The first “hear hear” for Rishi Sunak was when he called “for the immediate return of all hostages” by Hamas, the second moments later when he declared “we stand with Israel”.
He added that “we stand with British Muslim communities too”.
The Prime Minister said “we must support Israel’s right to defend itself in line with international humanitarian law”. He went on to say that “we are working to prevent escalation”, and that “all the tools of British diplomacy” will be used to see “how we can revive the long-term prospects for a two-state solution”.
Again and again he returned to Israel’s right to defend itself. This was repetitive, but it did not matter. The attack by Hamas had been so monstrous it demanded a sombre, steady response, shorn of debating points, with MPs in search of solidarity rather than partisan advantage.
Sir Keir Starmer said “it’s crucial that this House speak with one voice”. This was not exactly right: MPs must be free to disagree.
But the House did today speak in one tone of voice, and that felt right, a fitting response to the barbarities of Hamas, faith shown in parliamentary debate rather than massacres.
Richard Burgon, on the Left of the Labour Party, claimed we were seeing the “collective punishment of Palestinians” and “such collective punishment is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions”.
Sunak replied, in sorrow rather than in anger, that he would say “gently…we should support Israel’s right to defend itself” against “a vicious enemy that embeds itself” behind civilians.
A number of MPs complained, as Andrew Percy (Con, Brigg & Goole) put it, that there were people on the streets of Britain “holding up banners in support of terrorism”.
The Prime Minister said that “anyone who breaks the law should be met with the full force of the law, and be swiftly arrested”, and indicated that work is under way to enforce the Terrorism Acts passed by the last Labour Government.
Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) said her immediate family are from the West Bank, but she has extended family in Gaza City who after their house was bombed “went to seek sanctuary in a church because we’re Christian Palestinians”, and are too old to leave that church, added to which they have nowhere else to go.
Because of this, not despite it, she had been to a vigil in Oxford organised by the Jewish community. She wanted the Prime Minister to assure her that at the end of all this there would be a Palestinian state.
The role of the Prime Minister became more that of grief counsellor, lending a sympathetic ear to the sorrows of MPs on both sides of the House, and consoling them with the thought that these horrors may in the end bring people together rather than drive them further apart.
But he also stuck with complete firmness, through two hours of questioning, to Israel’s right to defend itself in line with international humanitarian law.