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Israel-Palestine war: Starmer's Gaza betrayal shows he is failing as a leader

Starmer is set on making Britain complicit in what could easily become a genocide. This is the first time Britain has been complicit in a direct Israeli military action since the Suez Crisis in 1956
Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaks at the party's annual conference in Liverpool, 10 October 2023 (Reuters)

Arab dictators often stand accused of suppressing domestic opinion. When confronted, they argue their people are not ready for democracy.

They hold no monopoly on stifling dissent.

Since becoming leader, Keir Starmer has run the Labour Party on lines that would be familiar to any prince in the Gulf. To enforce his policy that Israel has the right "to defend itself", Labour Party branches have been banned from discussing the conflict and elected representatives "strongly advised" not to attend pro-Palestine demonstrations, according to eight Labour councillors in Oxford.

It banned the Palestine Solidarity Campaign from describing Israel as an apartheid state in its literature for the last party conference.

Starmer has so far refused to apologise for or retract an interview he made on LBC in which he said Israel had the right to cut off water and electricity to Palestinians besieged in Gaza.

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The former human rights lawyer said: "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 the right to defend herself."

The shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry, another human rights lawyer, also backed Israel’s decision to cut off electricity and water saying Israel has "an absolute right to defend itself".

Shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, said that Labour "stands with the people of Israel". He said nothing about the Palestinians.

On Sunday, Lisa Nandy refused four times to say that Israel had broken international law by laying siege to Gaza.

Anger off the charts

Starmer faced an immediate backlash. The party lost control of Oxford City Council after the eight Labour councillors resigned the whip.

Until Saturday night, 20 more Labour councillors had resigned. At least two more Labour-controlled councils could be flipped. One of them is Leicester. For this reason, Peter Soulsby, the mayor of Leicester, criticised Starmer in a letter obtained by Middle East Eye.

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"The impression that has been given is that this condemnation of recent events extends to approving uncritically the Israeli government's response and of ignoring the decades of injustice and the oppression of Palestinians and the violations of their human rights," Soulsby wrote.

Soulsby is in line with the mood of the nation.

Britain has seen the largest demonstrations in support of Palestine since the Iraq War in 2003. Hundreds of thousands have been demonstrating in the streets since Israel began its bombing campaign. 

Having banned its MPs from attending rallies commemorating Palestinian losses of the Israeli attacks, questions are being asked about the attendance of Labour Party's shadow international trade secretary James Heartfelt at a rally remembering the victims of the Palestinian fighters' attack.

A poll conducted by YouGov found a clear majority 76 percent of all voters, and 89 percent of Labour voters, in favour of an immediate ceasefire. Only eight percent of voters and three percent of Labour said there should be none. Starmer’s position is backed by only one percent of his party.

Instead of an apology, Starmer issued a "clarification" of his comments on LBC: "Let me clear about what I was saying, and what I wasn't saying. I was saying Israel had the right to self-defence. When I said 'that right', it was that right to self-defence. I was not saying Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel, or medicines, on the contrary."

This cut no ice with Labour’s Muslim members. Mish Rahman, a Muslim member of Labour’s ruling national executive committee, wrote: "Stop gaslighting and apologise."

The anger within Labour from the British Muslim community is off the charts.

One party member who knows the Muslim community well put it thus: "In seven days, Labour is about to dismantle its most loyal voter base anywhere in the country. I cannot overstate how high the anger is."

An internal Labour poll found that 78 percent of Muslim registered voters support Labour, which makes it the largest block vote anywhere in the country.

This is about to disappear.

Another prominent Muslim leader said that this was the party’s "Iraq war moment" - except that unlike in 2003, Muslims today are at real risk of being prosecuted for expressing support for Palestine

I am told that non-Muslim members of the Parliamentary Labour Party are in "complete panic" over the scale of the response they are getting from mosques, community centres and the public. MPs are getting thousands of individually written emails, which is unheard of on a single issue. 

There is so much anger in the community that mosques are refusing to see MPs. Lammy was allowed to go into one mosque, but he will want to quickly forget the reception he got.

For three hours last week, Lammy’s surgery phoneline was jammed with calls about Gaza. Another "blockade" of Lammy’s phone line is planned for next Tuesday.

Labour can ill afford to ignore its Muslim voters. About two dozen seats and 11 councils depend on the Muslim vote, including major cities like Birmingham, Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Leicester, Luton, and Oldham.

This is not a factional left-right issue in the party. It's becoming an electoral problem for Labour.

No ceasefire

Starmer currently refuses to call for a ceasefire, even a temporary one, to get food and medical aid into Gaza. He will find this position increasingly difficult to maintain.

