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Labour Tone On Israel Has Evolved But Pressure To Go Further Remains

Labour has appeared more hawkish on Israel since Keir Starmer's speech at Chatham House on Tuesday. (Alamy)

6 min read

The Labour frontbench has appeared more hawkish on Israel in the days since Keir Starmer's Tuesday speech on the crisis, but a growing number of Labour figures still want the party to go further and call for a ceasefire – and think as the situation deteriorates in Gaza, it will have to support one.

More than 8,500 people have been killed in Gaza in recent weeks according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Israel's retaliatory bombing of Gaza followed a massive attack by terrorist group Hamas in southern Israel on 7 October, killing more than 1,400 people. Over 200 people were also taken from Israel by Hamas and are being held hostage in Gaza. It is expected that Israel will escalate a ground offensive in the territory. 

At Chatham House on Tuesday Starmer defended Labour's current position of calling for "humanitarian pauses" rather than a full ceasefire, which he argued would embolden Hamas. PoliticsHome understands the speech was edited to be more sympathetic to Palestinians after some members of the shadow cabinet were given sight of initial drafts. 

Starmer said Israel's right to self-defence was "fundamental but it is not a blank cheque". 

"The supply of basic utilities like water, medicines, electricity and yes, fuel to civilians in Gaza cannot be blocked by Israel," he added. "Every life matters, so every step must be taken to protect civilians from bombardment."

His speech was seen as an attempt to quell rising dissent in the party over the leadership's position on a ceasefire, which mirrors that of Downing Street. Dozens of Labour councillors have resigned in protest, adding to pressure from Labour MPs for a shift in tone. Since Tuesday, a number of Labour frontbenchers have publicly broken from the party's official position and called for a ceasefire – with many of the shadow cabinet appearing slightly more hawkish on Israel actions in Gaza.

On Wednesday, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said it was "morally wrong to bomb refugee camps" after the Israeli government bombed the Jabalia refugee camp garnering international condemnation; Israel says it was targeting a senior Hamas commander and terrorist infrastructure.

"I am appalled by the civilian deaths at the Jabalia camp," said Lammy. 

"I called on and continue to call on Israel to explain how this conforms to international law and how it qualifies as proportionate."

A Labour source insisted Lammy’s tweet was consistent with Starmer’s statement in his Tuesday speech that Israel’s right to self defence did not amount to a “blank cheque”.

Appearing on ITV's Peston on Wednesday night, shadow international development minister Lisa Nandy echoed Lammy and said the strike on the refugee camp was "just wrong". 

“Nobody can look at the bombing of a refugee camp, a densely packed, civilian area, with many women and children present, many of whom are now dead as a consequence, and believe that that is the right thing to do," she said. 

 People conduct rescue work among the rubble of buildings destroyed in Israeli airstrikes
 People conduct rescue work among the rubble of buildings destroyed in Israeli airstrikes. (Alamy)

The tone from both of the frontbenchers, who have visited government ministers in Egypt and the Middle East to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, appears harder than the party's previous defence of Israel's military operations. Last month, Starmer sparked outrage after he told LBC that Israel "has the right" to withhold power and water from Gaza despite concerns of collective punishment of civilians. He took several days to clarify the position, insisting he was referring to Israel's right to defend itself. 

One shadow minister told PoliticsHome the slight shift in tone throughout this week has left them feeling more like Labour MPs had a "reasonable framework" for how they respond to what is happening in Gaza. They also felt confident that the growing number of Labour frontbenchers calling for a ceasefire did not appear to be being disciplined for doing so.

"I think the point is: what's happening is things are getting worse," they said, citing the Jabalia refugee camp bombing. "[Labour leadership] have to give a leeway."

But despite what the shadow minister viewed as a "slight" toughening of Labour rhetoric on Israel, and language being "much more sympathetic" to Palestinians than previously, there are still concerns in the party that there has been a step back on commitments to recognising a Palestinian state. 

"In the previous seven years the position was more of recognising, and now what he said is: 'Well, yes, we want to do that but in line with our other partners'," said the shadow minister. "Some feel it's a step back."

In Labour's 2017 and 2019 manifestos under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, the party pledged to an “immediate and unconditional recognition of the State of Palestine”. In his speech on Tuesday, Starmer said the party would "work with international partners towards the recognition of a Palestinian state as part of a negotiated, just and lasting peace".

"The wording of the motion [under Ed Miliband] didn't put any preconditions on recognising Palestine," another Labour MP told PoliticsHome. "Keir is now basically saying recognition when there's a peace process – but there might not be one, unfortunately. So, it may be conditional when it wasn't before."

A man cries among the rubble of buildings destroyed in Israeli airstrikes
A man cries among the rubble of buildings destroyed in Israeli airstrikes. (Alamy)

They also said that while Starmer did this week seem to have struck a more sympathetic tone towards Palestinians, "it is not enough for people" both in parliament, and among some councillors and constituents for whom calling for a ceasefire is essential.

"It will get more difficult again for Keir and the frontbench once parliament returns next week because when people are sat in their constituencies or at home, the temperature automatically always comes down because people aren't talking to each other as much," the MP said.

"People aren't bumping into each other. I think he'll have difficulties again upon returns on Tuesday."

Another Labour MP told PoliticsHome they felt the Labour leadership's tone had become "more strident" on Israel's actions in Gaza. They believed this could be in part due to the fact that the Israeli government is ideologically far-right, and it had been emphasised to leadership that Labour should naturally be more critical of its actions. 

"What they've done is they've put humanitarian pauses in a box, frozen that and said: 'That is our line, and then everything else we're going to have some movement on so it doesn't look like he's bowing to pressure'," the MP explained. 

"And then when people supportive of the Israeli government's military action against Hamas come and criticise him he'll say: 'look, but I'm not backing a ceasefire'."

Ultimately, however, they said they did not believe MPs in the party had changed their position on a ceasefire ahead of parliament resuming next week. 

"I don't think we're in a different place," they said. 

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