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Israel-Palestine war: Starmer’s Gaza stance has unmasked British democracy

The Labour leader’s refusal to back a ceasefire shows that moral and legal principles have taken a back seat to the political need to keep Washington happy
Britain's main opposition Labour party leader Keir Starmer delivers a speech in central London on 31 October 2023 (AFP)

If democracy hinges on the availability of meaningful political choices, there can be few politicians who have done more to destroy British democracy than Keir Starmer.

He has spent most of his three years as Labour leader chasing after the ruling Conservative Party as it flees ever further into the hinterlands of the brutish right. On all the most significant issues of the day, Starmer’s Labour is now a pale reflection of its Tory counterpart.

The death of political difference is being starkly underscored by the two British parties’ response to Israel’s four-week war on Gaza. Some 10,000 Palestinians are known to be dead, 40 percent of them children, with many more certain to be lying under the rubble. 

Those alive not only face a constant rain of bombs, but are being starved of food and water by a dramatic intensification of Israel’s 16-year siege of the enclave. Denial of power and medicines means that hospitals barely function, and many tens of thousands of wounded cannot receive proper care.

Israel’s government - the most far-right in its history - refers to Palestinians in Gaza as “human animals”. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, now speaks of Palestinians in openly genocidal terms. He calls them “Amalek”, the biblical enemy of the Israelites who had to be destroyed.

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In this noxious atmosphere, an Israeli government minister even proposed on Sunday dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza, adding that anyone waving a Palestinian flag “shouldn't continue living on the face of the earth”.

Nowhere to flee

One might have assumed this would be an easy moment and issue on which Labour could stake out its differences from a predictably callous Conservative government, which is standing four-square behind Israel. 

Starmer’s background is as a human rights lawyer. A large majority of the British public are incensed by the mounting death toll, especially of children, when there is nowhere for civilians to escape the bombing. The UK has seen its biggest political demonstrations since those against the Iraq war 20 years ago.

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Even the establishment media, after an initial burst of support for Israel’s display of pyrotechnics in Gaza, seem to be getting cold feet at the flood of images of crushed and bleeding children.

In these circumstances, calling for a ceasefire and the protection of children ought to have been a political no-brainer. And yet Starmer has refused to offer Labour’s backing. Instead, he is hewing close to Washington, turning a blind eye to the genocide unfolding in Gaza.

That response is tearing apart the Labour Party. 

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Dozens of local councillors have already resigned in protest, leading the party to lose control of two councils, including Oxford. On Sunday, Burnley’s council leader and 10 fellow councillors quit the party. Hundreds more councillors have written an open letter demanding Starmer back a ceasefire.

At least 16 members of his front bench have broken ranks, too, as have the Labour mayors of London and Manchester, Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham. 

When Starmer did make a stand, it was to punish one of his own backbenchers, Andy McDonald, after he called for “peaceful liberty” for “all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea”. McDonald had the Labour whip withdrawn, effectively exiling him from the parliamentary party.

Rather than seek to heal the party’s wounds, Starmer has insisted with a lawyerly evasion: “It’s unwise for politicians to stand on stages like this or to sit in television studios and pronounce day by day which acts may or may not be lawful under international law.”

Reflecting the party’s priorities, a senior Labour official has characterised the resignations over Gaza as Labour “shaking off the fleas”.

Thinnest of veneers

Part of the reason so many are finding Starmer’s stance on Gaza repugnant is because it departs so clearly both from the laws of war and from obvious realities on the ground.

Instead of backing the United Nation’s call for a ceasefire, Starmer’s early instinct was to publicly throw his weight behind Israel’s “complete siege” of Gaza, collective punishment of the population, despite the policy being clearly in violation of international law.

The Labour leader has duplicitously characterised the bombing campaign on Gaza’s civilian population as Israel’s “right to defend itself”, even though Hamas, unlike civilians, can largely wait out the aerial destruction in its extensive network of underground tunnels.

