Israel-Hamas conflict: Home Secretary picks a side for the police

Like a weathercock in a storm, it is hard to tell which direction the Home Secretary will be pointing in next. At the start of September of this year, Suella Braverman commissioned a review into ‘activism and impartiality in the police’. A little over a month later, she had fired off a letter to all Chief Constables of England and Wales to ‘ensure the confidence and safety of our Jewish communities’, following the escalation of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Braverman’s letter to police chiefs is notable for several reasons, but most obviously for its complete failure to appreciate that the current situation may have a negative impact on anyone other than the Jewish population of the United Kingdom.

The letter does not contain the word ‘Gaza’, or make any reference to the possibility that the lives of any Gentiles have been, or will be, lost during the current and impending disaster. What it does do, though, is tell every Chief Constable that, for the purposes of policing, the terms ‘Palestine’ and ‘Palestinian’ should be regarded as synonymous with Hamas. In the United Kingdom, Hamas has been categorised as a proscribed organisation, which means that it is specifically labelled by Schedule 2 of the Terrorism Act 2000 as being ‘concerned in terrorism’. Hamas has existed, in some form or other, since 1987, and the United States labelled Hamas as terrorist in 1997, though it took a further 24 years for the UK to do the same, with the relevant amendment coming into force in November 2021.

Differentiation is not the Home Secretary’s strong suit. In her missive, she writes as though Jews and the Israeli administration should be considered as part of the same homogenous group. This cannot possibly help police to understand the difference between objecting to the conduct of the Netanyahu government and objecting to people because they are Jewish. Furthermore, she paints a picture of Palestinians and Palestinian sympathisers in the UK as belonging to a dangerous overseas detachment of Hamas. The language she has chosen with which to word this letter is astonishingly careless.


No ethno-religious blocs

There is far greater complexity to the current situation in the Middle East and its background than an article such as this could hope to get near the bottom of, but, as the Home Secretary is given to saying, context is important. In the United Kingdom, it must be pointed out that the numbers of Israelis, Jews, Arabs and Muslims is small, when expressed as a fraction of the whole. Given the volume of the response precipitated by the events of 7 October 2023, you might have thought that the Jewish population in these isles would be above half of one per cent, but that is how the Office for National Statistics puts it (in the House of Commons, this figure increases to over 3%).

While Muslims are reckoned to amount to 6.5% of the population, the 2021 census records the Arab population of England and Wales at 0.6% of the whole. More pertinent still, considering the Home Secretary’s letter was to all Chief Constables of England and Wales, are the locations represented by concentrations of such religious or ethnic groupings. The maps below show the areas in which higher ratios of those reporting as Jewish or Muslim are to be found in England and Wales. Census data from 2021 says that Hertsmere and Barnet have populations which are 17% and 14.5% Jewish, respectively, while Tower Hamlets and Blackburn have Muslim populations of 39.9% and 35%, respectively.

These sorts of statistics are endlessly confusing. They cannot tell us—or the police—which Arabs are Muslim and which Arabs are Christian, just as they are not a means for determining whether an Israeli in Britain is a Jew, a Christian or an ethnically Arab Muslim. Putting the figures to one side, what is rather more obvious, and will be well-known to police, is which areas have a higher likelihood than others of playing host to religious and ethnic tensions.

Mapping the Muslim and Jewish populations of England and Wales - ONS

Mapping the Muslim and Jewish populations of England and Wales - ONS

On 7 October 2023, the British Government leapt, instantly, into a position of unconditional support for the Government of Israel and, by extension, any action it saw fit to take in the name of self-defence. There was scarcely a reference to peace, reconciliation or the humanitarian considerations for people of all nationalities, religions and ethnicities affected by the events. The south façade of 10 Downing Street was lit up by a projection of the Israeli flag (shown below) and a fatuous message on Twitter, or X, declared that the residents ‘stand with’ a tiny picture of the same flag. Of course, the Slavic people of Russia and Ukraine have been used as the warm-up act for this kind of reactionary and irresponsible one-sidedness, and it is by no means limited to the words and deeds of the British Government. The principles of impartiality and neutrality have been subjected to a grand defenestration.

