On Tuesday, in a single tweet, a British Parliament member waded into the conflict between Israel and Hamas. David Ward, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, said that if he was a Palestinian, living in the Gaza Strip, he would "probably" fire rockets into Israel.
The big question is - if I lived in #Gaza would I fire a rocket? - probably yes
— David Ward (@DavidWardMP) July 22, 2014
Ward followed up this tweet with another that apparently played on President John F. Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech: A clumsy reference, given the circumstances. Ward's comments were soon retweeted thousands of times, but they also provoked a serious backlash: The rival Labor Party called his comments "vile," and the Conservative Party chairman called on Ward to withdraw the comments.
Ward apologized on Wednesday, explaining that he condemned the violence committed by "both sides" in Israel and Gaza. However, his comments had already sparked a wider debate in Britain about support for Israel.
It touched on one of the key controversies of the conflict in Gaza: Whether the rockets fired into Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups are justifiable. While this is often debated in the news media and online, few mainstream politicians would support Hamas's tactic, in public at least. Hamas has been designated a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.
Ward, however, isn't a member of a fringe political party. The Liberal Democrats is the "third party" in the British system, and it is the minor partner in a coalition government with the Conservative Party. It's generally known for the liberal metropolitan attitudes espoused by its leader, the fluent-in-five-languages Nick Clegg.
To those who follow Ward, however, his comments may come as no surprise. Ward has been outspoken on issues involving Israel numerous times before. In 2013, on Holocaust Memorial Day, Ward published an article in which he said that "Jews" in Israel were "inflicting atrocities on Palestinians [...] on a daily basis." He was later suspended from the party after a tweet that said "how long can the apartheid State of Israel last?"
Ward's views on the Middle East could be a reflection of his constituency. Bradford, a city in Yorkshire, is known for its large immigrant community, and his particular constituency, Bradford East, is almost 37 percent Islamic. Another MP from the city, George Galloway of the Respect Party, is well-known in Britain for his often controversial views on Israel and Iraq, as well as his ill-advised appearance in a reality television show.
Despite the parties middle-ground reputation, Liberal Democrats have come under fire for views on Israel before. Baroness Jenny Tonge quit the party in 2012 after video emerged of her saying that Israel would ""reap what they have sown." (Tonge had already been fired from the front line of Liberal Democrat party politics after saying she would maybe consider becoming a suicide bomber if she was Palestinian.) And after Ward's tweet, Ed McMillan-Scott, former Liberal Democrat MEP, tweeted that the Board of Deputies of British Jews were a "frightful bag of disputatious Jews," although he later deleted the tweet and apologized.
Ward initially refused to apologize for his own tweet, later adding that he had simply been trying to imagine life in Gaza. "What I was saying was, if I was there, if I had been living for year after year after year, hemmed in by air, land and sea by a mighty military force that was brutally killing my people, and the world was not responding, I think I would have to do something," he explained in an interview with BBC Radio. But on Wednesday he apparently changed his mind, apologized in a lengthy statement. The Liberal Democrats, who had at first "utterly condemned" the tweet, said that in light of the apology, no further action would be taken against Ward.