Is the Labour Party 'failing' Palestine?

Why some activists feel the Labour Party has 'failed' Palestine
7 min read
14 May, 2021
In-depth: As Palestinians are facing increasing Israeli violence, can British party politics keep up?
Protesters supporting Sheikh Jarrah in London on 11 May [Anadolu Agency/Getty]
Reeling from anti-Semitism allegations that dogged its previous leadership, Labour, the main British opposition party under Keir Starmer, has followed a cautious and 'on-the-fence' stance on the Palestinian question. But the ongoing violence in the Palestinian territories has caught Labour off guard, and activists say its bland response so far amounts to a betrayal of its own internationalist and human rights principles.

Currently, Palestine-Israel is in crisis following Israeli aggression at Al-Aqsa Mosque and moves to expel Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, occupied East Jerusalem. Tel Aviv is bombing Gaza. Hamas and others are firing rockets at Israel. Meanwhile, widespread protests are occurring.

In a statement posted on Labour's website on Wednesday, Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said: "The escalation of violence in Jerusalem, Gaza, and Israel is appalling. The Labour Party utterly condemns the attacks that have endangered civilian lives and resulted in Palestinian and Israeli casualties, including children."

However, the press release did not make clear the difference in scale. On Tuesday – before Nandy's Wednesday statement – The New Arab reported that 28 Palestinians had died, with only two fatalities in Israel.

Nevertheless, in a Monday statement Nandy also said: "Israeli authorities must commit to ending the eviction of Palestinians from their homes and adhere to international law and Jerusalem's sacred sites must be respected."

Condemnation alone is not enough… Do any of us expect the ethnic cleansing to stop just because we ask nicely?

The Arab Labour Group told The New Arab it "welcome[d]" this intervention on Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa. "However, condemnation alone is not enough… Do any of us expect the ethnic cleansing to stop just because we ask nicely?" The pro-Labour organisation implored the party to act, including by asking for "an immediate end to all military-linked sales and support to Israel."

The current Labour leader, Keir Starmer, tweeted out Nandy's latest statement on Wednesday, saying: "Britain must act to de-escalate tensions and kick-start efforts for a sustainable peace - through a two-state solution."

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn appeared on ITV News' Calling Peston podcast in an interview seemingly given on Tuesday. Asked what Starmer's approach should be, he said: "There has to be an end to the settlement policy. There has to be the withdrawal of settlements from the West Bank. There has to be an end to the siege of Gaza, and there has to be a process that can bring about a long-term peace. We can't just keep saying it, and at the same time the settlement policy goes on."

Speaking about comments reportedly made by Starmer, Corbyn explained: "I just wish [the remarks] had been a bit stronger and a bit clearer on this because the [Palestine Liberation Organization] recognised Israel a very long time ago." He dismissed any centring of the Jewish state's right to exist, foregrounding the West Bank's occupied status and Tel Aviv's behaviour towards those living there.

It was not immediately possible to identify any comments made by Starmer on the apparent interview date. However, on Monday, he posted a tweet which, among other things, criticised Israeli actions at Al-Aqsa. The message did not discuss Israel's right to exist.

Corbyn also condemned Israeli abuses in East Jerusalem, including stating that families in Sheikh Jarrah "have been richly and abominably abused by settlers," before noting the deaths in Gaza.

Under Corbyn, Labour's 2017 and 2019 manifestoes pledged to 'immediately recognise the state of Palestine'

"There has to be full recognition of the State of Palestine. There has to be a ceasefire," he said.

Under Corbyn, Labour’s 2017 and 2019 manifestoes pledged to "immediately recognise the state of Palestine." Labour’s press office told The New Arab the party sticks by this commitment on Thursday.

However, Starmer has been rebuked over Palestine-related issues. In April, he backed out of an interfaith iftar after learning an organiser promoted boycotting dates grown on illegal settlement.

