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UK elections 2024: Palestinian charity CEO standing for Labour faces calls to resign

Melanie Ward, CEO of Medical Aid for Palestinians, said if she is elected, she will work to bring about change for Palestinians
Melanie Ward, CEO of Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)
Melanie Ward, the CEO of Medical Aid for Palestinians, during an interview with Sky News (MAP)

Workers and volunteers at Medical Aid for Palestinians are calling on its chief executive Melanie Ward to resign because she is standing as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party in Scotland.

Those associated with the charity, which is working on the ground in Gaza amidst Israel's devastating war, have threatened to refer the organisation to the Charity Commission. 

Middle East Eye has learnt that on 5 June, a group of healthcare workers, medical volunteers, supporters and donors of Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP), a major UK-based aid charity, wrote a letter to the organisation’s board expressing their concern at Ward’s candidacy.

Ward has not stepped down from her role at MAP but has taken a leave of absence to fight the Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath seat in the west of Scotland. She told MEE that if she is elected as an MP she will work to bring about change for the Palestinian people.

Her association with Labour is a cause of controversy amongst the charity's volunteers and staff because of its leader Keir Starmer's earlier support for Israel's military campaign, including its decision to block food, water and other essentials from entering Gaza, and his opposition to a permanent ceasefire.

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The letter to MAP's trustees, seen by Middle East Eye, has received over 2,250 signatures - including from prominent British-Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu-Sittah, a former MAP trustee who worked in hospitals in Gaza in October and November.

In it, supporters expressed concern about “MAP being left without an acting CEO at a time of a collapse of healthcare in Gaza”.

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It criticised MAP for supporting Ward's candidacy to become an MP for a party “whose leader did not support a permanent ceasefire or cessation of arms sales to Israel, and is facing pending investigation by Scotland Yard for aiding and abetting war crimes”.

After 7 October, Labour leader Starmer ordered his party not to back a ceasefire in a parliamentary vote in November. 

MEE has also seen a response by MAP’s board of trustees, which said it “followed all relevant guidance and regulatory requirements from the Charity Commission and Electoral Commission relevant to these circumstances. 

“The CEO agreed to take an immediate leave of absence from the charity, and since then has had no involvement in operational decision-making at the charity.”

The response also said the board had appointed two interim co-CEOs. 

On Wednesday, MAP referred MEE to a statement it issued on Monday saying that if Ward is elected, she will not continue as MAP's CEO.

'Damage to MAP's reputation'

The letter’s authors, a group of British healthcare workers, are demanding that Ward immediately resigns as CEO and that Sarah Eldon, chair of the board of trustees, resigns as well.

They informed MAP board members in an email sent on 8 June that if they do not receive a satisfactory answer, they will refer MAP to the Charity Commission, the UK’s charity regulator. 

Clinical oncologist Abdulla Alhasso, a MAP volunteer who helped organise the letter, said he was dismayed by the charity leadership’s actions “at this most critical time”.

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“You cannot be aligned with a political party leadership that supports genocide and promotes withholding water and electricity supplies from the Palestinians who are the beneficiaries of MAP.”

Gerry O’Hare, a cancer nurse specialist in Glasgow who has worked with the MAP team in Gaza over the last five years, told MEE he sent a personal letter to the acting chair of MAP in October conveying his concerns - and then another this May.

“It saddens me profoundly that the MAP leadership, despite warnings, failed to act to prevent damage to MAP’s reputation caused by their CEO having such clear alignment and political ambitions with the Labour Party,” he said. 

MAP has provided around $7m in medical supplies to Gaza since 7 October.

Ward, an experienced humanitarian worker who has served as CEO of the charity since January 2023, visited Gaza in April and was listed in TIME Magazine’s “100 most influential people in health” in May.

The parliamentary seat of Cowdenbeath and Kirkcaldy in Fife is a key battleground where Ward is standing against Neale Hanvey, member of Scottish nationalist party Alba.

Multiple Labour members in Fife have complained that Ward was parachuted in by the party, and one councillor resigned in protest in early June. 

When the government called a general election in late May, Ward announced she was taking a leave of absence from her work with MAP. 

She previously stood for Labour in Scotland at the 2015 election but lost to the SNP. 

Ward told MEE on Tuesday: “My views on the situation in Gaza are clear and are on the public record. 

'You cannot be aligned with a political party leadership that supports genocide and promotes withholding water and electricity supplies from the Palestinians'

Abdulla Alhasso, clinical oncologist and MAP volunteer

“If elected, I would likely be one of the few MPs who has been to Gaza and personally witnessed Israel’s horrific war there, since it began eight months ago.

"The situation faced by the Palestinian people is, at its root, a political one and we need more British politicians who really understand it and who want to bring about change. I would be one of them.  

“I would urge people to stop targeting MAP’s staff and volunteers and allow them to focus on their vital work providing lifesaving aid. I am currently on a leave of absence from MAP, as is normal practice amongst most of the other charity leaders also standing for Parliament in this election.”

Ward has strongly criticised Israel in recent months. 

“We should believe members of the Israeli political and military establishment when they say that what is being done to civilians in #Gaza is deliberate,” she posted on social media platform X in late October.

She also called on Israel to “lift the siege, let in water, fuel and electricity - and give unfettered humanitarian access to Gaza.”

That was the month Labour leader Starmer said Israel "has the right" to withhold power and water from Gaza.

Labour’s stance on Gaza has since shifted. Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy in late May backed the International Criminal Court (ICC) after its chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, announced he would be seeking arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Starmer further said in late May he would want to recognise a Palestinian state in government, but as part of a peace process.

MEE contacted the Labour Party for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication. 

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