“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’.
“Why won’t you answer?” @vicderbyshire asks Labour’s Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry if Israel cutting off power and supplies to Gaza is in line with international law.#Newsnight pic.twitter.com/l9bHcsBsnW— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) October 12, 2023
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.
NEW: I’ve seen messages sent from the Labour leadership telling its MPs and council leaders not to attend any Palestine related protests and demonstrations this weekend – regardless of what they are— Shehab Khan ITV (@ShehabKhan) October 14, 2023
Similar communications were sent by the General Secretary’s office to Labour Group Leaders on local authorities and also to CLP Officers.
We have received this leaked internal email from @UKLabour Gen. Secretary, David Evans to Party unit secretaries. It appears to be a threat of expulsion for protesting against war crimes, genocide and ethnic cleansing. pic.twitter.com/PozOfw40CK— Liverpool Riverside Left (@LivRivLeft) October 14, 2023
Following that, there have been reports of Labour councillors resigning the Whip on their local authority Labour Groups and resigning their party membership.
A growing number of councillors have resigned from the Labour party:— Taj Ali (@Taj_Ali1) October 18, 2023
Asima Shaikh (Finsbury Park)
Mairéad Healy (Cambridge)
Usman Bhaimia (Gloucester)
Russell Whitling (Gedling)
Amna Abdullatif (Manchester)
Jessie Hoskin (Stroud)
Shaista Aziz (Oxford)
Amar Latif (Oxford)
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.
Nadia Farhat, Labour Councillor for Nottingham City, has resigned. pic.twitter.com/qlJrKVONha— Taj Ali (@Taj_Ali1) October 18, 2023
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.
Labour-supporting Muslims tell Starmer to step down:— Morning Star (@M_Star_Online) October 18, 2023
Thousands sign letter of no confidence as leader continues to back Israeli war crimeshttps://t.co/TAC6SyIPiU
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.
🚨 NEW: Labour members who have resigned in protest at Starmer's recent comments on Israel/Palestine have been called "fleas" by a Labour source.— Stats for Lefties 🏳️⚧️ 🇵🇸 (@LeftieStats) October 16, 2023
When asked about the members who have resigned in protest, a Labour source described it as "shaking off the fleas". pic.twitter.com/45FDrYqn7n
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.