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Israel-Palestine war: Keir Starmer rejects ceasefire calls, stating it will 'embolden Hamas'

Protests as opposition leader speaks in London, as Labour MP suspended after calling for peace among all people 'between the river and the sea'
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer delivers a speech in central London on 31 October 2023 (AFP)
Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer delivers a speech in central London on 31 October 2023 (AFP)

UK Labour leader Keir Starmer has reiterated that he does not believe in a ceasefire in the Israel-Palestine war, despite calls for a truce from senior figures within his party.

“A ceasefire always freezes any conflict in the state where it currently lies. And as we speak, that would leave Hamas with the infrastructure and capability to carry out the sort of attack we saw on 7 October,” Starmer said during a speech at Chatham House in London on Wednesday.

“Hamas would be emboldened and start preparing for future violence immediately.”

Instead, he called for “pauses” in fighting for “humanitarian purposes”. 

At least 8,500 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli bombardment since 7 October, which came after a surprise assault by Hamas that day in which around 1,400 Israelis were killed and at lease 240 were taken captive.

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Approximately 70 percent of the Palestinians killed are women and children.

A protest was held outside Chatham House as Starmer spoke, led by Jewish peace activists calling for a ceasefire.  

James Schneider, a political commentator and member of the party, told Middle East Eye during the protest: "Only 8 percent [of the British public] oppose a ceasefire. And yet that call is absent from our politics.

"If we can move the Labour Party into a position of ceasefire, there is a chance that it can have a material impact and lives can be saved."

Several senior Labour figures, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham have defied party policy and backed a truce. 

Global charity Oxfam said it was disappointed that the Labour leader rejected calls for a truce. 

"It matters what these leaders say, not least for ordinary Gazan people who need to know the world is listening to their pleas," said Katy Chakrabortty, Oxfam’s head of advocacy.

“Without a ceasefire, any relief for millions of people trapped in Gaza will inevitably be wholly insufficient and many more civilians will die needlessly.”

Starmer said during his speech that Israel had the right to self-defence, but must “submit to the rules of international law”. 

'If we can move the Labour Party into a position of ceasefire, there is a chance that... lives can be saved'

- James Schneider, commentator

“The supply of basic utilities like water, medicines, electricity and yes, fuel to civilians in Gaza cannot be blocked by Israel,” Starmer said. 

He added that Palestinians should not be forced to flee their homes en masse, but where they have no choice but to do so “we need crystal clear guarantees that they will be able to return quickly”.

Palestinians have previously told MEE that proposals to resettle people from Gaza to the Sinai province of Egypt were akin to a "second Nakba" - referencing the mass displacement of over 700,000 Palestinians in 1948. 

Starmer added that he believed in a two-state solution, and that the building of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank was “unacceptable, unlawful and has to stop”. 

Later when asked whether he thought Israel had broken international law since the war began, he refused to be drawn on any specific examples of Israel’s actions.

Earlier this month, Starmer seemingly backed Israel's "right" to collectively punish Palestinians in the besieged territory during an interview with LBC, before saying that his comments were wrongly interpreted.

At least 20 Labour councillors across the country have resigned over the leader's response to the war.

Starmer has also faced criticism from the Muslim community in Wales after he visited a mosque in Cardiff and later said that he had used his visit to call for Hamas to release the hostages it captured during its attack on southern Israel.

In a statement, the mosque expressed "dismay" at Starmer's comments, saying he "gravely misrepresented our congregants and the nature of the visit.

Labour MP suspended

The speech from Starmer came a day after a Labour MP was suspended after calling for all Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace "between the river and the sea". 

During a large pro-Palestine protest in London on Saturday, Andy McDonald said: "We will not rest until we have justice. Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea, can live in peaceful liberty."

The phrase "from the river to the sea" refers to the territory in historic Palestine between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea. 

Commenting on the suspension, a Labour spokesperson said: "The comments made by Andy McDonald at the weekend were deeply offensive, particularly at a time of rising antisemitism which has left Jewish people fearful for their safety."

The slogan "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free", which is often chanted during pro-Palestine protests, has come under the spotlight in recent weeks in the UK after the outbreak of war in Israel and Palestine

UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman stated this month that police should consider whether the chant was an "expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world". 

Israel-Palestine war: Starmer's Gaza betrayal shows he is failing as a leader
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London's Metropolitan Police clarified that it would not arrest anyone over the chant.

Palestinian activists have argued that the phrase calls for civil and human rights for all those living in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

McDonald, whose words were different to the popular chant, responded to the suspension by stating there were "misrepresentations" of his words by the media. 

"These words should not be construed in any other way than they were intended, namely as a heartfelt plea for an end to the killings in Israel, Gaza, and the occupied West Bank, and for all peoples in the region to live in freedom without the threat of violence," he said in a statement posted on X. 

The Labour Muslim Network described the suspension as "obscene and deeply offensive". 

"The fundamental right to live in peace, with liberty and self determination, is one which should be applied to all peoples," it said. 

"The only conclusion that can be drawn is that those who have made this decision do not see Palestinian and Muslim life as deserving of this fundamental principle."

Reference to the river and the sea has been used by pro-Israeli figures too.

Tzipi Hotovley, the right-wing Israeli ambassador to the UK, has previously stated: "This entire land is ours. All of it, from the sea to the river, and we are not here to apologise for this.”

Her position goes against international law, and UK government policy, which considers East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza to be occupied Palestinian territory. 

McDonald served as a member of the shadow cabinet under former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and then briefly under current leader Keir Starmer before resigning over a policy disagreement. 

Following his suspension, he will now serve as an independent MP until the conclusion of an investigation. 

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