Israel-Gaza conflict risk to social cohesion in UK, report warns

Government adviser Dame Sara Khan calls for new department to strengthen ‘democratic resilience’


Demonstrators on a National Day of Action for Palestine in London earlier this month (AFP via Getty Images)

A new report on social cohesion in the UK has highlighted the divisive spillover from the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Dame Sara Khan, the independent adviser to the government on social cohesion and resilience, said a lack of a strategic approach nationally reduced the ability to “better prevent, manage and de-escalate tensions before they erupt”.

In her 150-page report, Dame Sara said the recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East was a “stark reminder” of how international events could “feed polarisation and division on our streets”.

The 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas had triggered a “wave of antisemitic and anti-Muslim hatred” and had been “exploited by both far-right and Islamist extremists stoke to further divisions”, she said.

But fears that the situation would worsen without a strategy to deal with it have since been realised, she argued.

“The attacks by Hamas on October 7 2023 and the continuing Israeli bombing of Gaza have fuelled concerning levels of hatred, radicalisation, community tensions and outbreaks of unrest in Britain,” she said.

Further concerns had been raised about “a growing climate of intimidation and censorship among all sides,” she said.

While polling had indicated that 69 per cent of British Jews report being less likely to display visible signs of Judaism, other people shared “their fear of being smeared and falsely accused of antisemitism if they criticised the actions of the Israeli government in Gaza”.

Although children wanted to discuss the topic in schools, many teachers felt ill-equipped to talk about it and some schools were “closing down any legitimate dialogue” about the conflict, “which has the potential to further fuel anger, hate and polarisation”.

Disinformation on social media had been prominent, she said, “with widespread

accounts seeking to undermine the violence inflicted against Israeli citizens, and videos

falsely suggesting Palestinians were faking their injuries”.

The Metropolitan Police’s Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist had warned of disinformation being deliberately created in the UK “to fuel hate and polarisation”.

Dame Sara also wrote, “Calling out the hateful chants that have manifested in some protests and arresting those engaged in criminality, for example, is rightly needed, however, brandishing what the Metropolitan Police called largely peaceful protests as ‘hate marches’ risks alienating moderate voices and undermining cohesion.”

The public believed that extreme views on the conflict were “drowning out moderate voices”.

She cited the example of one Met officer policing a Palestine Solidarity Campaign march earlier this year who had been unaware that a “boycott Israeli apartheid” sticker had been put on his arm. Although he had removed it when made aware by a member of the public, a photo of the sticker on him had been uploaded to “a Jewish organisation’s Twitter account which questioned the officer’s impartiality. This led to significant

online commentary including personal criticism and abuse of the officer.”

People were “actively trying to find out who he was, where he lived and threats were made against him. People were demanding the officer should be sacked and claimed that he was a ‘fifth column.’ The original tweet was later deleted but before it was it had received in excess of 8 million views,” she wrote.

In another section of the report – entitled Threats to Social Cohesion and Democratic Resilience — Dame Sara reported being told by a Muslim woman “how she was fearful of sharing the fact that she had attended an interfaith event held by the Chief Rabbi because she had previously experienced harassment and abuse from Muslim fundamentalists and extremists.”

Dame Sara, who is calling for the creation of a government department to promote cohesion, said there was a “continuing failure to tackle the deliberate and harmful activity of far-right, Islamist and other extremists who while stopping short of encouraging terrorism, are undermining social cohesion and targeting individuals”.

Unlike high-risk threats such as terrorism, she observed, “many of these cohesion threats are chronic, insidious and sit below the radar where they are not assessed, measured or even fully understood”.

She also noted that the government had so far failed to act on its promise to strengthen enforcement of independent schools or give Ofsted more powers to tackle unregistered schools.

Meanwhile, the Campaign Against Antisemitism has announced the launch of a billboard campaign to highlight the impact of antisemitism on the lives of British Jews.

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