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Senior Labour Is Working Closely With Local Leaders To Navigate Israel-Palestine Tensions

Labour leader Keir Starmer, pictured earlier this month (Alamy)

7 min read

Senior Labour figures are engaged in an ongoing dialogue with local councillors over community tensions over the Israel-Palestine conflict, with a leading representative for party councillors insisting that “Jewish and Muslim communities must feel the Labour Party stands with them”.

But there remain calls from The Labour Muslim Network for Labour's leadership to go further still to repair what they describe as a “deep” pain within their community caused by what some have perceived as Labour leader Keir Starmer's disproportionate support for Israel. 

More than 1,400 Israelis were killed by terrorist group Hamas on October 7, according to the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Almost 2,400 Palestinians have since been killed in retaliatory airstrikes by Israel, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. While Labour's leadership was viewed as having demonstrated a balanced response to the crisis at its conference in Liverpool last week, subsequent comments made by Starmer relating to Israel's blockade of essential supplies to Gaza have caused upset, prompting a number of councillors to resign the Labour whip. 

Nesil Caliskan, the leader of the Local Government Association (LGA) Labour Group, who attends shadow cabinet meetings, told PoliticsHome that Labour council leaders have “spoken to party leaders” about the effect the conflict in Israel and Palestine is “having on community cohesion in the places they represent”. 

She said that council leaders have shared concerns that Labour councillors in some areas are coming under “extreme pressure” to counter the “false” idea that “Labour does not support Palestinians”. 

“Labour councillors have welcomed and agree with Keir’s recent statements that make it crystal clear that the Labour leadership condemn the terror attacks carried out by Hamas, the right for Israel to defend herself, that all parties act within international law, and that civilians must be protected from harm," she said. 

“All Labour councillors will continue to reach out to our communities at this difficult time, attend vigils for both Israeli and Palestinian victims, and support positive interfaith relationships that promote community cohesion.

“Jewish and Muslim communities must feel the Labour Party stands with them.” 

An interview with Starmer on LBC last week caused upset among parts of the Muslim community and Muslim Labour councillors. The Labour leader was asked whether he believes Israel’s cutting off power and water supplies into Gaza in response to Hamas's atrocities was appropriate, to which he insisted that “Israel does have that right, it is an ongoing situation".

On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Labour leader suggested Starmer was responding to a previous question and there had been overlapping answers. They said that Starmer had been consistent in interviews that Israel should follow international law. 

Starmer’s comments in the House of Commons on Monday, in which he stressed the need for there to be “humanitarian corridors” to provide food, water and aid to Palestinians trapped under threat from air attacks, have been welcomed as a change in tone, but the Labour Muslim Network told PoliticsHome more is still needed following the LBC comments. 

A LMN spokesperson said that the “pain and offence within the Muslim community is very deep” and called for senior figures to make sure that they show that “Muslim life is valued in our party”. 

“This is one of the most loyal voter bases the Labour Party has or has ever had, and it's important that we show empathy to Palestinian life, we show that Muslim life is valued in our party,” they said.  

They welcomed the "shift in tone" from Starmer this week, pointing to the Commons statement, but said that "so much more needs to be done because of the scale of outrage and offence at what came before".

“So really our urge to the party, that all Muslims are calling for, is that an innocent Palestinian soul whose life is lost is seen as equal to an innocent Israeli soul whose life is lost, both of which I think are tragic” they added. 

The LMN has said that they have seen a marked increase in Islamophobic messages directed at the group since the Hamas attacks, including threats. There have been reported rises in the number of Islamophobic and antisemitic incidents in the UK following the attack on Israel from Hamas and the subsequent Israeli response. 

Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy held a briefing with Labour councillors earlier this week on the situation, where it is understood some raised concern over the pressure and tensions they have felt in their communities in recent days. 

A number of councillors in England have resigned from the party in response to what they have perceived as Starmer’s inadequate support of Palestine, and party figures are bracing for the possibility of more resignations in the coming days. 

Among those who have already resigned the Labour whip is Cllr Amna Abdullatif, who sits on Manchester City Council and is the first Arab Muslim woman elected to the body. 

In a resignation statement posted on social media, Abdullatif said that she joined the party because its values reflected her own, but “it saddens me that I no longer feel that this is the case under the current leadership”. 

She said she was “devastated to now have no choice other than to resign the Labour whip” and attributed this to “horrifying comments” by Starmer on LBC.

“I am appalled by the lack of humanity being shown to Palestinians by the party I have been a member of for the last 10 years,” she said.

Starmer wrote to Labour councillors on Wednesday, and said that he had met with representatives of the Jewish community in recent days, and also with organisations contributing to aid efforts in Palestine.  

He told councillors he was "moved by the tragic circumstances" aid workers described and that Labour will support their work. 

“This is an urgent situation and innocent Palestinians need to know the world is not simply watching, but acting, to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe,” Starmer said.

“I am acutely aware of the shocking rise in Islamophobia and antisemitic attacks that have been seen on too many British streets over the last few days. 

“I know some of you have yourselves been victims, and all of you have played your role in dealing with these most difficult of circumstances.” 

He pledged that he would be continuing to call for Hamas to immediately release hostages, all parties to act in accordance with international law and protect civilians, humanitarian access to Gaza and corridors for people to flee. 

Labour MP Charlotte Nichols, who is Jewish, told PoliticsHome that she can understand why some people felt that Labour was “not taking enough leadership” around the discussion, including on international law, but thinks the party is “getting to the place” where it is more focussed on the issue and taking a more nuanced stance. 

She acknowledged that Starmer’s LBC interview had "generated a lot of hurt in certain communities".

“I think people felt that we were condemning a breach of international law on one side, and if not actively condoning it, certainly not condemning it on the other side, and feeling that we were picking sides,” she said.  

"If Israel don't abide by those high standards of international law, then what's it all for? I think that that's something that we could have articulated more strongly earlier on, so that our response seemed to take in more of that nuance and complexity."

Nichols, the MP for Warrington North, said that the party is "not going to pass running commentary" on the conflict given the speed of developments, but she believes "there is going to need to be a political solution" that looks to the longer term.

"We need to be more focused on that and I think we're getting to that place now, it's very good and helpful,” she added.

Additional reporting by Zoe Crowther



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