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Tower Hamlets mayor removes Palestinian flags after ‘no go zone’ row

Tower Hamlets mayor removes Palestinian flags after ‘no go zone’ row

The mayor of an inner London authority has announced the council will start removing Palestinian flags flying above its buildings after receiving hundreds of complaints from residents.

Lutfur Rahman said he has taken the “difficult decision” to remove the flags in Tower Hamlets, which he claimed “are being used to unfairly attack the people of the borough and further the Islamophobic narrative".

The council had initially decided against removing the flags so as not to "destabilise community cohesion".

Protest outside the office of the Tower Hamlets Labour Party against the party’s stance on the war in Gaza (PA)
Protest outside the office of the Tower Hamlets Labour Party against the party’s stance on the war in Gaza (PA)

The U-turn came after the council was threatened legal action by UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), which said that many Jewish residents were left distressed by the "divisive" flags.

In a statement announcing the flags would be removed, Mr Rahman denied they were “symbols of division” but instead “symbols of solidarity and sympathy” with thousands being killed in Gaza.

“I understand that those who have erected these flags across the borough have done so in line with our strong tradition of solidarity and I reject that they are symbols of division,” he said.

“They are symbols of solidarity and sympathy for those enduring extreme suffering in Gaza. We must not forget that over 30,000 people have now been killed, 70 per cent of whom are women and children.

“The flags certainly had an impact and made residents’ views clear. Although these flags are an understandable expression of solidarity, I now feel they are being used to unfairly attack the people of the borough and further the Islamophobic narrative.”

The mayor stressed he was still calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

 (PA)
(PA)

Mr Rahman was disqualified from holding office for five years in 2015 after the High Court found he won the 2014 election in the borough with the help of "corrupt" practices. He was re-elected as executive mayor in 2022.

According to the 2021 census, Tower Hamlets has the largest Muslim population of any local authority area in the UK at 39.9 per cent.

Responding to Mr Rahman's announcement on Wednesday night, some claimed the mayor had “caved in” to pressure over the flag climbdown.

Human rights lawyer Mohammed Akunjee, who has worked with Shamima Begum, posted on X: “The Gov and the Labour Party are responsible for the most Islamophobic atmosphere I have ever known. Rushanara Ali the MP for Bethnal Green has remained silent whilst our borough has been targeted.”

The independent parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Stepney added: “I call on all residents to display the Palestinian flag in their windows in solidarity."

But Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UKLFI, said the mayor had spent months "ignoring" the concerns of Jewish and other residents in Tower Hamlets over the flags.

He said: “After months of ignoring the voice of a significant number of Jewish and other residents of Tower Hamlets, we are pleased that Lutfur Rahman has at last been forced, following our threat of a legal action, to remove the divisive and inflammatory flags.

“It is also regrettable that the police failed to enforce the criminal law.”

The council previously revealed that since October 2023, it had received nearly 300 complaints about flags, graffiti or stickers related to the Gaza conflict.

The move comes after Tory MP Paul Scully announced he is stepping down at the general election over comments he made about "no-go areas" in London and Birmingham. Mr Scully sparked outrage after he said that parts of Tower Hamlets and Birmingham Sparkhill were “no go” areas due to people “abusing” their own religion.

In October then home secretary Suella Braverman said waving a Palestinian flag on British streets “may not be legitimate” if it is deemed to be a show of support for acts of terrorism.

She had told police officers to use the “full force of the law” against any shows of support for Hamas or bids to intimidate the UK’s Jewish community in the wake of the attack on Israel.

It came as Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s shadow secretary of state for justice and one of the first Muslim women to be elected to the House of Commons, warned of an “explosion” in Islamophobia not being reported to police.

Campaign groups have also reported a 365 per cent surge in anti-Muslim hate incidents across the UK following Hamas’s attack on Israel in October last year.