Few Britons support the actions of Israeli troops against a flotilla of ships heading for Gaza. For three years Israel has operated a blockade to prevent ships reaching Gaza’s Mediterranean ports in order to prevent rockets and other weapons reaching the Hamas-controlled territory. On Monday, six ships attempted to break the blockade; the captains said they were carrying food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies to Gaza. Israel intercepted five of the ships without resistance; but the crew and passengers on the sixth ship did resist; Israeli forces overcame this resistance but some crew and passengers were killed.
YouGov investigated British attitudes for The Sun. First, we asked whether Israel’s blockade was justified. Just 22% thought it was, but 53% disagreed. Twice as many men (30%) as women (14%) backed the blockade.
Israel said the real intention of the ships was confrontation, not humanitarian aid. Just 23% of the British public support this view; almost twice as many, 44%, thought the real intention was to take humanitarian supplies to Gaza. But one in three people, an unusually large proportion, replied ‘don’t know’.
As for the violence on the sixth ship, only 18% believe the Israeli forces acted out of self-defence, while 55% believe the troops overreacted against essentially non-violent resistance. The poll was conducted after Israeli military pictures were widely broadcast, showing the confrontation as Israeli forces stormed the sixth ship; these have not so far convinced most Britons that Israeli forces had to defend themselves against violent resistance.
An overwhelming 78% now want an inquiry into what happened – and almost all of these think the inquiry must be conducted by an ‘independent, international group’; only four percent think Israel should conduct the inquiry, even though our question reminded respondents that Israel ‘is the only open and democratic country in the region’.
Finally, YouGov repeated a question we asked when Israel attacked southern Lebanon in 2006 – in general do people sympathies more with the Israelis or the Palestinians? Now, as then, almost two-thirds of the public decline to take sides. But among the minority that DO take sides there has been a marked shift. Four years ago, they were evenly divided, with 20% siding with Israel and 18% with the Palestinians. Now, they divide two-to-one in favour of the Palestinians (25%) rather than Israel (13%).
Among those who take sides, Conservative supporters divide evenly, while Labour supporters divide three-to-one, and Liberal Democrats four-to-one, in favour of the Palestinians.
Attitudes may change as events unfold – on most questions there are many ‘don’t knows’ who have yet to be persuaded either way – but so far Israel is losing the contest to win over British public opinion.