Embattled but 'human' Humza Yousaf becomes leading voice for Gaza in the UK

Scottish First Minister has shared stories of his family's 'nightmare' in Gaza, but his party cannot influence Westminster's thinking on Israel

First Minister Humza Yousaf during a visit to River Street in Brechin, Scotland, after flooding caused by Storm Babet. PA
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During Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf’s visit to a town hit by Storm Babet this week, reporters noticed him walking away from his advisers to take a phone call.

The person calling was later revealed to be his mother-in-law, who has been stuck in Gaza since the war began earlier this month.

“It's a nightmare for us but it's torture for them,” Mr Yousaf told reporters of his in-laws’ plight.

Over the past two weeks, the First Minister has made emotional pleas to help save his wife Nadia Al Nakla's family in Gaza. He has called for the opening of humanitarian corridors which would bring much-needed aid and allow for the evacuation of dual citizens. He has also written to British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly – but Mr Yousaf said the missives have gone unanswered.

He appeared to be holding back tears on Tuesday as he called for an “immediate” ceasefire in Gaza, when speaking to the Scottish Parliament.

“Too many mothers and fathers have lost their children, too many children have become orphaned, and that is why we need an immediate ceasefire,” he told MSPs.

These public appeals have shown a “human” side to the embattled First Minister, whose progressive party has poor relations with the British government and faces corruption allegations. In highlighting his family's plight, he has emerged as the UK's leading voice on Gaza.

Other UK party leaders have expressed unwavering support for Israel but have stumbled on their words when it came to the Palestinian issue. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rejected calls for a ceasefire in Gaza on Wednesday, while opposition leader Keir Starmer is facing backlash from his party after appearing to suggest that he supported the siege on Gaza – a comment which he later retracted.

This is where Mr Yousaf stands out, those familiar with him say. In his speeches about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Mr Yousaf has also condemned Hamas's attack on October 7, which he described as “barbaric”.

“Let me say, as someone who is proudly Muslim, that I was taught from a young age that Islam tells us that if you kill one innocent person, it is as if you have killed the whole of humanity,” he said on Tuesday.

Mr Yousaf declined to comment for this story, and The National spoke to people who have worked with him. What emerged is a picture of a politician who – though struggling with domestic issues and party politics – has become a voice for empathy in a conflict that has divided communities in the UK.

“Humza used his platform to highlight his family's situation. He has done it in a way that is responsible, and taking the [risk of] anti-Semitism into account,” said Danielle Bett, a Scottish-Israeli activist who has worked with Mr Yousaf in the past and is now director of communications at Yachad, a British-Jewish organisation advocating a two-state solution and an end to the occupation.

His words have had an impact in Scotland, where support for the Palestinian cause has been traditionally stronger than in England.

“Humza has got a personal interest in this issue, and the people of Scotland have taken notice of this. When they see the First Minister carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, its hard not to empathise,” said Steven Bonnar, MP, a member of the Scottish National Party, which Mr Yousaf leads.

“We are so proud of him in the SNP, and how he has held himself and how he's pleaded with the foreign secretary.”

Ms Al Nakla’s parents live in Dundee, but they were in Gaza visiting her grandfather, brother and his children when Hamas launched its deadly attack on Israel, killing more than 1,400 people. They have since been trapped in the ensuing war, which has left Gaza under siege and subject to heavy bombardment.

More than 6,500 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began its air strikes after the October 7 attacks, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which is controlled by Hamas.

Israel cut off Gaza's water and electricity supply, and medical supplies have been running out. Humanitarian aid was allowed into Gaza in small amounts on Saturday as the war entered its third week.

In a tearful video message, Mr Yousaf's mother-in-law, Elizabeth Al Nakla, told British audiences of life in the territory last week.

“We have no electricity. We have no water. The food we do have, which is little, will not last because there’s no electricity and it will spoil,” she said.

Mr Yousaf was also seen mourning with Scotland’s Jewish community, attending a vigil at the Giffnock Synagogue in Glasgow after the attacks.

“Your loss is my loss, your grief is my grief,” he told members of the community. He was the first British politician to be seen embracing the families of victims of Hamas’s attack.

His long-standing relationship with the community and commitment to minority causes makes his pleas all the more “humane”, Ms Bett said.

“Humza’s always been supportive of the Jewish community, and he was very warmly welcomed at the vigil,” she said.

Ms Bett worked with Mr Yousaf on the Hate Crime Bill, which passed in 2021. She recalled his efforts to make sure that minority communities were involved in drafting the bill.

“Humza worked with a lot of minority communities on that bill, as they are the ones most affected by hate crime. He was active in ensuring that the Jewish community was involved,” she recalled.

But it is his “real” empathy which sets him apart, Ms Bett added. Whenever Israel experienced turbulence, Mr Yousaf always got in touch.

“Humza always reached out and asked about the well-being of my family,” she said, “The human side that he shows publicly is real.”

Some believe that Mr Yousaf’s position highlights the failure of other party leaders to take a stand on Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza.

“Humza Yousaf stands out because of the typically poor positions of other party leaders,” said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, “He’s taken the position that all parties should have taken from the outset.

“He’s demonstrated that you can take a principled position like this. The fact that he has family members makes his position more understandable, but it is sound regardless.”

But there may be limits to Mr Yousaf’s influence. The first is practical, as Scotland’s First Minister has no say on UK foreign policy.

“All we can do is try to amplify Scotland’s position on these matters,” said Mr Bonnar.

The others are political. Mr Yousaf’s party, the Scottish National Party, seeks an independent Scotland and has been at loggerheads with the British government for almost a decade over the issue.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson once refused to meet Nicola Sturgeon, Mr Yousaf’s predecessor.

“I don’t see that the SNP and the government meet on any issue,” said Mr Doyle.

Corruption allegations surrounding the party led to the arrest and release without charge of Ms Sturgeon’s husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s former chief executive, earlier this year.

But Mr Yousaf’s family story “transcends” Scotland’s politics, Mr Bonnar insisted.

“This is much more than that,” he said.

His supporters hope he will be able to shape public opinion in Scotland and the UK.

“He brought forward the reality of what is happening to people in Gaza, to people who might not have been aware of it,” said Ms Bett.

Updated: October 26, 2023, 10:04 AM