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Israel-Palestine war: Leicester mayor criticises Starmer over Gaza response

Former Labour MP Peter Soulsby is one of the most prominent voices to come out against Keir Starmer over his uncritical backing of Israel's military campaign in Gaza
The fathers of children killed when an Israeli air strike hit their home carry their bodies during their funeral in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on 19 October 2023 (AFP)
By Shafik Mandhai in Leicester, UK

The leader of the UK's Labour party, Keir Starmer, has been criticised by the mayor of Leicester for his one-sided response to the Israel-Palestine war.

According to a letter obtained by Middle East Eye, Peter Soulsby, who has served as the mayor of Leicester since 2011 and was formerly a Labour MP, said that while Starmer was right to condemn the attacks in southern Israel by Palestinian fighters on 7 October, he was concerned about Starmer's stance on Israel's subsequent response.

"The impression that has been given is that this condemnation of recent events extends to approving uncritically the Israeli government's response and of ignoring the decades of injustice and the oppression of Palestinians and the violations of their human rights," Soulsby wrote.

The mayor also said that he had visited the occupied Palestinian territories and believed that Israeli settlement activity, as well as Israel's treatment of Palestinians, had created a "breeding ground for despair and terrorism".

Soulsby said that he had spoken to Labour councillors and members who shared his concerns about Starmer's comments on the conflict.

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On Tuesday, MEE reported that several Labour councillors had resigned over comments made by senior members of the party backing Israel's "right" to collectively punish Palestinians.

Amar Latif and Shaista Aziz of the Oxford City Council announced their resignations after Labour MPs, including Starmer and Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry, backed Israel's decision to cut off water and electricity supplies to besieged Palestinians in Gaza.

Collective punishment

Last week, Starmer told an interviewer: "I think that Israel does have that right. It is an ongoing situation, obviously everything should be done within international law, but I don't want to step away from the core principles that Israel has the right to defend herself."

The former human rights lawyer caveated the statement by saying that "everything should be done within international law".

Follow Middle East Eye's live coverage for the latest on the Israel-Palestine war

He did not explain, however, how Israel's measures could be implemented without violating customary international law. The comments sparked outrage within the party.

In a statement published shortly after Starmer's comments, the Labour Muslim Network (LMN) called on the British opposition leader to withdraw his comments.

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"Collective punishment is a war crime. Cutting off power and water to hospitals and life-serving facilities is a war crime," the organisation said.

Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Starmer appeared to backtrack from his earlier comments by saying that "medicines, food, fuel and water must get into Gaza immediately".

But the Labour leader stopped short of apologising or retracting his earlier statement supporting the cutting off of supplies.

At least 43 MPs from across the political spectrum, but largely from Labour, have called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. According to a YouGov poll, a vast majority of Britain’s back a ceasefire, with 76 percent saying there should be one and just eight saying there should not.

Addressing the controversy over collective punishment, Soulsby called on the party to make clear its opposition to such Israeli policies.

"You [Starmer] and the party should be seen to call for: relief now for the people of Gaza; an Israeli government response that is measured, proportionate and within international law; the Israeli government itself avoiding terrorism and collective punishment; [and] a longterm, just settlement that respects the rights of the Palestinian people as well as those of Israel."

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