Government split over Gaza war 'line'

Inter-departmental dispute: David Miliband

Inter-departmental dispute: David Miliband

Two government departments have clashed over official policy on the last Gaza conflict.

The Foreign Office was forced to intervene to stop a Department for Communities and Local Government initiative to reassure the Muslim community that the British government did not support Israel’s actions in Gaza, the JC can reveal.

The DCLG, which is responsible for the government’s Prevent programme to tackle violent extremism, was keen to emphasise that the British government had serious reservations about Israel’s Cast Lead operation.

Foreign Office officials “stamped on” the idea, which was viewed as pandering to the Muslim community’s prejudices about Israel, according to a senior Foreign Office source.

The Foreign Office’s Islamic issues adviser, Mockbul Ali, is said to have led the opposition to the DCLG initiative. After canvassing opinion from Muslim leaders around the country, the FCO discovered that some wanted the government to recognise Hamas’s right to armed resistance. This move was also fiercely opposed by the Foreign Office.

Mr Ali is a controversial figure who was roundly criticised for recommending a visa for the Palestinian cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who supports suicide bombing of Israeli targets. However, he is now known in Muslim radical circles as “Nasser” after the Egyptian leader who turned against his former Islamist comrades in the Muslim Brotherhood.

An FCO spokeswoman told the JC: “Our lines on Gaza were very clear and had direct sign-off from the Foreign Secretary. It was important to have consistency and not give different lines to different communities. With something as sensitive as this we stamped on anything that had not been vetted through the Foreign Office press office.”

At the time of the conflict, the British government stuck to a line of calling for a ceasefire and urging restraint on both sides.

The DCLG told the JC that discussions took place with the Muslim and Jewish communities at the time of Gaza and letters were sent to the Board of Deputies and leading Muslims to calm potential tensions.

The news of the rift came as Communities Secretary John Denham outlined a significant shift in the government’s Prevent strategy in order to tackle criticism that it has stigmatised the Muslim community. In a speech to a national Prevent conference, Mr Denham recognised that the £140 million Prevent strategy faced opposition from all sides. “It has been criticised within some parts of Muslim communities. Criticised by parts of the civil liberties lobby. Criticised by those who say it is supporting the very forces that are part of the problem. Criticised both by those who say it is too soft, and by those who say it is too hard,” he said.

Although criticism in itself was no reason to shift policy, the Communities Secretary said a change in emphasis was now needed. In particular, he said that Prevent needed a new focus on extremist neo-fascist organisations.

“Any programme that is surrounded by suspicion or misunderstanding simply will not work,” he said. “Despite the significant progress that has been made in the first year of the programme, controversy, criticism and lack of clarity have unnecessarily limited its effectiveness.”

The Muslim Council of Britain welcomed Mr Denham’s speech. Muslim organisations have raised concerns that the Prevent programme has been used to encourage people to inform on potential extremists.

“The MCB welcomes Mr Denham’s commitment to widen the scope of the Prevent programme. However, the programme has flawed analytical underpinnings and many bodies, including those who took funding, are reporting that the programme is not working,” said a spokesman.

    Last updated: 3:39pm, December 10 2009