More than Choosing Sides

  • Research
  • 4 December 2023

How Britons are navigating the Israel-Palestine conflict

Since Hamas’ brutal terror attack on October 7th, More in Common has been exploring how the public are thinking and talking about the war.  Understanding how British society is navigating this conflict matters. Assumptions that people side exclusively or entirely either with Palestine or Israel mischaracterise how the public navigate the conflict. Such a mischaracterisation has the potential to threaten community relations here in Britain -  and that’s why More in Common has spent time talking with the public - including young people - about what they really think about the conflict and its impact here in Britain.

The portrayal of a country split into two warring camps - those who ‘side’ with Israel and those who ‘side’ with Palestine does not reflect where most Britons stand on or think about the conflict. Instead, most Britons have found themselves simultaneously angry about the actions of murderous terrorists, concerned for civilians in both Israel and Gaza, and profoundly worried about what the situation means for community relations here in the UK.

Drawing on nationally representative polling and focus groups since the war began, this report represents the most comprehensive exploration of British public opinion on the war since it began. Our hope is that it will contribute to guarding against both dividing the country into stark and false binaries, and avoid ceding the debate to the loudest voices. 

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Key Findings

People express a range of strong and passionate views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. But in contrast to heated debates in the media and online, most Britons haven’t taken a ‘side’ on the conflict. 16 per cent say they sympathise more with the Israeli side and 18 per cent with the Palestinian side. But far more people - two thirds of Britons - sympathise with neither side, both sides equally, or aren’t sure which side they sympathise with more.

Rather than seeing the conflict through a pro-Palestine or pro-Israeli lens, most of the public approach the conflict from their shared starting point of disgust at terrorism and deep concern for civilians. The public are uncomfortable with the way that some have framed debates about the conflict as a binary issue, when they are more likely to talk about their shared concerns for civilians in both Israel and Gaza.

Support for either side is equal in size, but not intensity. Those who sympathise more with the Palestinian side are much more likely to say this is an important cause to them than those who sympathise more with the Israeli side. They are more than twice as likely to have attended a protest about the conflict, more than five times as likely to have signed a petition relating to the conflict, and three times as likely to have posted on social media about the conflict, as compared to those who sympathise more with the Israeli side. This asymmetry can distort perceptions as to how ordinary Britons think about the conflict.

Support for either side is not unconditional. Britons hold negative views of Hamas, including a majority of those who say they sympathise more with the Palestinian side. And Britons do not think that Hamas represents the views of ordinary Palestinians. At the same time, Britons do not think that Israel’s response should break international law, including a majority of those who sympathise more with the Israeli side.

Britons think that the most extreme voices are drowning out moderate voices in this conflict. The groups who represent the majority of the population and don’t side with one side more than another feel left out of conversations about the conflict.

Young people in particular feel forced to ‘pick a side’. Young people explain that they worry about being attacked or pigeon holed if they don’t sign up to a particular side and are frustrated about assumptions based on their background about who they should support. Information shared on Instagram and TikTok makes young people particularly alert to division on this issue in the UK.

There is a risk that opinionated stances on the conflict become part of people’s personal identities, forming the basis of 'stacked identities' and driving polarisation. Some of the people who are most passionate about the topic are becoming actively hostile to those who disagree with them, which makes constructive conversations significantly more difficult. Polarisation and radicalisation of the debate are making a minority of Britons more willing to engage with often highly prejudiced conspiracy theories. 

Britons are deeply concerned about rising antisemitism and Islamophobia in the UK as a result of the conflict. Britons worry that antisemitism and Islamophobia will get worse in the UK if the conflict continues, and express concerns that conflict entrepreneurs are using the war in Israel and Gaza to sow hatred of and between Britain’s religious communities.

The public have been let down by some politicians, who they think have been exploiting the crisis for political gain and unnecessarily dividing the country. Many people are frustrated by the way politicians harness moments like this for their own purpose, and want leadership against antisemitism, anti-Muslim hate, and extremism, rather than attempts to divide the public into two groups.

The public want peace in the Middle East, but there is disagreement on how best to get there. While around a third of Britons support a ceasefire, others support different approaches including a temporary pause in the fighting and many feel that they don’t know enough to say. Even those advocates of a ceasefire are sceptical that either side would stick to it.

The public do not think that schools and universities are equipped to handle the conflict. Many Britons worry that schools are not doing enough to tackle bullying or peer pressure related to the conflict. Further up the education system, the public think that universities are failing to create a safe space for discussion, particularly for Jewish students.

While most Britons see some benefits of social media in providing information and communicating about the conflict, overall they tend to have negative views on the role it has played. Young people are the most likely to use social media to understand the conflict, but are particularly concerned about its ability to spread both misinformation and bullying relating to the conflict.

Those engaged in debates about the conflict can play a constructive role in helping create the space for better discussions by:

  • Remembering that most Britons hold nuanced views - social media can distort perspectives of the most vocal minority as representing majority opinion.
  • Recognising that many don't have strongly fixed views - create space for open, respectful debate and questioning without pressure to 'pick a side'.
  • Acknowledging that some are uncomfortable engaging - their silence often stems from concern about civilian suffering rather than disengagement.
  • Being aware that divisive rhetoric spreads rapidly online and into classrooms - those with the biggest platforms should consider the wider impact of their words.

Some individuals, groups  and institutions have a particularly important role in maintaining community relations here in the UK:

  • Politicians: Avoid escalating tensions or framing the debate as us-versus-them; build understanding of complex histories and work towards shared desire for peace.
  • Universities: Firmly address antisemitism on campus while enabling open debate that builds students' capacity and respect for disagreement.
  • Schools: Tackle antisemitic and anti-Muslim bullying, help young people develop their voice in a way that is healthy, creating opportunities to show support for positive community relations and tackling discrimination.
  • Protest organisers: Make clear that hateful elements are not welcome and establish clear expectations around forms of protest.
  • Police: Take a proactive approach to antisemitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes to reassure groups living in fear.
  • Social media firms: Flag misinformation, increase transparency around the origins of viral content, and provide support for young people in relation to bullying and peer pressure.