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British public opinion shifts after latest Gaza war - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Volunteers sit in wooden boxes at Parliament Square, to represent living conditions in Gaza, during a protest in London, United Kingdom, on August 14, 2014. (Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

Volunteers sit in wooden boxes at Parliament Square, to represent living conditions in Gaza, during a protest in London, United Kingdom, on August 14, 2014. (Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—While the skies over Gaza have fallen silent, the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians for global public opinion continues as it has for the best part of a century.

In the UK, the recent fighting in Gaza has led to a small but noticeable “bump” in favor of the Palestinians, with an unprecedented wave of public sympathy for Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli forces.

During the 50 days of the conflict, tens of thousands of people took to Britain’s streets in solidarity with Gaza, Palestinian poetry was read on London’s subway system, and a cabinet minister quit over the government’s stance on the Israeli offensive. While none of these incidents were especially surprising—polls carried out over the past decade have consistently shown the British public to be slightly more sympathetic to the Palestinians than to the Israelis—the scale of support for Gaza suggested a significant adjustment in public opinion in favor of the Palestinian cause.

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab–British Understanding, said: “There are clear indications that British public opinion has shifted even closer to being more sympathetic to Palestinian rights.”

A poll conducted by market research firm YouGov on Day 27 of the conflict showed that the number of respondents siding with the Palestinians had risen to an all-time high of 30 percent (YouGov’s records began in 2003), while sympathies for the Israeli side had fallen to a low of 12 percent.

In early August, the UK’s ambassador to Israel warned that mainstream British public opinion was turning against Israel. “Support for Israel is starting to erode and that’s not about these people on the fringe who are shouting loudly and calling for boycotts and all the rest of it,” he told the Israeli broadcaster Channel 10.

His predictions rang true as many who took a pro-Palestinian stand did so for the first time. “There was a broad spectrum of support obviously from British Muslim communities and traditional supporters in the solidarity groups. But there were many fresh faces joining the marches and vigils,” said Doyle.

At a Gaza protest in London on July 19 one protestor tweeted: “The #Gaza march in London is ENORMOUS—a lot of ppl here are protesting for the first time [sic].”

According to the UK’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign, over 150,000 took to the streets of the British capital on August 9 in the biggest protest over violence in Gaza seen in the United Kingdom to date. During the Israeli offensives on the Gaza Strip in 2009 and 2012 the numbers were closer to 50,000 and 15,000 respectively.

“Even before the current assault on Gaza, public opinion polls have consistently showed support for Palestinian rights. But the scale of mobilization against Israel’s massacre in Gaza was incredible,” the director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Sarah Colborne, told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Even among the more traditional supporters, such as British Muslims, new trends emerged as more women and young people joined the fray. Jim Fitzpatrick, an MP for Poplar and Limehouse, a constituency in East London with a majority Bangladeshi Muslim population, said he was inundated with emails from constituents who had never contacted him before, expressing concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza. “This time around [there] was a significant increase in contact from constituents [compared] to anything I’ve seen in 17 years,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.

He said the reaction was “totally different” to that of the Gaza wars in 2009 and 2012, and even the Iraq war in 2003, when the emails he received numbered in the low hundreds. In contrast, he said he had received some 1,500 emails concerning Gaza in the last few weeks.

“Interestingly, for the Muslim community, a lot of the emails I was receiving were from women. It’s very unusual to have women contacting me in such large numbers,” he said. He also believes a large number of the young people who contacted him and fellow MPs were engaging with their representatives for the first time.

The reasons for such mass indignation appear to be rooted in both individual and collective outrage. British citizens from across the social spectrum were angered at the scale of death and destruction wrought on the Palestinian enclave. The United Nations said that of the 2,104 Palestinians killed in Gaza 1,462 were civilians. The figures dwarf previous death tolls: During Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, 167 Palestinians were killed, and 1,166 Palestinians died during the conflict in 2009.

“There is shock and outrage at what most people see as a disproportionate attack on Palestinian civilians,” said Doyle.

The channels through which this outrage was being aroused and harnessed were also relatively new. While there has been much debate over biased coverage on Gaza, with both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian camps accusing broadcasters of taking the other’s side, the influence of traditional media outlets appears to have been limited in persuading people to speak out. Instead, movements such as the PSC and social media activists appear to be the real movers and shakers.

Fitzpatrick, for one, believes the PSC played a big part in mobilizing his constituents, saying 99.9 percent of the emails he received used the template provided by the group. “There was a real push behind it. It’s not people doing it off their own back, but there was a real stimulus being given to try and make this happen,” he said.

“The majority of them [people who wrote in] I don’t think would be influenced by mainstream British media . . . I think there was a concerted campaign through the community networks, through the mosques, through the voluntary sector,” he added.

Chris Doyle agrees. “Social media has challenged traditional media in its coverage of Gaza. Content is uploaded to social networks very fast often well before traditional outlets have a chance to report on events,” he said.

Scenes of destruction posted on Twitter and Facebook by Gazans were quickly spread online by solidarity networks. Colborne said PSC’s Facebook page had a reach of 18 million people in the first week of the assault.

Despite these developments, it is worth noting that the long-term impact of recent events is nigh-on impossible to predict, and that changes in public opinion are not easy to measure, with the reasons for this even harder to decipher. Another poll conducted by the London-based Guardian newspaper and ICM Research contradicted YouGov’s findings, with a fifth of British voters surveyed (21 percent) claiming their opinion of the Palestinians had worsened, with just 9 percent saying their opinion had improved during the recent conflict.

It is also worth noting that many others are not willing to take sides. Since YouGov began polling on the Israel–Palestine conflict, the most popular response has always been to sympathize with neither side (40 percent today).

How long will the current feeling last? If the change in sympathies came about as part of a concerted effort by campaigners to raise awareness of the Palestinian plight, the upswing in Pro-Palestinian sentiment in Britain will only last as long as the solidarity groups keep up the pressure, otherwise it is likely to drop off as the ceasefire holds, until the two sides inevitably come to blows again. It is only when that happens that it will become clear if the recent uptick in sympathy for the Palestinian cause is just a blip, or the first sign of a major shift in public attitudes.