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Labour 'cited threats from pro-Palestine supporters' during UK ceasefire debate

Palestine Solidarity Campaign rejects 'smears' against protesters, after politicians' safety concerns led to controversial amendment vote
 Labour Party leader Keir Starmer speaking during the weekly session of Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons on 22 February 2024 (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament/AFP)
Labour leader Keir Starmer speaking during the weekly session of Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons on 22 February 2024 (Jessica Taylor/AFP)

The head of the main organiser of pro-Palestine rallies in the UK has rejected "smears" against protesters, after concerns about politicians' safety were cited as a reason why a Gaza ceasefire motion was controversially amended on Wednesday evening. 

The Scottish National Party (SNP), one of the opposition parties in the UK parliament, put forward a motion calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, which included condemnation of Israel for its "collective punishment" of the Palestinian people. 

Labour, the largest opposition party, then sought to table an amendment, which removed wording such as "collective punishment" and the "slaughter" of innocent civilians. 

Last year, most Labour MPs abstained from voting on a similar ceasefire motion put forward by the SNP, a move which drew significant criticism from a wide section of Labour supporters. 

During "opposition day debates", like on Wednesday, lawmakers usually vote on the main motion first, followed by any amendments. 

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Lindsay Hoyle, parliament's speaker, said he would break with precedent and allow a vote on Labour’s amendment before the SNP’s motion, despite receiving contradictory advice from officials.

'We reject any attempt to smear our movement for justice and peace in Palestine as anything but the principled, legitimate and historically important campaign that it is'

- Ben Jamal, Palestine Solidarity Campaign

That led to chaotic scenes in which SNP and Conservative MPs left the chamber in protest, leaving Labour's amendment to be approved without a vote. There was no further vote on the SNP motion.

Labour sources told Middle East Eye that Hoyle, who is also a Labour MP and who visited Israel in November, was told by senior figures in his party that if he did not allow a vote on Labour’s amendment, he "wouldn’t be speaker after the general election". The party has denied the allegations.

The Guardian also reported that Labour leader Keir Starmer met with Hoyle, and warned him that Labour MPs' security was at risk from pro-Palestine advocates if the amendment was not voted on.

Meanwhile, a source told The Daily Mail that Hoyle "was told he would have blood on his hands if he didn't allow this vote", citing alleged risk of attacks by pro-Palestine campaigners. 

Ben Jamal, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which has organised the biggest marches in the UK since October, told MEE: "The issue of MP security is serious and important, but it cannot be used to evade democratic accountability."

"When people see a genocide occurring with UK political, military and diplomatic support, they have every right to object and every right to demand action."

Jamal said that 80,000 people in Britain have written to their MPs urging them to back a ceasefire, while thousands more queued outside parliament waiting to lobby their representatives in person. 

"In breach of their democratic rights, only a small number were allowed in," he added.

'Smear attempts'

Hoyle apologised in the chamber on Wednesday evening, after SNP lawmakers were outraged that their original motion was not voted on. Over 50 MPs have since called on the speaker to resign. 

"I thought I was doing the right thing and the best thing, and I regret it, and I apologise for how it’s ended up," Hoyle told the House of Commons.

He added that he allowed Labour's amendment to be voted on due to concerns about security threats to MPs.

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Several politicians from both Labour and Conservative parties have said that they have faced death threats and intimidation from constituents over their views on the war in Gaza, which began on 7 October. 

But the pro-Palestine demonstrations, which have taken place most weeks since the conflict broke out, have been overwhelmingly peaceful, with few arrests. 

Earlier this month, Open Democracy reported that arrests at Palestine marches were at a lower rate than at the Glastonbury music festival. 

It estimated that an average of 0.5 pro-Palestine demonstrators were arrested for every 10,000 attendees at rallies. In comparison, last year's Glastonbury festival saw an average 1.75 arrests for every 10,000 attendees.

Between October and December, during which millions joined protests in the UK, there were 153 arrests, of which 117 were released with no charges. 

"Palestine solidarity activists have done this in their hundreds of thousands for four months, up and down the UK, peacefully and within the law," Jamal said. 

"We reject any attempt to smear our movement for justice and peace in Palestine as anything but the principled, legitimate and historically important campaign that it is."

Jamal described the scenes in UK parliament on Wednesday night as a "disgrace to democracy", and said that "parliamentary games are beneath contempt when the people of Gaza are being murdered and starved". 

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, said that the events marked "British politics at its worst".

"Politicians are trying to save themselves rather than saving an entire nation from genocide," he told LBC.

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