In keeping to this line, Starmer has positioned his party to the right of Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey who called on Sunday for an immediate ceasefire to allow essential supplies into Gaza, alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the Pope.

A senior adviser to Starmer was asked how many Gazans have to die before Labour will call for a ceasefire. The reply came: "As many as it takes…"

On Sunday, Pope Francis pleaded for the war to end and called for more humanitarian aid to be allowed into the Gaza Strip. "War is always a defeat, it is a destruction of human fraternity. Brothers, stop! Stop!"

A UK parliamentary early day motion calling for an immediate ceasefire has gathered 64 signatures.

Unlike Labour's Lisa Nandy, eight Jewish senior lawyers, headed by Lord Neuberger, former president of the Supreme Court, showed no hesitation in declaring in a letter to the Financial Times that Israel had breached international law in significant ways.

They wrote that it was a grave violation of international law to lay siege to a civilian population; that collective punishment is prohibited by the laws of war; that combatants had to ensure minimum destruction to human life, and that politicians and commanders alike had to be careful to ensure their words did not imply to their troops that the laws of war could be disregarded. 

Already the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians (ICJP), a UK-based legal centre, had issued the Labour leader with a notice of intention to prosecute any UK politician for their complicity in war crimes in Gaza. 

The ICJP letter emphasised that "under international criminal law… support provided to perpetrators of international crimes can be investigated and prosecuted by the International Criminal Court".

In two weeks, Israel is guilty on all counts mentioned in the letter to the Financial Times.

The ground invasion has yet to get under way and already 5,156 Palestinians have been killed and 15,400 wounded since 7 October. Among these are 2,009 children and more than 1,044 women. Hospitals, mosques, schools, UN shelters and churches have all been bombed.

Unlike the war in 2014, whole residential areas have been levelled with little or no warning. In some cases, warning has been given to herd civilians in an area that was then bombed. At least 30 mosques have been destroyed and at least the same number of extended families have been wiped out. 

People take part in a 'March For Palestine', in London on October 21, 2023, to "demand an end to the war on Gaza".
People take part in a 'March For Palestine', in London to demand an end to the war on Gaza on 21 October 21, 2023 (AFP)

The damage is such that Gaza civil defence workers believe that hundreds of bodies lie under the rubble.

Mohamed Fathi Sharir, head of the Safety and Prevention Department at the Civil Defence Directorate, told MEE: "Given the exponential rise in the number of individuals beneath the rubble, our current focus is on prioritising the rescue of the living wounded, even if this postpones the extraction of the deceased from the debris".

These are the scenes equivalent to an earthquake, and yet Gaza is getting no international support. Just silence, which allows Israel to continue, and it said over the weekend it would step up its bombing campaign.

From the earliest days of the Palestinian fighters' attack on 7 October, Israel said it would not be bound by international law in its response. 

In its latest attempt to force one million people to leave the northern half of Gaza, the military dropped leaflets informing citizens that they would be "identified as a partner in a terrorist organisation" if they did not adhere to Israel’s orders to move south. Such a designation has no basis in international law.

A senior adviser to Starmer was asked how many Gazans have to die before Labour will call for a ceasefire. The reply came: "As many as it takes…"

An immeasurable damage

This is not just the stammering of a party leader illiterate in Middle East policy and a neophyte on the world stage.

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This is the position of Britain’s next prime minister. As such, Starmer is already doing Britain immeasurable reputational damage throughout the Arab and Muslim world. 

A consultant with the NHS summed up the feeling of Palestinians in Britain when he said Starmer was dealing with British Muslims as if they did not exist: "We are second-class citizens at best."

Starmer is set on making Britain complicit in what could easily become a genocide.

This is the first time Britain has been complicit in a direct Israeli military action since the Suez Crisis in 1956.

Being inherently a frightened man, easily swayed by special interests, Starmer will be keen to tell MPs on Monday night of his love for the Palestinian people.

Having ignored requests to meet Palestinian groups throughout Labour's antisemitism controversy, Starmer will be keen to get photo ops in mosques.

Yesterday he found a mosque that was willing to host him - my information is that London mosques would not.

But the Labour leader had to travel to the Muslim Community Centre of South Wales to be seen shaking hands with British Muslims. Worst still, when he got there, he tweeted that he repeated calls for hostages to be released.

This was Starmer going off-script. It was not in the brief given to him by aides. The impression he gave in the tweet was that all Muslims are responsible for the fate of Hamas’ hostages. Another disaster, but Starmer is tone-deaf and floundering.

None of this will assuage the anger he has created. Gaza has become the first test of his aspirations to become the next British prime minister, and he has already failed that test dramatically.

All of us in Britain will feel the consequences of that failure for generations to come.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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