More than 550 Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah risk being forcibly evicted. [Getty]
Read more: Sheikh Jarrah and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in East Jerusalem

The Muslim Association of Britain said it was "deeply disappointed." It continued: "We stand in solidarity with all activists, organisations and individuals who support BDS and we urge Sir Keir Starmer to urgently review his position regarding this important issue to bring it in line with international law."

Huda Ammori, co-founder of UK-based Palestine Action, a group using direct action to further the pro-Palestine cause, said Corbyn taking the helm "brought a lot of hope [to] a lot of people who are supportive of Palestine and social justice issues. Many people… including myself, signed up to Labour as a result, despite the history of Labour and the Iraq War etc."

However, the pro-Palestine campaigner's views on Starmer were not so positive. She said the MP for Holborn and St Pancras "moved away from… and disowned" domestic and global social and economic fights.

"With Keir Starmer, it was quite clear from the beginning that [these weren't] his priority," she claimed. "He… betrayed the Palestinian people, and the Kashmiri people, and other groups, and I think it's become impossible to try and fight for change within the Labour Party."

Palestine Action was launched as some ‘realised that [Labour] wasn't the vehicle for change that they had hoped’

According to the pro-Palestine campaigner, this occurred "because it's easier to turn a blind eye to these issues." She said: "We know the power of the Israel lobby," arguing that "standing up for the truth means that [Starmer] might face consequences as a politician."

Ammori explained that Palestine Action was launched as some "realised that [Labour] wasn't the vehicle for change that they had hoped."

However, the organisation's disillusionment with party politics extends much further. "We believe that political parties and the traditional methods have failed to bring justice towards these issues," she said. "The most effective way, we believe… is by taking direct action."

For example, in February, alongside Extinction Rebellion activists, the group blockaded a Greater Manchester factory for Israeli weapons giant Elbit Systems.

Its rejection of party politics comes despite the pro-Palestine views in many of these organisations.

UCL's Academic Board has rejected the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. [Getty]
Read more: Free speech, Israel-Palestine and the battle to define anti-Semitism at British universities

A spokesperson for the Green Party of England and Wales said: "It is our policy to recognise the State of Palestine and we have repeatedly called on the UK government to do so as well."

MP and former party leader Caroline Lucas said: "I unequivocally condemn the police storming of Al-Aqsa mosque in occupied Jerusalem and military strikes by the Israeli authorities on Gaza… As the occupying force and a nation that wields virtually unparalleled military power, Israel must bear overwhelming responsibility for de-escalating this situation - I also call on those firing rockets from Gaza to desist."

This is not the first time the sole Green MP has expressed support for Palestine. For instance, in 2014, she wrote about being "proud to sponsor" a parliamentary "Palestine recognition motion."

Beyond England, Scottish National Party leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon recently said: "Let the message from Scotland be loud and clear; Scotland stands in solidarity with the people of Sheikh Jarrah against their unlawful eviction."

For her part, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran read out the names of four children killed in Gaza in parliament on Wednesday. The half-Palestinian MP also asked: "If this isn't the time to recognise the state of Palestine, then when is?"

Her party pledged recognition in its 2019 manifesto, according to its press team. 

When we have a groundswell from the grassroots of people here taking action… that's when politicians will be forced to listen

When questioned about the potential for change pushed by Moran and party politics beyond Labour, Ammori said: "I think the hope comes from the people. And, when we have a groundswell from the grassroots of people here taking action… that’s when politicians will be forced to listen to the people, and it won’t happen the other way round."

Meanwhile, confronted with Moran's question on BBC Radio 4 Today, Conservative Minister of State for Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly argued recognition of Palestine was not something "anyone credibly" considers "the priority issue" during the current escalation. He said that "nobody wants to see more injuries; nobody wants to see more fatalities on either side."

Speaking more broadly about Britain's ruling Conservatives, Richard Barnard, Palestine Action co-founder, said "they show their true colours because… they're… completely, I suppose, 'in' with the Israeli apartheid regime."

Nick McAlpin is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin