‘Why quitting councillors are misguided about Israel – and should stay in Labour’

Luke Akehurst
hapelinium / Shutterstock

LabourList has run a series of pieces offering different views on the conflict in Israel and Palestine, its implications and Labour’s response. You can read more of them here.

Having read the new letter to Keir Starmer from former Labour councillors and elected officials who resigned in recent weeks, I am left unsure about why they actually did so.

The sincerity of their pain over the plight of people in Gaza is obvious, but much of the rest of the letter is confused, ill-informed or just plain wrong.

To start with, it says they were “forced to resign”. They weren’t. Many members and councillors completely agree with the resigners, but have remained in the party and expressed their views within it.

Labour is not gagging parties or banning protest

The letter says there are “restrictions placed on Constituency Labour Parties gagging them from raising motions… and preventing them from openly standing in solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis”. There are not. 

General secretary David Evans’ recent letter to CLPs and branches simply said events in the Middle East would trigger “great emotion and debate”, which he will not let become a flashpoint for the expression of views that undermine the Labour Party’s ability to provide a safe and welcoming space”. Motions “prejudicial or grossly detrimental” to the party or which risk infringing party rules on antisemitism and Islamophobia will be ruled out of order.

The letter also alleges a “ban” on attending protests in solidarity with Palestine. This isn’t true. John McDonnell was a platform speaker at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign demo on Saturday and faced no sanction. 

Again, Evans’ advice was to be careful, not a ban. Elected representatives were given “strong advice” not to attend in the interest of safety and so they can avoid sharing a platform or being photographed with individuals who threaten to undermine Labour values.

So, the letter’s authors could have said everything they wanted to, and protested as much as they wanted, from within the party.

It is disappointing they don’t mention Hamas

It is also disappointing their letter doesn’t mention Hamas. Israel’s actions, and Labour’s stance, didn’t appear from nowhere.

What happened on October 7th almost defies description. Unprovoked, thousands of terrorists invaded Israel, on a religious holiday, at dawn, alongside a massive barrage of missiles aimed indiscriminately at civilian targets. 

They primarily targeted not the military but villages and towns, populated by some of the most peace-loving and left-wing people in Israel, and a peace-themed dance music festival, slaughtering 1,400 men, women and children, and raping, torturing, mutilating and kidnapping many more. Pensioners were machine-gunned at a bus stop; families tortured in front of each other and burned alive; little children shot in cold blood.

This was not some additional episode in a cycle of Israel-Palestine violence. This was the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust and the biggest act of terrorism since 9/11. Such sadistic brutality bears comparison with the Nazi Einsatzgruppen that accompanied Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, or massacres in Rwanda.

I can understand criticism of how Israel is conducting this war or desire for a ceasefire. But it must be accompanied by recognition Israel has a right to respond militarily to a devastating attack, even if you believe it should not exercise it. If there was ever a “just war”, this is it, much like with the Allies’ war against Nazism or Vietnam’s against the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. 

Criticism of Keir over one remark is overblown

Criticism of Keir is ridiculously overblown, and focused on minute textual examination of one remark. On LBC, he said Israel ‘has the right’ to withhold power and water, adding: “Obviously, everything should be done within international law.”

Keir has subsequently said he was “not saying that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines”.

There’s a legitimate criticism Keir should have initially been clearer, but does that justify calling his words “horrific and dehumanising rhetoric” and resigning? There wasn’t any “rhetoric” at all, let alone anything “horrific and dehumanising”.

The attempt to label Israel’s actions “collective punishment” and a war crime is also overblown. Why not just say “I don’t think Israel should do this”? Collective punishment means deliberately harming civilians for something their government or others have done. It doesn’t apply to harm done because it is impossible to fight enemies like Hamas in urban areas without incidental harm to civilians, who Israel has also advised to get out of harm’s way.

If it did, it would incentivise Hamas to always use civilian human shields and act with impunity. Militaries have to assess attacks’ legality based on proportionality – is the damage justified by what is necessary for a specific objective?

For instance, the laws of war allow destruction of a primarily civilian-used bridge if necessary to stop military opponents crossing. It is similarly possible to argue interdicting water and electricity is legal, if they are of military benefit to Hamas.

Labour has clearly stated Israel should supply water and electricity to meet Gazan civilians’ needs, but that doesn’t make an alternative Israeli decision “collective punishment” or a war crime. 

A ceasefire won’t stop more deaths in future

The letter from the resigners also calls for efforts to build a “Palestinian state that can exist alongside Israel free from occupation.” This has always been Labour policy. 

It calls for an immediate ceasefire too. That’s a legitimate call, but Israel hasn’t yet freed over 200 hostages, and Hamas is still in control of Gaza. A ceasefire is a recipe for saving lives now but causing more future deaths and destruction as Hamas rebuild and plan more attacks. The only way to end the cycle of carnage and create a Palestinian state is to remove Hamas from power in Gaza.

The letter writers at least propose a solution, unlike many other critics of Israel, backing UN peacekeepers at borders. This is naïve. There are already UN peacekeepers on the Lebanon border. They are unable to stop Hezbollah attacking Israel. It is difficult to think any nation would offer up troops for as dangerous a mission as policing Hamas. Nor would Israel subcontract border security to a third party it perceives as at best feeble and at worst biassed against it.

Other demands by the authors are ridiculous. They urge Israel to give International Criminal Court and UN access to investigate the al Ahli hospital deaths. It is Hamas that would need to grant access, and the story has been comprehensively debunked as governments worldwide have assessed the evidence. It was a misfiring rocket from within Gaza, not an Israeli airstrike. 

And whilst tragic civilian deaths were caused, the number 500 seems to be a massive exaggeration by Hamas. I’m disappointed at the credence given to this dangerous propaganda. 

Finally the letter urges a ban on UK arm sales to Israel. This would deny a country trying to defend itself against the most vile terrorist attacks the equipment it needs.

In conclusion, I disagree with many points made by the writers, but respect their right to make them. I am baffled as to why they feel they can’t conduct this debate from inside the party. I would urge them to rejoin and reconsider.

The author is writing in a personal capacity. He is a member of Labour’s national executive committee as well as director of We Believe in Israel.

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