Starmer has accepted the mounting Palestinian death toll as the necessary price to secure the release of 200-plus Israeli hostages taken into Gaza during Hamas’ attack on 7 October. But he has thereby approved Israel turning an even larger number of people - 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza - into hostages, too. 

In truth, it is the Israeli bombing campaign that poses the biggest threat to the hostages’ lives. 

Armed resistance - whether it is termed terror or not - is a predictable response from the weak to the systematic violence and abuses of the strong

Though Israel and Starmer avoid mentioning it, the hostages’ safety would be best served by negotiating their release. Hamas wants in return the freeing of some of the thousands of Palestinian political prisoners held by Israel.

And finally, Starmer has remained in lockstep with the Biden administration in urging only so-called “humanitarian pauses” - effectively Washington’s green light for Israel to carry on bombing Gaza undisturbed.

These short pauses in air strikes, which Israel has rejected, would allow in small amounts of food and aid to keep the population on starvation rations before Israel starts bombing them all over again.

The measure, as Starmer knows, is intended as the thinnest of “humanitarian” veneers to obscure Israel’s otherwise flagrant violations of the laws of war. 

Worse still, Starmer must be aware that this “avalanche of human suffering” in Gaza, as one medic termed it, won’t even achieve what Israel claims as its ostensible goal.

According to Israel, its extraordinary violence - it has dropped the equivalent of at least two nuclear bombs on tiny Gaza so far - is necessary to eradicate Hamas. But, as with the US war on terror, the war on Hamas is bound to fail. 

Armed resistance - whether it is termed terror or not - is a predictable response from the weak to the systematic violence and abuses of the strong. It is a mirror held up by the oppressed to their oppressor.

Party at war

Starmer knows all this, so why is Labour throwing its hand in so comprehensively with Israel and deepening divisions within a party already at war with itself?

The reason should be obvious. Starmer saw what happened to his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. 

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A moderate socialist, Corbyn refused to toe the expected line of unflinching British support for Israel as a projection of western power into the oil-rich Middle East. 

Corbyn fought for a genuinely ethical foreign policy. He wished to end sales of British arms to Israel, and he pressed Israel to end its occupation and 16-year siege of Gaza - one of the major grievances behind Hamas’ attack on 7 October.

Even now, from the backbenches, Corbyn is one of the few British politicians calling full-throatedly for a ceasefire.

Corbyn’s heterodox stance on Israel-Palestine, as well as wider British foreign policy, provoked a relentless campaign to smear Labour as a hotbed of antisemitism.

This harmed Corbyn’s public image. But Starmer is doubtless equally worried by what were less visible but even more menacing threats directed by the British establishment at his predecessor. 

‘Fair or foul’ means

Almost as soon as Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015, an unnamed British general spoke to the Times to warn that any means - “fair or foul” - would be used to stop him from reaching No 10. The general threatened a “mutiny” by the armed forces.

A glimpse of how Corbyn was viewed by the senior military command was provided in a leaked video showing soldiers, most likely in Afghanistan, using images of Corbyn they had been supplied with as target practice.

In an unprecedented move, the media - presumably assisted by British intelligence - promoted disinformation that Corbyn had a treasonous past as a Soviet spy.

On another occasion, Corbyn was widely reported to have been summoned by MI5 for a “facts of life” briefing. A source told the Times Corbyn’s “statements on terrorism have been ‘troubling’ to the security services”.

A supposed whispering campaign by the civil service, again amplified by the media, claimed Corbyn was too old and “frail” to serve as prime minister.

The determination to subvert normal politics to stop Corbyn from gaining power was shared on the other side of the Atlantic. A leaked conversation with American Jewish leaders revealed Mike Pompeo, then head of the CIA, promising to make Corbyn “run the gauntlet” to ensure he was not elected prime minister. 

