The UK’s response to the conflict in Gaza: A challenge to British prestige, Arab allies and the existing world order

25th Jun 2024 by Simon Mabon

The UK’s response to the conflict in Gaza: A challenge to British prestige, Arab allies and the existing world order

This post is part of a series of interventions drawn from contributions to a SEPAD (non)workshop on the regional and international implications of the Gaza conflict. A full report comprised of all these posts will follow in due course.


Dr Louise Kettle, University of Nottingham

When Hamas attacked Israel on 7 October 2023, the long-term Arab-Israel conflict returned to the top of the UK’s policy agenda. The challenge for policymakers was to manage the balance between support for the UK’s long-term strategic ally, Israel, as well as the US, and Britain’s Jewish population (265,000 people, 0.5% of the population of England and Wales in the 2021 Census), without abandoning Palestine, irritating Arab allies or the British Muslim community (3.9 million people, 6.5% of the 2021 Census population) (Office for National Statistics 2021). At the same time, the UK government were particularly cognisant of the wider impact of the conflict on interests and allies in the region, with concerns regarding the spillover of tensions in the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and in the Red Sea. All of these tensions had to be managed during a deeply emotive time and in the wider context of increasing culture wars and a looming general election (Duffy and Skinner 2023).


The UK government invoked four key routes to respond. Diplomatically, the government immediately condemned Hamas’ actions, and offered statements reiterating Israel’s right to self-defence and pursuit of hostages. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, facilitated by a lack of constituency responsibilities, along with several other government ministers, became involved in flurries of shuttle diplomacy to show support for Israel, prevent regional escalation (including direct conversations with the Iranian Foreign Minister) and to work towards a sustainable ceasefire (Islamic Republic of Iran Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2023). During this time there was cross-party support for the government’s approach, partly fuelled by the Labour party’s need to move beyond accusations of inherent antisemitism (Sky News 2024). 


Secondly, the UK government responded militarily. UK forces were quickly deployed, alongside US allies, in support of Israel, to act as a deterrent force against escalating tensions, and to protect British civilians and assets in the region. It included the provision of an additional destroyer in the Gulf, a Royal Navy task force to help deliver aid, patrol and surveillance aircraft to protect against transfer of weapons, and extra personnel across the region. Defence intelligence also ran UAV surveillance intelligence to assist Israel with locating hostages and the Ministry of Defence provided Israel with defensive equipment to support hostage recovery (House of Commons Library 2024a:44-45). On 13 April 2024, the military response increased further when RAF jets and refuelling aircraft were deployed over Iraq and Syria to backfill for the US against Iranian drones targeting Israel.


Thirdly, the UK sought to provide humanitarian assistance and aid to the people of Gaza. From the outset, the government refused to discuss ‘temporary ceasefires’ but would refer to ‘humanitarian pauses’ to allow aid into the Gaza strip. Across 2023-2024 the government claims to have provided over £100 million in aid to the Palestinian Occupied Territories (House of Commons Library 2024:46). The UK also voted in favour of a UN Security Council resolution for increased humanitarian aid to Gaza in December 2023 (UNSCR 2720).


Finally, the UK invoked additional sanctions and restrictions, albeit limited. Britain already had sanctions on Hamas, Hezbollah, PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad) and the IRGC but these were expanded to other members and financers. In addition, visa restrictions were imposed against individuals responsible for settler violence in the West Bank (House of Commons Library 2024:46-47).


Impact of response

During this time the UK found itself increasingly challenged diplomatically. Although many of the Arab states condemned the Hamas attack, they also publicly disagreed with the Israeli air strikes leaving the UK at odds with key allies in the region. At the Arab League meeting on 11 October, Arab foreign ministers condemned the killing and targeting of civilians ‘on both sides’ but also called for an immediate cessation of the Israeli war on the Gaza strip (Ahram 2023). Positions hardened even further against Israel after the bombing of al-Ahli hospital a few days later, whilst UK support of Israel remained unmoved (Al Jazeera 2023). 


