Gaza war: Preston City Council’s Palestinian ‘friendship’ plan splits faith leaders

Plans for Preston City Council to strike up a ‘friendship agreement’ with a Palestinian town have polarised opinion amongst leading figures in the local Muslim and Jewish communities - and left the authority accused of taking sides in the near six-month war in Gaza.
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Council leader Matthew Brown announced earlier this month that the town hall was exploring the possibility of making the gesture “as a symbol of our sympathy with the people of Palestine [and] the wider Middle East”.

Mukhtar Master, the Muslim lead on the city’s faith covenant, has welcomed the move - for which he says the thousands of people who have attended Palestinian solidarity marches and demonstrations in Preston in recent months can claim credit.

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However, his Jewish counterpart Jeremy Dable says that it amounts to supporting one side over another in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Jeremy Dable (left) and Mukhtar Master do not see eye-to-eye over Preston City Council's plans for a friendship agreement with a Palestinian townJeremy Dable (left) and Mukhtar Master do not see eye-to-eye over Preston City Council's plans for a friendship agreement with a Palestinian town
Jeremy Dable (left) and Mukhtar Master do not see eye-to-eye over Preston City Council's plans for a friendship agreement with a Palestinian town

Cllr Brown and cabinet member for communities and social justice Nweeda Khan said in a joint statement when the friendship proposal was floated that the aim was to forge links between Preston and the as-yet-unchosen Palestinian town - as well as to provide practical support to its people.

Although the Labour-run authority stressed that it would “continue to engage with all communities across the city hoping to build peace and friendship for all”, Mr. Dable told the Lancashire Post that there were some glaring - and alarming - omissions from the declaration.

“Conspicuous by [its] absence is any reference at all to Israel, a sovereign nation state that was attacked [on 7th October when] 1,200 Israelis were murdered. There’s also [no] reference to Jews, synagogues or [the Israeli] hostages - anything that might acknowledge the humanity or existence of other people in the conflict.

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“This is not offering friendship - this is offering support to one side in a war. They've invoked the faith covenant, but they've broken it and not contacted the covenant - we've been sidelined…since the beginning of the war,” Mr. Dable said.

The Preston faith covenant is an agreement between faith communities and the local authority to, amongst other things, build trusting relationships and commit to open working.

However, Mukhtar Master told the Post that the friendship agreement was “a good gesture from Preston City Council in response to one of the greatest genocides and crimes against humanity the world has ever had the misfortune of witnessing”.

“It is not only a response to the pressure that the mosques have placed on [the council], but, moreover, a reaction to the thousands in Preston who have protested, marched, organised meetings and voiced their concerns,” Mr. Master added.

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A month after the start of the conflict, all 20 of Preston’s mosques demanded the city council’s Labour members write a letter calling on national party leader Sir Keir Starmer to quit over his stance and his then decision not to press for a ceasefire. While such a missive was never sent, the authority as a whole - by an overwhelming majority - later backed a call for an immediate halt to the fighting.

Mr. Master said that the city council “now needs to do more than talk the talk but rather walk the walk”.

“Preston has a sizeable Palestinian contingent and their voices need to be heard to determine which Palestinian town is chosen for the friendship agreement,” he urged.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Dable said he was “filled with horror” at another of the friendship agreement proposals - working with children from Preston schools ”to send messages of hope and peace “ to the Middle East.

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“We've just had a report from a Jewish lady who went into a Lancashire school and an eight-year-old child said: ‘We hate Jews - you are evil.’

“How much worse is it going to be after [the council] goes around showing [the] partisan view that they have?” Mr. Dable asked.

Responding to the criticism, Cllr Brown said: “Our consideration of a friendship arrangement is intended to do just that - extend the hand of friendship.

“As part of this, we are keen to engage in dialogue and to understand the views of all. Our work with and in communities would be focused on building bridges and understanding - and on tackling intolerance and misunderstanding affecting all and any communities in our city.”

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During the debate on the ceasefire motion at the town hall back in November, deputy city council leader Martyn Rawlinson questioned the suggestion he said had been made at the time that the authority should not “take sides” in the conflict.

“I take sides every day of my life. All the time, I’m presented with information and I observe things…make judgements and I decide which way is best. Why wouldn’t you take sides in war?

“We’ve decided…to speak up for the people of Gaza, because Gaza is being destroyed,” Cllr Rawlinson said.

According to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, more than 30,000 Palenstinians have now been killed in the territory during Israel's military response to the terror attack it suffered on 7th October, in which around 1,200 Israeli citizens lost their lives and more than 200 were kidnapped - the majority of whom remain in captivity.