Conservative councillor speaks out over 'silencing' on Israel-Gaza war

Jamal Chohan says he feels 'isolated' from his party's stance on Israel

Protesters waving Palestinian flags fill London's Trafalgar Square during a march in October. AFP
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A Conservative councillor fears a “silencing” of political opinions on the Israel-Gaza war could compromise British politics in the long term.

Jamal Chohan, 34, is a councillor for Kingston in Southwest London, a borough in which he describes as a “rich” community of different cultures and faiths.

Over the past few weeks, he has sought support from fellow councillors in calling for a ceasefire and to condemn the killing of children in Israel and Gaza.

“A child dying is a child dying. Universally, children should not be punished,” he told The National.

But he fears that many are scared to speak out on the issue and that his views are “met with disregard” by party colleagues.

“It's been isolating,” Mr Chohan, the son of Pakistani immigrants to the UK, said.

“I was raised with the belief that we [the UK] are keepers of peace in the world.”

Mr Chohan, a solicitor, is aware of the potential risks of calling for a ceasefire, which goes against his party’s position. Conservative MP Paul Bristow was sacked from his government role after doing so. In the Labour party, MP Andy McDonald was suspended after participating in a pro-Palestine rally, during which he called for a lasting peace between the two communities “between the river and the sea”.

The government has shown unwavering support of Israel’s “right to self-defence” since the October 7 attack by Hamas, which killed 1,200 Israelis and saw more than 240 hostages taken into Gaza.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called on the UK ally to respect international law, while also adding that Hamas uses civilians as “human shields” – suggesting that an undefined portion of the civilian casualties must be attributed to them.

“The narrative that these children are somehow human shields is completely invalid – would you be OK with an armed officer in Kingston shooting a child as cannon fodder to apprehend a suspect?” Mr Chohan asked.

Mr Chohan fears Israel's war on Gaza will only spur radicalisation.

“How many children will then say, 'I'm going to go to Harvard and study law, then build a case [against Israeli war crimes] at the International Criminal Court'. That's a 40-year project,” he said.

The Labour Party has been embattled over its position on the Israel-Gaza war, in which leader Keir Starmer has refused to call for a ceasefire, calling instead for “humanitarian pauses”.

Front-bencher Imran Hussein resigned over the party’s position this week. This follows dozens of resignations among Labour’s councillors.

But dissenting voices among the Conservatives have been scarce.

Mr Chohan fears this could create a political vacuum in which most people’s views are not represented.

“There’s no political party in the UK giving a balanced perspective. Who is representing these people who might be the silent majority?” he asked.

He said he has received a lot of emails from residents about the war.

“Once you're elected, your job is to represent your party in the best possible light and listen to the people,” he said.

Thousands are expected to march through London on Armistice Day in support of a ceasefire in Gaza, despite Mr Sunak urging them not to.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman has described the protests as “hate marches” and accused the police of “double standards” when they were allowed to go ahead. Mr Sunak has faced calls to sack the Home Secretary over her comments, whom MPs accused of “stirring hate and division”.

Mr Chohan said Ms Braverman's comments were “not reflective of fundamental Conservative principles of freedom of speech, democracy and rule of law”.

“Armistice Day is about commemorating a ceasefire that eventually led to peace. On this day, we commemorate the sacrifices made by fallen soldiers to defend our democratic values,” he said.

“So failing to call for a ceasefire and seeking to silence protesters by misleading the British public on what these protesters are advocating for is, in my opinion, completely contrary to what Remembrance Sunday represents.”

Updated: November 11, 2023, 8:26 AM