Labour’s Israel-Gaza Tensions Mar Week of Starmer Triumphs

There was a celebratory mood inside the Labour Party’s London headquarters on Friday, buoyed by two huge by-election victories that suggest Keir Starmer is on course to be the UK’s next prime minister.

(Bloomberg) — There was a celebratory mood inside the Labour Party’s London headquarters on Friday, buoyed by two huge by-election victories that suggest Keir Starmer is on course to be the UK’s next prime minister. 

But a noisy protest down the road was a reminder of a rumbling issue that harbors risks for the Labour leader, even as his party rides high in the polls: Activist anger over his stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict that could yet grow if the war intensifies.

“I would like Keir Starmer to stop endorsing genocide, war crimes and the displacement of people,” said Ben Samuel, 38, a British Jew and former Labour Party member who was part of an 80-strong crowd chanting slogans such as “End the occupation, no ground invasion” and “Keir Starmer, blood on your hands” with a megaphone. “He doesn’t represent me.”

The domestic politics of the conflict are politically fraught for Starmer, who needs to balance the strong pro-Palestine sentiment on his party’s left wing while supporting UK ally Israel and trying to move on from the anti-Semitism controversies that previously dogged his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer is trying to maintain party unity and safeguard Labour’s double-digit poll lead ahead of a general election expected next year.

In a sign of the political sensitivity over the issue, Starmer spent this week trying to contain an internal backlash after he said in a radio interview that Israel had the “right” to withhold power and water from Gaza, which prompted some Muslim Labour councilors to say they would resign. Starmer has since clarified the comments, writing a letter to all his party’s councilors to reassure them that he supports aid getting in to Gaza.

“The threat of councilors resigning did provoke a stronger line on the need for human protection in Gaza,” said Harry Pitts, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter. “That was partly out of recognition there was a need for a bit of nuance in the message.”

To be sure, some councilors had already quit the party in Oxford and Manchester, citing Starmer’s stance. And in a House of Commons debate on Monday, there were signs of Labour Members of Parliament straying from the party line. Richard Burgon suggested Israel was carrying out “collective punishment” of the Palestinian people, while Imran Hussain described Gaza as an “open-air prison” saying Israel was in “clear violation of international law.”

As many as 30 of Starmer’s lawmakers have backed a non-binding parliamentary motion demanding an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, which clashes with Starmer’s own position of supporting Israel’s right to self-defense. 

One former Labour Party member who joined Friday’s protest near Labour HQ and gave only her first name, Donna, said that Starmer had disgusted her and that she wouldn’t vote for him. Lisa, a Labour member also present at the protest where the crowd waved Palestinian flags, said Starmer had lost her vote.

Asked for a response to the protest, Starmer’s office pointed to remarks by the leader Friday in which he acknowledged that a clip of his earlier interview had “caused real concern and distress in some Muslim communities.” He said he only meant to assert Israel’s right to self-defense.

“I was not saying that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines,” Starmer told reporters. “On the contrary. For over a week now, I have been leading the charge calling for that humanitarian aid to come in.”

Starmer’s public pronouncements on the conflict are likely to come under even greater scrutiny if Israel’s military action against Hamas escalates, with expectations of a potential ground invasion of Gaza. 

Starmer also faces pressure to match the stance of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has denounced Hamas’s attack as a “pogrom” and told his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu: “We want you to win.” Hamas is designated a terrorist group by the European Union, the UK and the US.

To be sure, Starmer’s internal opponents over the Israel-Hamas war largely come from the pro-Corbyn wing of his party, a faction he has managed to marginalize as he has shifted Labour toward the center ground of British politics. Starmer’s position is also broadly in keeping with the UK mood on the issue: A YouGov poll on Oct. 16 showed split views on the conflict, with 21% of respondents having more sympathy for the Israeli side compared to 17% for the Palestinian side.

Starmer’s strategy seems to be paying off with the electorate. He was rewarded Thursday with two overwhelming by-election wins in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire. While the pro-Palestine demonstrators were gathering near Labour’s headquarters in London, Starmer was about 50 miles (80 kilometers) away talking up his party’s win in Mid Bedfordshire.

“It is clear that the voters have turned their back on a failed Tory government,” Starmer said to Labour activists after the by-election win. “They’ve had enough of a decline in the last 13 years and they’re crying out for change.” 

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