Even the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Team cannot help themselves. War crimes, just like any other criminal offence, may be committed by any party during a period of conflict, non-combatants included. The webpage encouraging the public to provide evidence of such crimes refers to ‘the ugly anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’, which makes the type of evidence sought pretty clear. This summer, the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (AELTC) banned, from the grounds at Wimbledon, any article linked to the Russian or Belarusian nationalities. Due to the strength of the prevailing narrative, no official was able to perceive this as a flagrant breach of the 1965 Race Relations Act, which states: 

It shall be unlawful for any person, being the proprietor or manager of or employed for the purposes of any place of public resort to which this section applies, to practice discrimination on the ground of colour, race or ethnic or national origins against persons seeking access to or facilities or services at that place.

As an aside, Wimbledon no longer accepts payments by cash.

Israeli flag on Downing Street

A partisan projection?

Just as Braverman expressed no hint of understanding the domestic dynamics or demographics of those at risk of reprisals on British soil, it looks like the dog got to her homework on the Israeli and Palestinian territories, too. The most recent data suggests that as much as a quarter of all Israeli nationals are Arabs and not Jews. For the region in its entirety, the Times of Israel cited a study only last year which reckons that numbers of Jews and Arabs are more or less equal. To complicate the picture further, those Arabs in the region may be Muslim or Christian. Ownership of particular statistics does appear to have a bearing upon what they suggest, but the fact that none of them points towards homogeneity is something beyond the ken of the Home Secretary.

With this in mind, it should seem perfectly extraordinary that her October letter contains such sentences as this: 

I am aware that a number of police forces, working in close coordination with the Community Security Trust (CST) and other Jewish communal bodies, have already taken operational measures to strengthen the security of Jewish communities, including through increased patrols in neighbourhoods with large Jewish populations.

If there is to be a backlash against what Braverman describes as ‘the barbaric terrorist attacks we’ve seen committed against Israel’, it stands to reason that those with Palestinian associations should be considered as being at risk.


Tarring all with the same brush

In an interview with Sky News on 30 October 2023, the Home Secretary refers to the Hamas attack as being a ‘massacre of Jewish people’. She does not use the word ‘Israeli’ and she does not seem to consider it possible that anybody not of the Jewish faith could have been killed. This seems an odd way to set the scene, though she ploughs on, apparently delving inside the minds of those involved in what she has called ‘hate marches’. Without evidence of any sort, she says that people protesting are ‘chanting for the erasure of Israel from the map’. The chant she refers to is, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’. She cannot possibly know what is inside the mind of each individual chanting such a thing, and less still claim to know their intent. However, this has not stopped her from slamming down the antisemitism card, breaking all four table legs in the process. Remarkably, she follows this up by reminding the viewer that the police are ‘operationally independent’.

In her aforementioned letter, Braverman has bolstered her rhetoric thus:

Behaviours that are legitimate in some circumstances, for example the waving of a Palestinian flag, may not be legitimate such as when intended to glorify acts of terrorism.

If the Government does have a cohesive policy on flags and their display, it would make for an interesting read. The Prime Minister may emblazon his rent-free accommodation with the flag of Israel after pledging his support to Benjamin Netanyahu, a man who said:

We return fire of a magnitude that the enemy has not known. The enemy will pay an unprecedented price.

Netanyahu’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, went a few steps further, in saying:

We are imposing a complete siege on Gaza. There will be no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel. Everything will be closed. We are fighting against human animals and we are acting accordingly.

Such remarks have prompted the quoting of a flush of articles and clauses of international and humanitarian law, in order to legitimise unmitigated aggression under the banner of self-defence. It is, though, rare for a legislature to write into law that which will tie the arms of the executive behind its back. So, it should come as no surprise that the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute are all a bit hazy when it comes to getting your own back.

The Government, being well-practised in the art of cherry-picking, has managed to ignore the parts of the UN Charter, such as Article 33, which states:

The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.

Instead, Dame Barbara Woodward, British Ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council that the United Kingdom would not vote for a ceasefire, owing to the UK’s support for ‘Israel’s inherent right to self-defence in line with the UN Charter after Hamas’ attacks killed over 1,400 people and took almost 200 people hostage.’ It is as though she has a scorecard in the pocket of her umpire’s coat.

