Israel-Gaza war causes Labour divisions to resurface

Party leadership says Israel has a right to defend itself but voices elsewhere in the ranks disagree

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy addresses delegates on the second day of the annual Labour Party conference in Liverpool. AFP
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The war between Israel and Gaza has caused deep-seated divisions in the Labour Party that have lingered since the Jeremy Corbyn years to resurface at its annual conference in Liverpool.

Keir Starmer was quick to condemn Hamas’s attack on Israel and shadow cabinet members have echoed his support for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

But while the message from Labour’s leadership is clear – Israel has every right to defend itself against terrorists – the violence has reignited conversations among party supporters on what needs to be done to address the long-term conflict.

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said Labour would “not surrender the hope of two states living side-by-side in peace”, as he warned both Israelis and Palestinians were paying a “terrible price” after Hamas’s “indiscriminate” attacks.

Labour MP Margaret Beckett, who served as foreign secretary from 2006-07 in Tony Blair’s government, told a fringe event at the conference that numerous opportunities for peace between Israel and Palestine had been “wasted and disappeared”.

She said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a “poisonous influence” on the Middle East peace process.

Wayne David, Labour’s shadow minister for the Middle East and North Africa, said the UK should “not turn a blind eye” to the “huge injustices committed against the Palestinian people for many years”.

Mr David told the event on Palestinian rights: “I believe that the people of Palestine should not be equated with Hamas.”

He said Israeli settlers were guilty of “terrorist activity” and that Israel’s response to Saturday's Hamas attack “must be proportionate”.

He also called for more UK aid for beleaguered Palestinians.

The event began with 30 seconds of silence to reflect on the horrors of recent days.

Host Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the “horrors and loss of life” in Gaza and Israel called for a “moment for sober reflection”.

The National spoke to several people at the event to gauge the feeling as the opposition party positions itself to win the next general election.

John Healey, Labour's shadow defence minister, told the conference he was glad that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a former hostage of Iran, would be attending the event in Liverpool more than a year after she was released.

Asked by The National if the Conservative government should adopt a stronger policy towards Iran, given its backing for Hamas, Mr Healey declined to comment.

"That's a good question to try to ask David," he replied, referring to Mr Lammy.

Israel says 260 dead at music festival attacked by Hamas

Israel says 260 dead at music festival attacked by Hamas

A Labour government would adopt a stronger foreign policy compared to Rishi Sunak's administration, Mr Healey told the conference.

"With threats increasing with the war in Ukraine, security is now at the heart of every nation's interests," he said.

"And these words have special significance for Israel today.

"We condemn the attacks. We support Israel's right to defend itself and we pray all hostages return safely."

Kim Johnson, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, declined to comment on the violence unfolding.

Ms Johnson in February apologised to the House of Commons after angering politicians by calling the Israeli government “fascist” during Prime Minister’s Questions. Her apology and retraction came after she had been summoned to Labour’s chief whip to explain her remarks.

Her comments, shortly after Holocaust Memorial Day, caused a stir among Labour members and ignited fears of the party becoming mired in another anti-Semitism row.

“I will condemn the [Hamas] attacks – but that’s it,” she said when questioned by The National.

Jackie Jarvis, a supporter of One Palestine Land, a group which campaigns for a one-state solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict, stood outside the conference centre with a fellow supporter holding a Palestinian flag.

She lambasted Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, for saying “Gaza is not occupied by Israel” during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday morning.

“I think that shows her level of ignorance because Gaza is a prison,” Ms Jarvis told The National. “Most of the people cannot get out easily and the few who can go out, it is very difficult for them.

“For the shadow chancellor to say such an ignorant thing in terms of her understanding of occupation is appalling.”

As she spoke a man heading towards the conference hall stopped briefly to tell her “you are a disgrace”.

She appeared unfazed but it was an indication of the deep divisions that remain in Labour on how to respond to the Palestine-Israel issue.

Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves said she had “no time” for people cheering for the Palestinian cause on the sidelines of the conference in Liverpool.

The senior Labour figure insisted the party was standing by the people of Israel as she faced questions about the expected appearance of the top Palestinian diplomat in the UK at the conference.

Husam Zomlot, the head of the Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom, told CNN that “Israel knew that this was coming their way… It’s a consequence”. Ms Reeves said "she felt upset" by the comments.

Since succeeding Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2020, Mr Starmer has worked to improve the party’s image after an anti-Semitism scandal.

However, his previous support for Mr Corbyn, who once referred to Hamas as his “friends”, has not been forgotten by many.

Katie Fallon, spokeswoman for the Campaign Against Arms Trade, told The National: “What’s happening [in Israel] is horrendous."

She said the Hamas attacks were a consequence of a “long, long legacy of injustice” for the Palestinians and argued there was no military solution to the conflict.

“Over the last 10 years there’s been a cycle of violence and Palestinians, especially children, have suffered," she said.

“It seems that every year people in Gaza are killed.

“I don’t see how this cycle is going to end. It’s relentless.

“We are seeing the same with Israel now.

“I was shocked by the magnitude of the violence [on Saturday] but desperately not surprised [by Hamas’s attack].

A middle-aged man at a stall run by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign admitted it had not been the best start to the annual Labour gathering for his group. But despite the violence in Gaza and Israel, he said many attending the conference had shown interest in his campaign.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign said Hamas’s attacks on Israeli soldiers and citizens were “a response to recent and historic violence against Palestinians by Israel”.

Labour Party conference - in pictures

A young man standing at a stall run by Labour Friends of Israel – a group that promotes support for a strong bilateral relationship between Britain and Israel – said he and his fellow activists had been warmly received by conference guests compared to recent years.

He highlighted pages listing dozens of people’s names and contact details to show the strength of support the group had received.

Asked if the continuing conflict was personal to him, he became visibly emotional as he revealed he has relatives and friends in Israel who have been affected by the violence – thankfully they were safe, he said.

Updated: October 09, 2023, 2:46 PM