“We will do our level best,” Pompeo said, to prevent Corbyn from becoming prime minister. “It’s too risky and too important and too hard once it’s already happened.”

Secretive past

These were the ripples, briefly visible, on the surface of a sea of establishment indignation at Corbyn for adopting an ethical foreign policy that broke with the demands of the US for “global full-spectrum dominance”. 

None of this can have gone unnoticed by Starmer. 

Demonstrators calling for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict while protesting outside of Chatham House, London, where Keir Starmer was giving a speech, 31 October 2023 (AFP)
Demonstrators call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Palestine conflict while protesting outside Chatham House, London, where Keir Starmer was giving a speech, 31 October 2023 (AFP)

Nor will he have failed to note the significance of Washington’s brutal treatment of Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks founder has been locked away in a London high-security prison for years while successive administrations have waged a protracted extradition process to put him on trial for exposing US and British war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like Blair, Starmer’s only real interest is in being taken 'seriously' by the US and British establishments

Before turning politician, Starmer was deeply involved - as director of public prosecutions - in the hounding of Britain’s most prominent political prisoner, though we may never know precisely how.

According to investigations by the Declassified website, the Crown Prosecution Service headed by Starmer destroyed all records relating to four trips he made to Washington when the Assange case was then, as now, the most contentious it was handling. 

These deep irregularities have not been explained but indicate that Starmer gained a close, first-hand understanding that British officials are expected to prioritise Washington’s national security agenda. 

If that lesson was not fully absorbed while he served as DPP, the same message would have been impressed on Starmer later, during a four- or five-year stint on the secretive Trilateral Commission

He joined the international group, which has strong ties to the British and US intelligence services, while serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet - apparently without Corbyn’s knowledge. Starmer also failed to declare his membership to parliament.

Starmer was one of only two British MPs believed to have been invited into the commission through the 2010s. He served alongside two former heads of the CIA. He is known to have spoken at a London event alongside the former heads of MI5 and GCHQ.

Looking ‘serious’

Explaining Starmer’s insistence on ignoring the public’s support for a ceasefire, a shadow cabinet minister close to Starmer recently told the Observer newspaper that it was easy for his colleagues to adopt “not credible” positions on Gaza. Starmer, the paper reported, “would look unserious as a candidate to be prime minister were he to follow suit”.

Unserious to whom? Clearly, Starmer’s audience is not British voters.

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The truth is that his policy is guided not by electoral priorities, not by moral concern at the suffering of 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, and not by the provisions of international law Israel so explicitly flouts day after day.

In this regard, Starmer is treading the same fetid path as another of his predecessors, Tony Blair, who lied the UK’s way into a disastrous and illegal war against Iraq in 2003 on Washington’s orders.

Like Blair, Starmer’s only real interest is in being taken “seriously” by the US and British establishments - and if that must be on the backs of dead Palestinian children, then so be it. 

That was precisely the conclusion drawn this week by Michael Portillo, a former Tory defence secretary. He praised the Labour leader for proving his "mettle" in refusing a ceasefire. Saying the quiet part out loud, Portillo added that Starmer's position would reassure a Washington that wanted "to know whether a Labour government was going to deviate from the alliance with the United States". 

Starmer will go exactly as far as Washington allows him. He will push for meaningless “humanitarian pauses” and speak vaguely about the need for a two-state solution Israel killed years ago and that cannot be revived.

In fact, like the Biden administration, Starmer will champion only those causes that make no real impression on Israel’s room to continue bombing Gaza, killing thousands more children, in a war that cannot be won.

And given the establishment media’s reticence to stray outside the limits imposed by mainstream, party-political discourse, Starmer’s refusal to push against Israel’s genocidal policies means the media too will fail to articulate the views of most of the public.

It is small comfort that Starmer is revealing the depth of deception at the heart of British politics. The reality is that the UK is firmly in the pocket of the US - as are those among its politicians who seek high office.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Jonathan Cook is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at
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