionist, extreme, and misinformation-laden. And oftentimes, it is those living relatively privileged lives in Western states whose posts are the most divisive and antagonistic. This turns social media, which can be a force for good, into a forum of blind rage and attacks. The reality is that this is a hugely complex conflict steeped in a long history that touches countless people’s lives. For this reason, now is a time for tact, understanding, and sensitivity. 

Sound and Fury

Unfortunately, politicians do not seem to understand this. Government and elected politicians can and should condemn both Hamas’s attacks and the nature of the Israeli response. Criticism of the way Israel is conducting its war does not necessarily equate to criticism of Israel as a state, Israelis as a people, or anti-Semitism. Equally, recognizing the horror of Hamas’ attack does not mean a lack of support for the Palestinian cause or a justification for the intensity of Israeli military violence. People are intelligent enough to hold these different ideas in their minds and to see that they are not all mutually exclusive. We need sensitivity and an understanding of how deeply and emotionally invested so many people worldwide are in this conflict, including in London. Empathy is vital. Politicians and the wider public have to understand the position of Jews in Britain and elsewhere, as well as the pressing and understandable fears they have. They also have to understand the generations of pain and suffering that the Palestinian people have faced and how that resonates with Arabs, Muslims, and many others worldwide.

Instead, politicians have sought to use the conflict to serve their interests. Most obviously, Suella Braverman used it as a way to appeal to right-wing voters by accusing the police of showing favorable treatment to pro-Palestinian protesters. This dangerous and wholly unfounded accusation of bias was done purely to help rile up her base as she potentially eyes up the leadership of the Conservative Party. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, and his senior team have been too nervous about losing their lead in opinion polls to make a clear statement. Instead, they have either refused to answer or bluntly asserted Israel’s right to self-defense without thoroughly condemning its war crimes

Political Silence

Most worryingly, the British Prime Minister has offered very little in response to the conflict. Rishi Sunak has maintained Britain’s “unequivocal support” for Israel while calling for “specific pauses” in the fighting and urging Israel to try to avoid killing civilians. This shows that Britian’s politicians are unwilling to stand up and offer either a critical voice on foreign affairs or reassurances at home. Tensions and rising enmity must be cooled, and we should start listening to each other and engaging in dialogue. Instead, most senior British politicians are undertaking a different strategy — they are largely silent, offering little leadership or visible compassion to all those suffering in the UK and abroad.

This is a reflection of modern Britain on the international stage. The post-Brexit promise was of a new “Global Britain,”one that would be deeply engaged in foreign affairs. This is yet to be fulfilled. Instead, the nation’s confidence has been knocked, and politicians no longer know where the country stands. Of course, the UK must recognize its limited power to influence the conflict in the Middle East, but nevertheless, it has a responsibility to help push for peace. Perhaps the country could finally live up to its fantasies by playing the “wise, elder statesman” role and leading the calls for a ceasefire and peace talks. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has now taken that stand, and it’s about time Britain followed suit. An end to the fighting is in nearly everyone’s long-term interests.

Fighting the Flames

At the moment, London feels like a tinderbox; the tensions, anger, and anxiety are simply waiting for a spark. Politicians have a responsibility to help combat this. Rhetoric has to be cooled, and politicians should talk honestly and empathetically to help bring communities back together. They should also have the moral courage to take a stand on the international stage. London’s multiculturalism and diversity is what makes it great, and our leaders should celebrate and defend this to ensure the city remains a safe place for Jews, Muslims, and everyone else who calls it home.

Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: “Bring Them Home” demonstration on Parliament Square supporting Israel after the Hamas massacre in the south of Israel, uploaded Oct 15, 2023 | Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons


Laurie is a student at King's College London in the United Kingdom studying history and international relations. He is a member of the YRIS international correspondents program in the 2023-2024 cohort. Laurie is an Applied History Fellow in the Center for Grand Strategy in the Department of War Studies at KCL, a graduate of the Kosovo International Summer Academy, and an editor for the KCL politics journal "Dialogue."