Israel-Gaza war hits home for Labour's loyal supporters

Britain's largest left-wing party still recovering from anti-Semitism scandal under previous leadership

Supporters of Israel and Palestine have been holding rallies around the globe amid the Israel-Gaza war. AFP
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The violence in Israel and Gaza came to dominate this year’s Labour Party conference.

Leader Keir Starmer trod a careful line on the subject, all too aware of the deep divisions that ran through the opposition when he took the reins from Jeremy Corbyn in 2020.

The man who is the favourite in opinion polls to be Britain’s next prime minister chose his words delicately, saying Israel “must always have the right to defend her people” and condemning Palestinian terrorists’ “cold-blooded” slaughter of hundreds of Israeli civilians.

His position appeared to be welcomed by the majority of those attending the annual gathering in the northern city, with delegates jumping to their feet to applaud his support for Israel in his address on Tuesday afternoon.

Mr Starmer’s claim that he had “ripped anti-Semitism out by the roots” after becoming leader drew another standing ovation from the crowds.

But away from the stage lights and packed auditorium, loyal Labour supporters could be heard criticising the party leader’s handling of the crisis unfolding in Israel and Gaza.

One figure told The National Mr Starmer’s stance will not fly if Labour wins the next general election and he is sent to represent Britain on the world stage.

Posters that read “Israel is an apartheid state” were plastered across rubbish bins lining the seafront walkway outside the venue where Mr Starmer and his wife Victoria had been filmed walking earlier in the day.

Appalling attack on Israel

Mr Starmer told delegates in Liverpool he was “shocked and appalled by events in Israel”.

“I utterly condemn the senseless murder of men, women and children, including British citizens, in cold blood by the terrorists of Hamas,” he said.

He then added: “This party believes in a two-state solution. A Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel. But this action by Hamas does nothing for Palestinians.

“And Israel must always have the right to defend her people.”

Since Hamas launched its deadly attack on Israel on Saturday, the political space in the UK has been dominated by reaction to the atrocities and the fallout from the violence – and the conference in Liverpool was no exception.

Ben Jamal, director of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, said Mr Starmer and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have this in common – they both responded to the crisis in a “shameful” manner.

“Here is the problem: those who’ve rushed to condemn violence by Palestinians in the last few days and have asserted international law as the framework have absolutely no moral foundation to stand upon while at the same time ignoring and being complicit in Israel’s violations of international law,” he told The National.

“What they risk doing, and in fact are doing, is giving the green light to Israel to take whatever action it decides it wants to over the next few weeks. And Israel has made clear the sort of action it’s planning to take.

“When our leaders, including the leader of this party, say we stand full square [with Israel] and when the public buildings in London are lit up with the flag of Israel that cannot be interpreted as a statement of solidarity with civilians who are being unjustly killed because that should extend to all civilians.

“It can only be interpreted as support for an ongoing military occupation and for Israel to commit war crimes.”

Double standards

Mr Jamal was keen to stress his campaign strongly opposes any act of violence, pointing out that international law prohibits anyone, regardless of whether they are oppressed, from carrying out attacks on others.

But he railed against what he sees as double standards of British and other western politicians in supporting Ukraine’s “right to resist a military occupation by Russia” while failing to support Palestinians’ efforts to resist Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its long-running blockade of the Gaza Strip.

“You can’t on the one hand assert those principles in one situation and not in another,” he said.

Given the massive anti-Semitism row Labour was gripped by during the Corbyn years, Mr Jamal suspects Mr Starmer’s decision to toe the Tory line on Israel could be because he was “persuaded by pro-Israel voices” in Labour.

Former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was suspended from the party in the wake of a report that found serious failings in dealing with anti-Semitism during his tenure.

Mr Starmer will have to learn to stand on his own feet if he finds himself with the keys to No 10, Mr Jamal suggested, and find a way to represent Britain on the world stage that does not look sheepish.

“A fundamental truth once spoken said if the Labour Party is not a moral cause it is nothing,” said the campaigner, who is originally from the West Bank. “A Labour Party should have in its lifeblood the principles of internationalism. Injustice anywhere affects justice everywhere.

“Those committed to internationals should stand always with the oppressed instead of the oppressor.

“And I think that those are principles that Keir Starmer seems to have forgotten.”

Helen Marks, secretary of Liverpool Friend of Palestine campaign group, was among the pro-Palestinian protesters gathered outside the conference waving flags and handing out leaflets.

Total siege of Gaza prohibited under international law, says UN

Total siege of Gaza prohibited under international law, says UN

The group held a moment’s silence to remember the victims of the most recent flare-up of violence in Israel and Gaza.

Ms Marks, who comes from a Jewish family and has relatives living in Israel, echoed Mr Jamal’s call for political leaders to apply the same standards to all countries.

“Hamas breached borders and launched an attack,” she told The National.

“We do not glorify the fact that Israelis have died. There’s nothing clever about killing people.

“But Israel is also breaching borders and no one is talking about that. It’s an infringement of international law.

“It’s so important for people to realises this is an unfair situation.”

Lasting solution needed

The veteran campaigner wore a T-shirt that read “end the siege of Gaza” and said her desire is to see people at the top come together to find lasting solutions to the conflict.

“We have to talk about real solutions,” she said. “The Oslo Accords were not a solution.”

She is not alone in holding such an opinion.

Thirty years after the deals were signed by Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister at the time, even the architects admit they were a failure.

Yossi Beilin, who previously served in several positions in the Israeli government and was deputy foreign minister when the accords were signed, last month called for the historic pact to be scrapped.

“Let us stop it,” Mr Beillin told an online event hosted by London think tank Chatham House. “We never thought that it would be for 30 years and that we would mark the 30th year of Oslo. It’s not a success. It’s a failure because we cannot get to a permanent agreement.

“I think the best thing which [should] happen to Oslo is to kill it.”

Updated: October 11, 2023, 6:05 AM