This led to several accusations of hypocrisy against the UK, especially in comparison to the war in Ukraine. Whilst Western nations criticised the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they did not react in the same way to Israel in Gazan territory (Arab News 2024). On the contrary, while the UK exports arms for the defence of Ukraine in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the government has continued to allow the export of arms for the Israeli offensive in the Israel-Gaza conflict (albeit that the numbers remain small, totalling 0.2% of Israel’s arms) (House of Commons Library 2024b). Similarly, the UK has been extremely vocal about states evading UN resolutions in the past but has also continued to support Israel despite its disregard for various security council resolutions.


In addition, the UK has been criticised for double standards in failing to support the South African claim of genocide to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) whilst putting forward its own case against Myanmar (The Guardian 2024). Similarly, the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, criticised the ruling of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to seek arrest warrants against Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and its Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, calling it ‘deeply unhelpful’ but supported the ICC in the past, including over the arrest warrants against President Putin and Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova (Ministry of Justice 2023).


Moving forward

More recently the UK’s position has begun to shift. In March, Britain accepted a change of language, and moved away from its usual US-alignment, by voting in support of a UN Security Council resolution that demanded an immediate ceasefire and release of hostages (UNSCR 2728). In May the UK abstained from a vote in the UN General Assembly that saw 143 states vote to admit Palestine as a member (UNGA 12599). Lord Cameron also hinted that he would place the recognition of Palestinian statehood further up the negotiations for a two-state solution (Politico 2024). All of these moves are to place pressure on an Israeli regime with whom many Western states have lost patience and in recognition that their unrelenting support is costing international political capital.


In fact, the overall UK response to the conflict in Gaza has hit British credibility hard. The failure to align with the position of Arab partners, along with the widespread accusations of hypocrisy has caused tensions at a time when the UK is still recovering from a post-Brexit loss of prestige in the region (Kettle 2021). In addition, the criticism of double standards has continued the erosion of the current rules-based system and the legitimacy of international institutions, just as an alternative, led by the People’s Republic of China, is beginning to gather momentum (Mansour 2024). As a result, the UK’s response to the conflict in Gaza has created a number of broader challenges that the newly elected UK government will have to face come 5 July.




Ahram (2023) ‘Arab FMs call for immediate cessation of Israel war on Gaza’, available at, last accessed 30 May 2024.


Al Jazeera (2023) ‘Outrage spreads across Middle East after attack on Gaza hospital’, available at, last accessed 30 May 2024.


Arab News (2024) ‘Palestinian envoy slams UK over ‘double standards’ in policies toward Israel’, available at, last accessed 30 May 2024.


British Embassy Beirut (2024) ‘Foreign Secretary: Lebanon’s stability & security are paramount’, available at, last accessed 30 May 2024.


Duffy, B. and Skinner, G. (2023) ‘Woke vs anti-woke? Culture war divisions and politics’, available at, last accessed 29 May 2024.


House of Commons Library (2024a) ‘2023/24 Israel-Hamas conflict: UK actions and response’, number 9874, available at https://commonslibrary.parliam...last accessed 30 May 2024.


House of Commons Library (2024b) ‘UK arms exports to Israel, number 9964, available at https://commonslibrary.parliam...last accessed 30 May 2024.


Islamic Republic of Iran Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2023) ‘Iran UK FMs discuss Palestine bilateral ties’, available at, last accessed 29 May 2024.


Kettle, L. (2021) ‘Security’ in M. Stephens and C. Phillips (eds.) What Next For Britain in the Middle East?(London: Bloomsbury), pp.81-96.


Mansour, R. (2024) ‘Will the war in Gaza become a breaking point for the rules-based international order?’, available at, last accessed 30 May 2024.


Ministry of Justice (2023) ‘London hosts major international war crimes meeting as UK boosts support for International Criminal Court’, available at, last accessed 30 may 2024.


Office for National Statistics (2021) ‘Census’, available at, last accessed 30 May 2024.


Politico (2024) ‘UK could recognize Palestinian state before any deal with Israel, says David Cameron’, available at, last accessed 30 May 2024.


Sky News (2024) ‘More than 40% of public think Labour still has antisemitism problem, poll shared with Sky News reveals’, 26 February 2024, available at, last accessed 29 May 2024.


Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash