Israel is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. If it doesn’t seek to eliminate Hamas, the latter will regroup, rebuild and re-pogrom, wreaking atrocities so satanic, like those of October, that I cannot bear to imagine some of the details.
But if it does, innocent Palestinians will be bombed to bits, all the more so because Hamas wants it that way. It is using them – as it does hospitals, mosques, and schools – as human shields. “Death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes,” it declared of jihad in its original covenant.
Precisely who dies is a secondary consideration, if it is one at all: soldiers and civilians, Israelis and Palestinians – all are expendable in Hamas’s of martyrdom. A ceasefire in any meaningful sense simply isn’t part of its vocabulary. Nothing will stop it, let alone Islamic Jihad, from firing rockets indiscriminately into Israel, at least not for long enough to count.
So calls for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, apparently so humane and reasonable, are ultimately one-sided – essentially, pressure on Israel not to respond to the atrocities of October 7, so allowing Hamas – funded by Iran, indulged by Russia and tolerated by China – a breathing space.
Sir Keir Starmer knows all this perfectly well. Whether he understands his own party, which he has represented in Parliament for fewer than ten years, may be a different question. Horrified by Hamas’ savagery, and confident in Labour’s soaring opinion poll lead, he was less circumspect, when asked about his view on LBC, than his lawyerly instincts usually allow.
“A siege is appropriate? Cutting off power, cutting off water?” he was asked. Sir Keir replied: “I think that Israel does have that right. It is an ongoing situation.” These words were all of a piece with his earlier words in the Commons, uttered in the wake of the massacres in southern Israel. “Labour stands with Israel. Britain stands with Israel.”
Now the Labour leader is a reflective man, which matters in this context, and no fool, which matters even more. He grasps that while Hamas is depraved, it doesn’t follow that Israel is perfect – far from it. Hamas is making – and opinion on the “Palestinian street” may also make – a two-state solution impossible. But too many of Israel’s politicians and leaders have joined in.
For although the country is a liberal democracy, it has its own religious and nationalist fanatics, some of whom have recently held office. (Thank you, proportional representation, and Israel’s own constitutional quarrels, themselves the product of its open society.) They have a fundamentalist vision of a greater Israel.
To which end, they have encourged and facilitated the growth of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, with the long-time assistance of Benjamin Netanyahu. Furthermore, although Israel has a legal case for its blockade of Gaza (as well as a practical one, given Hamas control of the place, and therefore of supplies), there is also one against it – one which, as Henry Hill has written, may carry the court of public opinion.
So Sir Keir was careful to add the words “obviously, everything should be done within international law”, in his interview on LBC. It wouldn’t do to be seen to tolerate the risk of mass civilian deaths, the dehydration and starvation of the civilian population, and the spread of cholera and other diseases.
But the damage had been done. The earlier part of his remarks, unfiltered, was immediately picked up. And Sir Keir had underestimated the mesmeric power of the Palestinian cause for British Muslims and Labour’s left. As I write, some 20 Labour councillors have quit the party. More importantly, nearly a quarter of its MPs have called for a ceasefire.
The SNP tends to identify with pro-Palestine, as does much of Scottish Labour. So Anas Sarwar has piled in. So has Sadiq Khan – potentially poisoning his relationship with Jewish voters in London. Andy Burnham is aboard the bandwagon. All have a feel for the way the wind is blowing and shifts in Labour’s centre of gravity.
No front bencher has yet resigned, but no fewer than 13 are in open revolt. Three Shadow Cabinet Ministers have warned Sir Keir to change his tone. A visit by him to a mosque in Wales seems to have done nothing to rescue the position. A statement from it after his visit said that “we implore all those with political authority to uphold international law, and to end the occupation of Palestine.”
Did the mosque mean the West Bank? Or did it mean Israel, too – “from the river to the sea,” as the chant has it? Here is the nub of the matter. Most supporters of Palestine in Britain don’t support Hamas. There is no evidence that most British Muslims do, either. But support for a ceasefire plays Hamas’ game, as does ambiguity on Israel’s right to exist within secure boundaries.
Sir Keir is trying to ride two horses. The first is the Biden administration, Rishi Sunak, Germany, Austria and, ultimately, Israel. The second encompasses Spain, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, China, Russia – and much of his own party. Unless and until the Americans change their position, he will find his feet stretching wider as the conflict intensifies, and the horses move further apart.
One view within Labour is that pro-Palestine campaigners are overplaying their hand; that some of its MPs have been too readily spooked by social media; that the conflict won’t be decisive at the next election; that only a few seats are potentially at risk anyway, and that Sir Keir is haunted by the toxicity of Labour’s anti-semitism under Jeremy Corbyn.
Above all, he has Labour’s long tradition of fidelity in government to the Atlantic alliance to think of, and will do nothing to alienate Joe Biden in any event. The alternative take is that, hustled by the adolescent Left, angry Muslims, mass marches, front bench resignations, Labour MPs, and the prospect of a new Respect, Sir Keir will buckle under pressure – and seek to appease the unappeasable.
Sir Keir can keep his balance for the time being. Perhaps the “humanitarian pause” for which Biden is pushing can be morphed into a ceasefire. Maybe that’s the intention. After all, what’s the difference? But the first form of words won’t be anything like enough for the Islamists and the far left and, therefore, for parts of the Labour Party.
Furthermore, we don’t know where all this is going. An Israeli war on two fronts, Iran and America dragged deeper in, more economic turmoil, violent attacks on synagogues and mosques – there is simply no way of knowing. Such developments would test Sunak, but Sir Keir even more. After all, if you try to straddle two horses, you risk tumbling off both.
There is more at stake here than the future of a single political leader. Our party system could become befouled by communalism, with the Conservatives the party of Israel, India and Jews, and Labour that of Palestine, Pakistan and Muslims. Such an outcome would be incompatible with democracy – at least, as we understand it, in the liberal, democratic, western shape that gives it being.