Closing in on two weeks since air raid sirens sounded in Jerusalem, warning citizens of the attack in progress and to immediately take cover, and the situation in the Israel-Hamas conflict continues to develop at a rapid pace.
Warning against a “dangerous escalation”, Rishi Sunak today followed in the footsteps of US president Joe Biden in meeting his counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israeli president Isaac Herzog, where the PM expressed his “solidarity with the Israeli people”.
The meeting came after Biden backed Israel over the explosion at the al-Ahli Hospital in the north of the Gaza Strip, which is reported to have killed 471 Palestinians and wounded 314 others, by saying that the “other team” were behind it.
The UK government is committed to publishing its own assessment of who was behind the blast at the al-Ahli Hospital and Sunak has stated that he will not “rush to judgment before we have all the facts on this awful situation”.
Commenting on the tragedy at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer called the news of deaths at the Al Ahli Arab hospital incredibly distressing. He asked when the PM could update MPs on the work to establish what happened.
As has been widely noted, the exchanges at PMQs yesterday saw the usual cut and thrust of party politics put to one side. For Labour, it was in essence a return to what Keir Starmer termed “constructive opposition” during the pandemic years – as he once more presents a united front with the government.
In this way, Starmer has not directly criticised the Israeli response, and has couched his statements in terms of criticism of Hamas, an organisation he has said has no regard for “the safety of Palestinian people”.
But, yesterday, the Labour leader did declare that an Israeli response “must be done in line with international humanitarian law”, adding that civilians in Gaza “must not be targeted” as part of his call for humanitarian corridors to be opened.
“Medicines, food, fuel and water must get into Gaza immediately. Innocent Palestinians need to know that the world is not just simply watching but acting to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe”, the Labour leader declared to a hushed chamber yesterday.
It suggests a slight softening in the position Starmer adopted during an interview with LBC during Labour conference, which is now frequently cited by those critical of his approach to the conflict. During what must have been an exhaustive string of media interviews, Starmer was asked if he thought a siege of Gaza was appropriate if it involved “cutting off power, cutting off water”.
He responded: “I think that Israel does have that right”. He did go on to clarify that “everything should be done within international law”.
Starmer’s spokesman has since suggested that the LBC interview confused Labour’s position because “there were overlapping questions and answers based on what had been being said before”.
The contours of this debate a subtle, but Starmer’s slight evolution in positioning since his LBC interview show how fine a line he must walk on the conflict. Indeed, in response to Starmer’s comments at conference, several Labour councillors have quit the party. Amna Abdullatif, the first Arab Muslim woman on Manchester City Council, said she had been left “no choice” other than to resign from Labour as she accused the Labour leader of “effectively endorsing a war crime”.
The Labour leader, who is no stranger to upsetting his left flank and might, in other circumstances, revel in the exiting of internal critics, has responded with a letter to local representatives. In an apparent attempt to quell anger, with more than 20 councillors having already resigned from his party, Starmer wrote on Wednesday: “this is a terrifying and distressing time for everyone – Israeli, Palestinian, Muslim and Jew” and said he believed it was “important that people hear directly what our position is”.
But the pressure on the Labour leader is not merely limited to councillors. Yesterday, a constellation of Labour MPs signed an Early Day Motion calling for cessations of hostilities to protect citizens in Gaza. Signatories included Richard Burgon, John McDonnell as well as now-independent MPs Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn.
The opening of the EDM reads: “This House utterly condemns the massacre of Israeli civilians and taking of hostages by Hamas; agrees with the United Nations Secretary-General that these horrific acts do not justify responding with the collective punishment of the Palestinian people”.
The motion, also signed by Grahame Morris, Beth Winter and Zarah Sultana — who hail from the Socialist Campaign Group of left-wing Labour MPs — expressed “deep alarm at the Israeli military bombardment and total siege of Gaza and the resulting deaths and suffering”.
Other signatories include Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Alba MP Kenny MacAskill, SDLP MP Claire Hanna, Alliance MP Stephen Farry, Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley and a series of SNP MPs.
In this way, the consensus Starmer has sought to forge with Sunak on the Israel-Hamas conflict could be strained by pressure from non-Labour representatives, too. SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn called on Sunak yesterday to urge a ceasefire. “I hope we all share the same common humanity of protecting civilians and condemning any acts of collective punishment against the Palestinian people”, Flynn said.
During his conference speech earlier this week, Scottish first minister Humza Yousaf called on the UK government to support the medical evacuation of injured civilians in Gaza, adding: “Scotland is ready to play her part and our hospitals will treat the injured men, women and children of Gaza where we can.”
He added: “A humanitarian corridor must be opened, vital supplies let in, and Gazans who want to leave must be allowed to leave. The blockade of Gaza must end. It is right for the world to condemn the actions of Hamas — unequivocally. But any form of collective punishment, as we are seeing in Gaza, can never be justified”.
Keir Starmer has not used the phrase “collective punishment” — something of a discursive rubicon on the conflict because it implies war crimes are being conducted in Israel’s name — mirroring the prime minister’s own positioning.
The Liberal Democrats also appear to be taking a stronger position on Israel than the Labour leadership. The party’s foreign affairs spokesperson Layla Moran spoke in parliament on Monday about her extended family, who are Christian Palestinians living in Gaza City, having their house bombed by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), staying in a church and being “too old” to flee the 25-mile strip.
Moran told ITV yesterday that Gaza is “essentially an open [air] prison”. “I don’t believe it’s right that my family are being held accountable for what Hamas has done”, added the MP.
One key question now will be whether the British government seeks parliamentary approval for any UK response to the crisis. A commons debate would provide a forum for MPs of all parties to voice their discontent at the current consensus view on the Isreal-Hamas conflict.
Critically, such an extended exchange of views will beg questions of Starmer’s positioning on the conflict as he lays out Labour’s stance in detail — in this instance, stemming further resignations and deterring a very public intra-party debate on Israel’s response would surely condition his comments.
Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.
Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.