On the matter of scorekeeping, the word ‘peace’ occurs 50 times in the text of the UN Charter and ‘self-defence’ only once, in Article 51, which states:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.

How better to illustrate the springboard into instant stalemate that Article 51 provides? The Security Council is, at once, rendered powerless and pointless by its own membership, granting free rein to the specific design of any such ‘individual or collective self-defence’.

There is, at least, consistency in the message coming from Westminster, which is to consider that Israel is only inhabited by Jewish people, that Israel must be supported without qualification, and that the only people liable to be affected in the United Kingdom are Jewish. Had the Home Secretary considered there to be a threat to the Arab population in this country, she could have applauded any coordination between police and Arab organisations, just as she has the joint patrols with the Community Security Trust (CST).

The CST receives an average of almost £15 million per annum from Government grants—approximately £55 per British Jew—which represents well over half of its annual income. It does not list its trustees on the Charity Commission website, but describes among its activities as ‘physical security, training and advice for the protection of British Jews, assists victims of antisemitism, monitors antisemitic activities and incidents’. How would government-sponsored training to preserve the ‘physical security’ of other faiths be regarded by the general public?


Blanket assumptions

Any decent contortionist would be proud of the positions held by the Home Office. Suella Braverman has briefed Chief Constables, in the strongest terms, to pursue the faintest whiff of antisemitism, in order that Israel’s right to self-defence is not compromised. Barely a month prior, she ‘set out her expectation that the police should focus on tackling crime, rather than being involved in political matters’ by commissioning the review into police impartiality. In fact, in her letter to Andy Cooke, His Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC), she asserts ‘that when officers adopt or participate in political or social campaigns, for example, by taking the knee, they risk losing the support of the public’.

On this matter, she is quite right. The problem is that she has set out her stall in such a way that it looks like she is swinging for Israel and for the Jewish community, no matter what, and to the exclusion of other affected parties. As Home Secretary, she holds office in a government which is resolutely committed to the avoidance of peace in the Middle East, just as it has been in Ukraine. She can write all she likes about her concerns over ‘the extent to which involvement in such activities may be impacting on the effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy of operational policing’, but once she has eaten her cake, she will no longer have it.

On the issue of the legitimacy of policing activities, it is worth considering what this really means. Blackstone’s Handbook for Policing Students reminds the reader that: 

The existence of police authority requires individual to willingly sacrifice a degree of personal freedom and liberty in order to secure a greater degree of collective freedom and liberty.

The trouble is, people have very different perspectives on the specific degree of personal freedom to be sacrificed and, indeed, on the very notion of collective freedom. Since 2020 in particular, in the United Kingdom and many parts of the world, the state, its ancillary organisations and controlling influences have taken actions which have upset the precarious balance between individual and collective freedoms. Much more than that, though, they have sought to demonise and degrade those who have objected to the rampant incursions upon personal liberty, even designing laws with which to punish such people. The maximum tariff for a ‘failure to wear face covering as required’ was £6,400, even though nobody was obliged to wear one, due to the cover-all exemption clause ‘to avoid the risk of harm or injury to yourself or others’.

Blackstone’s goes on to cite the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who believed that ‘the existence of any authority is preferable to none at all’. What Hobbes would have said about having to remain inside his own home for 23 hours of every 24 will remain forever a mystery, but at least—hypothetically speaking—he would have had plenty of time to think about it. We should never forget that it took from 1785 until 1829 before the Police Bill was finally dragged through Parliament in order that it may receive royal assent as the Metropolitan Police Act. The words of the introductory text appear to apply as much today as they did 200 years ago: 

[. . .] police have been found inadequate to the prevention and detection of crime, by reason of the frequent unfitness of the individuals employed, the insufficiency of their number, the limited sphere of their authority, and their want of connection and co-operation with each other.

The introductory text from the Metropolitan Police Act 1829

The introductory text from the Metropolitan Police Act 1829

More recently, the House of Commons Library wrote a Briefing Paper on Policing in the UK, which goes into greater detail on the independence that police are supposed to have. At the individual level, this document from 2021 states that:

Police officers receive training and guidance on the lawful and effective use of their powers and authority, but ultimately, they have discretion to make decisions. As ‘office holders’ they are personally responsible for their decision making.

Meanwhile, the Policing Protocol Order 2011 makes very clear that which is within the remit of the Chief Constable. Particular attention should be drawn to subsection (d) of section 33, which states that a Chief Constable has ‘total discretion to investigate or require an investigation into crimes or individuals as he sees fit’.

How does a politician tell someone that has made a career of policing how to ensure that ‘communities feel protected’, or to practice ‘increased visibility of patrols, as well as a swift and zero tolerance approach to antisemitism’, without encroaching on their operational independence? The Police Act 1996 does confer powers upon the Home Secretary, in an extremely limited sense, to ‘issue directions requiring local policing bodies take specified measures to address their own failure’; but it would take a remarkably liberal interpretation of such powers to consider her intervention justified on this basis.


Directing the police

This particular Home Secretary has form when it comes to making strident remarks in terms that suggest they were her ideas in the first place. A previous letter to the Chief Constables, written on 1 September 2023, is packed with phrases of echoing emptiness, none more so than that ‘it is worth remembering that silent prayer, in itself, is not unlawful’. At no point did the controversy surrounding the ridiculous provisions of some Public Spaces Protection Orders ever get as far as to suggest that silent prayer, in itself, was unlawful.

In the discipline of ‘taking actions or making statements which make it appear that you hold a strong position on such and such an issue when you do not’, Suella Braverman holds a black belt. It was Peter Hitchens that said this, not about the Home Secretary, but more generally of government ministers, during an interview with Laura Dodsworth.

Matters that a Home Secretary may not meddle in

Matters that a Home Secretary may not meddle in

Drawing attention to hollow hyperbole or political overreach into the policing arena does not get police off the hook. There is absolutely no doubt that police forces up and down the land are not managing their core business in an appropriate or effective manner, and the results of HMIC’s review may yet be worth reading. Sir Mark Rowley, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, was rather led into suggesting that his constables are stymied by gaps in legislation that deals with ‘extremism’, when interviewed by Trevor Phillips recently. When this was put to Suella Braverman, she countered by citing the Government’s tailoring of legislation to deal with those ferocious Just Stop Oil protestors, as if to suggest they can make up some new stuff for the latest gang of troublemakers.

Both Rowley and Braverman are speaking through their hats. ‘Extremism’ as a word does occur only very infrequently on the statute book, but this does not mean that criminal behaviour exhibited by someone that may be called an ‘extremist’ somehow falls through the cracks. There was no need for new laws just to stop Just Stop Oil, and there is certainly no need for new laws to deal with any of the behaviours that have taken place in relation to the current conflict in Israel and Palestine.

Rowley himself has shown that he is not immune to picking language of dubious quality, either. Into his discussion with Trevor Phillips he tossed the suggestion that the difficulties associated with policing the shockwaves from the Middle East are heightened by the ‘state threat from Iran’. This supposed intelligence appears to have come from a remark made by the head of the Security Service (MI5); the sort of thing he might have said as he pulled on his coat whilst leaving a drinks party. MI5 director general Ken McCallum has been quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying:

Plainly, events in the Middle East sharpen the possibility that Iran might decide to move into new directions. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that could include the UK, but we are already operating at a high level of Iran-generated threat.

This may win a prize for ambiguity, but it should not form the backbone of something which Mark Rowley stated as fact and Trevor Phillips left unchallenged.

More to the point, during the great scramble to be seen to be picking the right side, the perceived level of threat of a terrorist incident occurring in the UK has remained at SUBSTANTIAL throughout. Not nearly enough attention has been paid to detail by either the Home Secretary or by the man responsible for dealing with the lion’s share of the current unrest.

The actions and words of those in politics and policing since 7 October 2023 have fallen well short of what we should expect from those who are paid by the purse of the public they serve. The messages carried from the media to the masses have been similarly bereft of nuance, and the result has been the emanation of unfounded viciousness; on all ‘sides’. The pursuit of peace in Israel and Palestine, by peaceful means, should be the focus of any government intervention. The Home Secretary’s partisan hectoring of the Chief Constables will only help speed us back into the pages of Hobbes’s Leviathan, with the anarchic state of nature being one of ‘continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.


Main article image: London march in solidarity with Gaza by Dr Iain Overton @iainoverton