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UK appoints anti-Israel justice minister as Muslims reject incoming Labour government

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A newly installed top British government official has a history of anti-Israel, pro-Gaza sentiments that could impact how the UK’s new ruling Labour Party will approach Israel’s war with Hamas.

As early as March, Secretary of State for Justice Shabana Mahmood called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and has accused Israel of killing innocent civilians. But pro-Palestinian Muslim voters have nonetheless questioned her commitment to their cause.

“I have always supported a diplomatic process to stop the killing of innocent civilians, get humanitarian aid in and get the hostages out,” Mahmoud wrote in a March letter to constituents. “But it is clear that diplomatic processes have not made sufficient progress. The conduct of this war has been intolerable, with a disproportionate level of attacks on innocent people that has rightly been the deliberations in international courts.”

Mahmood won reelection in her constituency of Birmingham Ladywood, against a pro-Palestine Independent candidate Akmed Yakoob. She has faced criticism from the Muslim community for abstaining on a Gaza ceasefire vote in November and her refusal to resign from the shadow cabinet over her party’s support for Israel. 

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As a Muslim woman and representative from a heavily Muslim city – the 2021 census found 29.9% of Birmingham’s residents identify as Muslim – Mahmood has kept atop the issue.

United Kingdom Government

Shabana Mahmood enters 10 Downing Street following Labour’s landslide election victory on July 5, 2024, in London, England. The Labour Party won a landslide victory in the 2024 general election, ending 14 years of Conservative government.  (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

She acknowledged in February that the party had lost the trust of Muslim voters in Britain due to Labour’s support for Israel, Middle East Eye reported. Later that month, she signed and backed a new bill calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. 

While the party has shown strong support for Israel, Mahmood’s own views have run counter to that. In 2014, she posted on Twitter urging people to gather at a demonstration outside a Sainsbury grocery store in Birmingham City Center to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, also posting “#FreePalestine.”  

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Mahmood also wrote to her constituents shortly after the Oct. 7 attack to stress her record as a “life-time supporter of the rights of Palestinians,” but she denounced the Hamas attack and insisted that “international humanitarian laws” must be followed “at all times.” 

Gaza Israel Britain

Palestinian flag on a billboard advertising site in Kings Heath on 14th March 2024 in Birmingham, United Kingdom. (Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Labour swept into power with a historic victory, securing the second-largest majority in Parliament after Tony Blair’s record-breaking win in 1997. However, the party’s win comes on the back of some faulty numbers – namely record-low turnout and the fact that the ruling Conservative party had to face split votes with the more right-wing Reform UK Party. 

The Conservatives lost more than 200 seats and ended up securing just 121 seats as the main opposition to Labour. The Liberal-Democrats (LibDems) secured 72 seats, marking the biggest win for a third party in over 100 years. 

Labour Government Politics

Protesters held candles and placards in support of Palestine during the emergency vigil. Protesters gathered to light candles and speak out against Israeli threats to start a ground offensive in Rafah. Well over a million Palestinians have been pushed into Rafah by relentless Israeli bombing further north in Gaza.  (Martin Pope/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Now Labour has to govern, and one of the chief issues still at the heart of British politics is the Gaza question: Muslim voters en masse abandoned Labour, voting for Independent candidates who were Labour rebels running against Labour candidates due to their stances on Israel and Gaza. 

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Labour candidate Jonathan Ashworth lost to pro-Palestine independent candidate Shockat Adam, marking one of the biggest upsets in the election, according to The Guardian. Adam won by just 979 votes. 

Birmingham Muslim votes

Shabana Mahmood Labour MP for Birmingham and Ladywood canvassing in her constituency on January 18, 2024, in Birmingham, England.  (Nicola Tree/Getty Images)

Ashworth had held his seat since 2011 and served as shadow paymaster general, a post he would have taken in the official cabinet if he had won his race. Instead, the residents of Leicester South rejected him for a candidate who has spoken out against Israel and dedicated his victory to “The people of Gaza,” Sky News reported

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Districts with a 20% or greater Muslim population saw a 23-point drop in support for Labour, leading to five seats lost in the landslide victory, including in Birmingham districts and Blackburn. In areas with significant Muslim populations – but below the 20% threshold – Labour candidates notched very narrow wins. 

Some in the party have not hidden their dissatisfaction with the party’s stance on Gaza, including new British Foreign Secretary David Lammy, who told the BBC that his party will “work with partners to seek Palestinian recognition.” 

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