Theresa May’s elevation as UK prime minister, following the resignation of David Cameron, has been welcomed by supporters of Israel.
UK lawmaker Mike Freer, an officer with the parliamentary grouping Conservative Friends of Israel, has described May as a “true friend of Israel.”
As home secretary, or interior minister, since 2010, May has had ample opportunity to demonstrate this.
In 2011, she moved to deport Raed Salah, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and the leader of the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, from the UK.
Unbeknownst to Salah or his hosts, May had issued an order banning him just two days before he entered the country for a speaking tour.
Rather than be deported, Salah chose to remain in the UK on bail and fight May’s order in court.
Ten months later, a UK court overturned the ban, finding no evidence to support it and completely vindicating Salah.
The defeat for May was also a setback to the government’s broader counterterrorism strategy known as Prevent.
Fourteen pages from the Conservative government’s updated Prevent policy were submitted to the courts as evidence against Salah.
Government lawyers argued that Salah’s alleged words could lead to “radicalization” and terrorism.
But the judge dismissed this reasoning.
Fear and prejudice
Launched by a Labour government and bolstered by May’s Conservative Party, the Prevent strategy has come under severe criticism.
Earlier this year, the UK’s terrorism watchdog called for an independent review of the policy over concerns that it was “sowing mistrust and fear” in Muslim communities and was ineffective.
While billed as promoting “community engagement” to spot and stop “radicalization,” Muslim communities experience Prevent as pervasive surveillance and political monitoring that fosters self-censorship, prejudice and stigma.
The program has resulted in thousands of children being reported to authorities by teachers.
In one case, kindergarten staff threatened to refer a four-year-old boy after he drew a picture of his dad cutting a cucumber with a knife. Teachers claimed the boy said the picture was of a “cooker bomb.”
In another case, in February, a schoolboy was questioned by anti-terrorism police for wearing a “Free Palestine” button to school.
Last year, dozens of academics signed a letter saying that Prevent’s conception of “ ‘radicalization’ and ‘extremism’ is based on the unsubstantiated view that religious ideology is the primary driving factor for terrorism.”
They warned that Prevent “will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent” and would “create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly, and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces.”
“Prevent will make us less safe,” they concluded.
In 2011, the human rights group Liberty said Prevent’s “gravest error was blurring the lines between dissent and criminality and between civil society and security agencies.”
But in 2015, May put forward even tougher counterterrorism legislation that Karma Nabulsi, a Palestinian commentator and professor at Oxford University, termed an “attack on the very foundations of democracy.”
May’s move to ban Raed Salah from the UK was prompted by a report from the Community Security Trust (CST), an Israel lobby group with close ties to the Conservative Party.
In a statement on Monday, Conservative Friends of Israel touted May’s strong support for Israel and the UK Jewish community throughout her public life.
This has included working with CST and other organizations to “tackle anti-Semitic attacks.”
Conservative Friends of Israel chair Eric Pickles, a British minister who has led the charge against the Palestine solidarity movement, said that “Israel can rest assured that a UK led by Theresa May will be there in its moments of need.”
Conservative Friends of Israel pointed out that in reflecting on her June 2014 visit to Israel, May had backed Israel’s “right to defend itself.”
During a speech to the group in September 2014, May repeated platitudes about Israel being “democratic,” as well as standard talking points justifying Israeli violence – that “Hamas uses Palestinian civilians as human shields for its rockets.”
Conservative Friends of Israel highlighted these statements with satisfaction after May won the Conservative Party leadership this week and was set to enter 10 Downing Street, but failed to note something else she had said in her September 2014 speech.
“Those of us who are sympathetic to Israel’s security predicament must always make clear that the loss of any civilian life – whatever the nationality of the victim – is an appalling tragedy,” May said. “And we must remember that there will be no lasting peace or justice in the region until the Palestinian people are able to enjoy full civil rights themselves.”
Those words should not be taken as any measure of sympathy for Palestinians, but rather as a sign that the fundamental causes driving the ongoing conflict are so clear that even a staunch supporter of Israel like Theresa May cannot deny them.