Image shows a placard which says Palestinian Lives Matter.

Pressure grows on Labour leadership to defend international law in Gaza


“The Labour leadership must now adopt the position advocated by 45 MPs and over 60 campaigning and humanitarian organisations, who are calling for a ceasefire”

Labour Outlook

By the Labour Outlook team

Scrutiny of the Labour leadership’s response to events in Israel and Gaza since the 7th October has seen growing alarm and unease amongst members and the wider public, with members leaving the party over its position on the unfolding situation – a position which could also have electoral consequences.

Following the Hamas attacks that saw the death of a reported 1300 Israeli civilians and at least 100 more taken as hostages, Keir Starmer made it clear that Labour ‘stands with Israel’ and that ‘Israel has a right to defend itself’.

The subsequent Israeli military response – which immediately included the announcement of ‘a complete siege on the Gaza Strip’ with ‘no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel’, later followed by an order for the ‘evacuation of all civilians of Gaza City from their homes southwards’ as Israeli military continued to conducted heavy air strikes against Gaza – rapidly saw Palestinian deaths exceed 3500 with the rapid loss of electricity and shortages of food and water.

There were immediate concerns expressed by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and a host of humanitarian agencies including UNRWA, WHO, ICRC and not for profit organisations like Oxfam and Medical Aid for Palestinians, that such actions by Israel amounted to collective punishment of the civilian population in Gaza and left the IDF open to charges of breaching international humanitarian law and even conducting war crimes.

Of the evacuation order, a UN spokesperson subsequently said ‘we are concerned that this order, combined with the imposition of a complete siege of Gaza, may not be considered as lawful temporary evacuation and would therefore amount to a forcible transfer of civilians in breach of international law’.

It is in that context that a number of interviews by Labour leadership figures have caused unease and alarm both in the Labour membership and the wider public.

In the immediate aftermath, Labour support for Israel’s actions meant it advocated in favour of Israel’s right to defend itself, at the expense of expressing concern about the impact of collective punishment on Palestinian civilians.

When Nick Ferrari interviewed Starmer on LBC Radio on 11th October, he said, ‘I’m very clear, Israel must have that right, does have that right, to defend herself and Hamas bears responsibility.’ When Ferrari pressed him and asked, ‘A siege is appropriate? Cutting off power? Cutting off water?’ Starmer replied, ‘I think that Israel does have that right. It is an ongoing situation. Obviously everything should be done within international law, but I don’t want to step away from the core principles that Israel has right to defend herself’.

That response has been widely understood to reflect a view of the Labour leader that Israel does have a right to conduct a siege.

The concern about this language was compounded by an appearance by Emily Thornberry on Newsnight on 12th October, when she was specifically asked by Victoria Derbyshire, ‘do you think cutting off food, water and electricity is within international law?’ to which she said, ‘I think Israel has an absolute right to defend itself against terrorism.’

When pressed that, ‘that’s not an answer to the question I asked’, she said, ‘it is an answer and I think an appropriate one at this time’.

The failure of Labour frontbenchers to address the loss of fuel, food and water, particularly as Gaza’s electricity power plant and water pumps including desalination plants were forced to shut down – alongside the legality of those actions under international humanitarian law – has created growing concern.

This has been compounded by heavy-handed communications from the Chief Whip telling Labour MPs not to attend Palestinian solidarity demonstrations on the weekend of the 14th October.

Similar communications were sent by the General Secretary’s office to Labour Group Leaders on local authorities and also to CLP Officers.

Following that, there have been reports of Labour councillors resigning the Whip on their local authority Labour Groups and resigning their party membership.

As a result, there have been reports in the media of Sue Gray – in her new role as Keir Starmer’s chief-of-staff – meeting with Labour Group leaders.

An email sent by Keir Starmer to all Labour councilllors on the 18th October failed to stem resignations which continued throughout the day.

And more concerning for Labour will be the reports of widespread anger within the Muslim community, with thousands signing up to an open letter expressing their loss of confidence in Starmer over his response.

Starmer-friendly journalist Lee Harpin reported a Labour spokesperson had called the departure of Labour councillors as the party ‘shaking off the fleas’. However the scale of the concern saw that tweet hastily deleted, and today Labour’s spokesperson was at pains to claim Starmer’s original Ferrari interview on LBC had been misinterpreted.

They were reported on LabourList as explaining, ‘If you listen to the tape, it was one of those things where there were overlapping questions and answers based on what had been being said before. The specific question beforehand was about Israel having the right to defend itself, which is something that we have repeatedly said and stand by.’

Regardless of the so-called overlap, Starmer’s original interview made clear, ‘everything should be done within international law, but I don’t want to step away from the core principles that Israel has right to defend herself’, suggesting Israel’s military action took precedence over international law.

This has caused a number of human rights experts to write to the Labour leadership requesting an urgent clarification of its legal position on collective punishment.

It has also caused the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians to issue a notice to the Labour leadership of intention to prosecute any UK politicians that aid and abet war crimes in Gaza, following the notice they had issued Rishi Sunak previously for the same.

Labour leadership issued notice of intention to prosecute UK politicians for complicity in war crimes in Gaza

The events have shown a lack of awareness in the current leadership of the mainstream commitment to social justice and international solidarity that runs through the party, which could still have electoral implications.

A year away from a general election Labour has been riding high in the polls, but even before he has had a chance to enter Downing St, Keir Starmer appears to be flirting with international policy positions that saw the loss of public support Tony Blair oversaw when he overzealously supported military action in Iraq in 2003.

Instead of equivocation, the leadership must now adopt the position advocated by 45 MPs and over 60 campaigning and humanitarian organisations, who are calling for a ceasefire.

Only a ceasefire and an end to the siege will guarantee that no further civilian lives are lost and that aid is able to reach all those who need it in the beleaguered strip. Labour must stand up for the implementation of international law and support the independent investigation of all suspected war crimes by the International Criminal Court – and those who have violated the rules of war must face justice.

Image shows a placard which says Palestinian Lives Matter.
Demonstrators made connections between what is happening in Gaza and the Black Lives Matter movement.

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