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Labour conference votes to back sanctions against Israel over 'crime of apartheid'

The motion, in defiance of Keir Starmer's leadership, recognised that Israel has implemented an apartheid system and demands end to UK arms trade with Israel
A delegate in the audience wearing a Palestine flag face mask takes his seat during the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton, 25 September 2021 (AFP)
By Joe Gill in Brighton

Keir Starmer faced a calamitous day at his party conference on Monday as delegates pushed through a defiant motion on Palestine and a shadow cabinet member resigned with a furious statement denouncing Starmer's leadership.  

Labour conference backed a motion urging the party to back sanctions against Israel for its illegal actions under international law, to stop the UK’s arms trade with Israel, and end trade with illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.  

The vote is an embarrassment for Starmer who has downplayed the issue of Palestine since replacing Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime supporter of Palestinian calls for an end to Israeli abuses and military occupation.

Shortly after it passed, Labour's shadow foreign minister Lisa Nandy repudiated the motion, telling the Jewish News that “We cannot support this motion.”

She opposed the call for sanctions against Israel saying: “We owe it to the people of Palestine and Israel to take a fair and balanced approach that recognises there can only be peace through a safe and secure Israel existing alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state.”

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Later in a damaging resignation during the conference, shadow employment minister Andy McDonald said Starmer had broken his pledges to unite the party around socialist policies when he was elected leader.

McDonald said he was quitting because he had been told to argue against a $20 (£15) national minimum wage and against statutory sick pay at the living wage by Starmer's office.

In his resignation letter McDonald, who previously served on Corbyn's front bench team, wrote: "After 18 months of your leadership our movement is more divided than ever, and the pledges you made to the membership are not being honoured." 

Speaking at a Labour fringe meeting later that evening where he was met with a standing ovation, McDonald said the party needed to "tell the truth about what's gone wrong [in society] and be bold about how to fix it," but that Starmer had refused to do this as leader.

He added that, back when Starmer was seeking support for his leadership bid in 2020 based on continuing Corbyn's left-wing policy agenda, "I told Keir quite clearly 'I didn't vote for you, I didn't support you, but I think you are going to win, so I will help you take forward the ten pledges that you stood on." But Starmer's policy pledges had since been watered down, with Starmer disavowing the platform he stood on.  

Palestine motion

The Palestine motion points to recent human rights reports showing “unequivocally” that Israel has committed the UN-recognised crime of apartheid as evidenced by Israeli rights organisation B’tselem and Human Rights Watch.

The motion supports Palestinian civil society calls for “effective measures” against the building of settlements, demands the end to the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, and supports the right of Palestinians to return to their homes.

The motion, brought by Labour’s youth section, was passed easily following a short debate that was cut short by the conference organisers and not broadcast live to delegates.

Speaking against the motion, Steve McCabe MP, the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, said “the composite motion is too shouty, it's too angry, it’s too one sided and it's not at all focused on the search for peace.”

The vote is not binding on the Labour leadership, but indicates that the party membership still favours supporting Palestinian rights and an end to UK complicity in Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

The UK Palestine Solidarity Campaign hailed the “Historic motion on Palestine passes at Labour Party Conference 2021 acknowledging that Israel is practising apartheid and calling for strong sanctions.”

Israel’s military action against Gaza in May, which left hundreds dead, sparked huge protests in the UK, with up to 200,000 people taking to the streets in the largest demonstration in support of Palestine seen in Britain.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has made clear since his election as leader last year that he distances himself from his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding support for the Palestinian cause, stating that he “supports Zionism without qualification”.

Palestinian Labour members have complained that the leadership has not supported them and made the party a hostile environment for supporters of Palestinian human rights. 

labour Palestine motion
An image of the composite resolution passed on Monday at Labour's conference in Brighton

A group of leading Palestinians has written to Starmer several times but has not received a response from the Labour leader.

Atallah Said, former chairman of the British Arab Association and founder of Arab Labour, told The Independent in May“Ignoring multiple letters from leading members of the British Palestinian community means that this community is unwelcome in the party.

“The leader is practically treating the whole community as outcasts and is refusing to meet or even respond. We cannot separate this from the alarming shift in Labour’s approach to issues of race, or the shift in Labour’s position on Palestine.

Hebron activist Issa Amro told a Labour fringe event on Tuesday via video link that the Palestine motion was a major victory.

"What happened in the Labour Party? What they invested to destroy the Palestinian point of view in the Labour Party - [but] yesterday we won. We love Jeremy Corbyn, but we did it without Jeremy Corbyn with our supporters in the Labour Party."

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