newsIsrael at War

UK ambassador to Israel: British Jews must feel safe

Ambassador Simon Walters speaks to JNS about the Israel-Hamas war, the humanitarian situation in Gaza, the Hezbollah and Houthi threats, and antisemitism in Britain.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog receives the credentials of newly appointed U.K. Ambassador to Israel Simon Walters at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on Sept. 19, 2023. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog receives the credentials of newly appointed U.K. Ambassador to Israel Simon Walters at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on Sept. 19, 2023. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.

Simon Walters, the British ambassador to Israel, arrived in the Jewish state a few months ago, when talk of Israel-Saudi normalization was the main topic in the region. But on Oct. 7, the Hamas massacre in southern Israel changed everything. Walters spoke with JNS about the ensuing Israel-Hamas war and its implications in a special interview.

JNS: Does the U.K. support a deadline for the current IDF operation in Gaza?

Walters: We’re not talking as the U.K. government in terms of timetables. That’s not the language we’re using. We’re talking about results and outcomes. We’ve been very clear from the very beginning that Israel has the right and duty to defend itself and defend its citizens against terrorism. But we’ve also been extremely clear that it has to do that in a way that protects civilians. The British foreign secretary and the prime minister have said recently that too many people are dying, too many civilians have been killed and that we need Israel to conduct its operation in full compliance with international humanitarian law. Now, we know this is difficult. This is not a simple task. We know that Hamas has a policy of placing their military installations and their weaponry inside and next to civilian locations. And we know that the IDF has a process for assessing the legal aspects of any strike or operation.

JNS: So, no limitations in terms of “weeks” or “months”?

Walters: We are not using that phrase. We’re saying that, obviously, the sooner this ends, the better. We want the fighting to stop as soon as it can, but we’re not calling for a ceasefire, because we know that the job isn’t finished yet and that a ceasefire would work to Hamas’s advantage.

JNS: What is the U.K.’s stance on the humanitarian situation in Gaza?

Walters: We’re emphasizing that the human suffering of civilians has to be reduced. I’ll add to that: The really important aspect here is the humanitarian aid situation. We now have a situation in which most Gazans don’t have enough food to eat; they’re hungry, at best getting one meal a day; they’re thirsty; they don’t have enough water; disease is beginning to spread. We’re in a very, very bad humanitarian situation and it could easily become catastrophic. So, our message to the Israeli government is: We must get more aid in; we must do that immediately. You may have heard the prime minister talking about the possibility of bringing aid into Gaza by sea. That is something we’re looking at along with other options.

JNS: Can you tell me a bit about U.K. assistance regarding the attempt to find the hostages being held by Hamas?

Walters: We have said from the beginning that Hamas must release all hostages immediately without condition. We have a particular interest because a small number of those hostages are British citizens and we will do everything we can to bring them back. So, we are working with Israeli counterparts to help locate and identify the hostages. One of the ways we are helping with that is by flying surveillance aircraft. I just want to emphasize that these are intelligence collection aircraft with the sole purpose of gathering information and trying to locate the hostages. Then we pass that information, of course, to our Israeli colleagues.

JNS: Let’s talk about the crisis in the north. Is the U.K. involved in some kind of an attempt to reach a diplomatic solution to the Hezbollah presence there?

Walters: We certainly are involved. This is another subject we regularly talk to our Israeli counterparts about. We understand Israeli concerns. We understand that over 120,000 Israeli citizens have been forced out of northern Israel because of the threat from Hezbollah. We understand the difficulty in bringing them back to their homes while that threat from Hezbollah still exists. So, we are absolutely determined to work with Israel and with other counterparts, particularly France and the United States, to find a solution that provides security to Israel. That’s not a simple problem, but we are actively engaged in it.

JNS: Do you think there’s a chance for a diplomatic solution?

Walters: There’s always a chance, yes. There is certainly a chance. That’s why we’re trying. Even if the chance of success is small, we must put all our effort into it because that is better than a war.

JNS: Let’s focus on Yemen and the Houthi threat. They’re threatening civilian vessels in the Red Sea and firing rockets at Israel. Are we going to see a multi-country task force, including the U.K., attempt to change this?

Walters: Well, there is already a British warship in the Red Sea. We’ve had lots of threats over the years from Somali pirates and directly from the Iranians themselves. Of course, now we’re talking about extending that coalition to help protect shipping in the Red Sea. The Houthis are acting like pirates and terrorists, and threaten civilian ships on one of the busiest shipping routes. Ships must be able to pass freely. So, we will work hard with partners to provide security for shipping there. I would say as well: Let’s remember who is really responsible for this; who has armed and trained the Houthis. It’s the Iranian government that turned them from a small regional militia in Yemen to a regional threat.

JNS: Do you think the ships and crews feel safe?

Walters: Well, that will be the test. If ships and crews don’t feel safer, then we will not have succeeded. We must make them feel safe.

JNS: What message do you want to send to Jews in the U.K. that might make them feel safer and can you elaborate on what steps your country took or is planning to take when it comes to the pro-Hamas demonstrations across Britain?

Walters: The position of the British government is extremely strong on this issue. Antisemitism in any form, in any context, is unacceptable. There are strong laws against this and the British government is determined to enforce them. It has taken clear action against people who have broken the law and it has made arrests. It is currently looking for individuals who can identify individuals who have been photographed. We have seen a few occasions of people openly supporting Hamas, which is a breach of our counterterrorism legislation because Hamas has been a listed terrorist organization in the U.K. for many years.

JNS: But let’s talk about the demonstrations.

Walters: People have the right to demonstrate peacefully, obviously, providing that they don’t incite people to violence. That’s basic to a democracy. But those people must not exploit that for antisemitic or other hateful reasons.

JNS: What steps has the U.K. government taken to help Jews feel safer?

Walter: The government has taken a number of steps. It has increased funding to the Community Security Trust, which is a Jewish community organization that provides security to synagogues, Jewish schools and other locations. The education minister has written to schools and universities. You know, students like radicalism. They often come to regret it later in life, but that’s no excuse for antisemitic behavior. We have made clear as a government to universities and schools that they have a responsibility to deal with anybody who expresses racist or antisemitic views and to clamp down on that. We have taken disciplinary action, and that could also include steps such as withdrawing visas from international students who express antisemitic views on campus. We’re determined that British Jews should feel safe. They must do.

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