The Labour Party’s support for Israel’s massacre in Gaza shows that Keir Starmer has learnt nothing from Tony Blair’s morally and politically disastrous Iraq War.

(Credit: Palestine Solidarity Campaign)

In Liverpool last October, the Labour Leader’s Office issued an edict saying that no one at conference could say anything on Palestine other than to echo Keir Starmer’s words condemning Hamas and proclaiming Israel’s right to self-defence. Reading the script provided by Israeli embassies around the world, the UK, US and many other Western governments publicly signed up to Israel’s war objectives: the military destruction of Hamas by any necessary means whatever the human cost in civilian lives. 

Over 20,000 lives later, with more bombs dropped on Gaza than on Dresden, it is no use Labour belatedly and mildly criticising Israel by calling for more humanitarian aid and longer pauses – or even a ‘sustained ceasefire’, as David Lammy has now suggested. Labour should be unequivocally calling for a permanent ceasefire now but it won’t because that would be a complete reversal of its position sanctioning Israel’s war on Gaza.  

Anything less is insufficient the damage has been done and the dead cannot be brought back to life. A permanent ceasefire is, of course, the bare minimum. As Desmond Tutu said: ‘There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.’ Labour has watched the bodies float while knowing exactly why they are falling in – the merciless and relentless drive by Israel to eliminate all possibility of a Palestinian state through its war on Gaza and its violent settlement and colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. 

Israeli leaders have made clear their objectives it is not a two-state solution, it is a one-state greater Israel regime operating from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. That is what they are trying to move forward through their war on Gaza, with renewed calls for the settlement of Gaza and the ‘voluntary’ transfer of Palestinians out of historic Palestine. What is taking place is already dwarfing the catastrophic Nakba of 1948. 

While parroting Israel’s war objectives under the guise of the US and UK government’s policies, Labour, rightly, has no hiding place from critics inside and outside the Party. Labour has failed morally, as Blair did on Iraq. Labour has, in reality, gone to war on Palestine, without the support of the majority of the Party or the British public. Palestine is a litmus test issue for Labour’s ‘ethical foreign policy,’ and it has spectacularly failed.  

The hundreds of thousands who have marched on the streets of London believe that support for an immediate, permanent ceasefire is a minimum bar for anyone with an iota of moral integrity. It has come to something where Starmer gets more boos than Sunak for what is in fact government policy. 

In failing to call for a permanent ceasefire, more than simply condoning Israeli violence, Labour has lost moral authority with members, the public and voters. It has lost the confidence of a generation. If Israel is delegitimising itself by its actions, Labour is doing so by its uncritical support for the Israeli state. This is not a crack to be papered over by some manicured words designed to sound slightly more critical than the government, whilst in reality still supporting everything Israel is doing. 

If Labour forms the next government, it will be despite the policy on Palestine, not because of it. It will be the desire to get rid of this Tory government overcoming distaste for Labour’s actions but it will be through gritted teeth and, for many, a huge dilemma: whether or not to vote for a party that has supported Israel’s war.  

This is not a new predicament for internationalists within the party. Labour, since its creation, has always been a party that has supported zionist political objectives from Balfour onwards until the present day. But what is happening now is different in nature. All those marchers and voters, young and old, are not going to forget, come the election. Palestine will be on the ballot paper. Activists will sit on their hands and decline to campaign, others will leave, albeit reluctantly, as many already have. Crucially, it will stop a lot of people voting for Labour who would normally have done so. 

It’s unlikely to result in election defeat but will certainly make winning harder. And the fallout from the war on Gaza won’t go away following the election – the distaste and anger at Labour’s position will become a running sore throughout the party’s time in government. There will be no honeymoon period – expectations will be low, but there will be instant demands for a fundamental shift in policy on Palestine. It will no longer be sufficient to mutter the occasional criticism whilst quietly calling for a two-state solution. 

We have seen where the bombs go, we know how the arms and technology are used massacring thousands of Palestinians. On coming to office, Labour must announce an immediate arms embargo until Israel complies with international law. It must also be clear that a ceasefire is not enough. Bringing about a peaceful resolution requires the total dismantlement of Israel’s apartheid regime and apparatus from Jericho to Gaza. This will entail Israel bringing down the wall, ending the siege, removing illegal settlements, returning Palestine’s water and gas withdrawing its troops and ending the military occupation. 

The occupation is illegal. Labour must not support arming Israel in any way that is used to enforce it. But it is not just arms, it is the finance and trade that is used to pay for the colonisation of Palestine, primarily through the growth and building of settlements – the towns, roads and walls. This infrastructure is built on stolen Palestinian land. We pay for the occupation through aid and trade. Instead, there should be full trade sanctions until Israel complies with international law and, a Labour government must commit to repealing the Tories’ toxic anti-boycott bill, if it is on the statute book.  

As a start, the immediate recognition of Palestine as a state would throw into sharp relief the nature of Israel’s actions and accept a responsibility for supporting Palestinian self-determination. According to the UN, the minimum requirements to be recognised as a nation state are ‘a permanent population, a defined territory, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.’  

Blindly following supposed ‘advice’ from US security advisers and what the Tories say is a mistake. Labour must show leadership in this moment. The Party can use every tool at its disposal to prevent further bloodshed. Or it can stay on the wrong side of history. 

Labour & Palestine’s online event ‘Palestine in 2024 – What the World should be doing’, with Mustafa Barghouti, General Secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI), takes place on Wednesday 17 January. Register here

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