By Katie Neame & Tom Belger in Labour List
A group of councillors and others who resigned from Labour over comments Keir Starmer made about the conflict between Israel and Hamas have accused him ‘gaslighting’ people over his stance towards Gaza, LabourList can reveal.
In a letter to Starmer, the group claimed that they were “forced” to resign from the party in protest at the Labour leader’s “horrific and dehumanising rhetoric”, arguing that he had “accept[ed] Israel’s right to carry out collective punishment” of people living in the Gaza Strip.
Labour was not immediately available for a formal response, but national executive committee member and We Believe in Israel director Luke Akehurst argues in a comment piece for LabourList in reply that criticism is “overblown”. He warned the authors’ call for a ceasefire risked Hamas building up for further future attacks.
Councillors respond after Starmer clarifies LBC interview
Starmer was strongly criticised following an interview with LBC radio earlier this month during which he appeared to suggest Israel has the right to cut off power and water to Gaza.
Asked whether such a move was “appropriate”, Starmer said: “I think that Israel does have that right. It is an ongoing situation.” He added: “Obviously, everything should be done within international law.”
A Labour spokesperson later denied that Starmer had said Israel ‘has the right’ to withhold power and water, saying the Labour leader’s comment had been in response to a previous question on Israel’s right to defend itself.
Starmer then sought to further clarify his position, saying: “I know that LBC clip has been widely shared and caused real concern and distress in some Muslim communities so let me be clear…I was saying that Israel has the right to self-defence…I was not saying that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines.”
Framing the issue as a Muslim concern dubbed ‘divisive’
The letter – seen by LabourList and signed by ten former Labour councillors and Lubaba Khalid, who resigned as Young Labour’s BAME officer – accused Starmer of “doubl[ing] down and gaslight[ing] us and all those who heard you say what you now deny about collective punishment in Gaza”.
The signatories also accused Starmer of framing his comments as “only a concern for Muslims”, which they argued was “divisive and an attempt to minimise the global call from people for a ceasefire, the end of the Israeli occupation and the creation of a safe, secure homeland for the Palestinian people”.
The letter continued: “Not every Labour councillor, elected official or members who resigned are Muslims – we are a growing number of people of all backgrounds who proudly stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and demand you as leader of the Labour Party speak and act in accordance with international law.”
The signatories called on the Labour leader to “openly demand Israel immediately stops its military bombardment of Gaza”, call for an “immediate” ceasefire across the Gaza Strip and call for a “fully independent investigation” into the blast at the al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza.
They also urged Starmer to “immediately lift all restrictions” placed on Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) related to discussion of the situation in Israel and Gaza and “lift the ban” on Labour MPs, councillors and others from attending protests in solidarity with Palestine.
General secretary David Evans contacted CLPs earlier this month informing them that the party would take steps to limit motions on events in the Middle East and revealing that elected representatives had been given “strong advice” not to attend protests.
Letter dubbed ‘ill-informed’ by critic
However, NEC member Luke Akehurst hit back at the claims and criticism in the letter in an op-ed to be published shortly on LabourList.
“The sincerity of their pain over the plight of people in Gaza is obvious, but much of the rest of the letter is confused, ill-informed, or just plain wrong,” he wrote.
Akehurst denied that the signatories had been “forced to resign”, arguing: “Many members and councillors completely agree with the resigners, but have remained in the party and expressed their views within it.”
He also pushed back on the letter’s claims about “restrictions” placed on CLPs and the allegations of a “ban” on attending protests, noting that in the latter instance Evan’s advice “was to be careful, not a ban”.
He added: “The letter’s authors could have said everything they wanted to, and protested as much as they wanted, from within the party.”
The Labour Party was approached for comment.
Updated 25/10: Labour has since released a public statement from Keir Starmer saying aid access is “completely insufficient” in Gaza, all parties need to ensure it reaches those in need, and the party supports “humanitarian pauses” as proposed by US secretary of state Anthony Blinken.
Starmer added that”in the long term there can only be a political solution to this crisis”, so talks should start for a two-state solution.
Read the letter in full:
Dear Keir Starmer,
We are a group of former Labour Councillors and elected officials who were forced to resign from the Party in protest at your horrific and dehumanising rhetoric, repeated by members of the front bench, accepting Israel’s right to carry out collective punishment by withholding water, electricity, food and fuel in the besieged Gaza Strip, home to 2.3 million trapped civilians. Collective punishment contravenes international law.
This week we witnessed you double down and gaslight us and all those who heard you say what you now deny about collective punishment in Gaza.
Furthermore in your ‘clarifying’ interview with the media you said “some Muslims” had taken an issue with your rhetoric. Ending the occupation of Palestine, ensuring Palestinians human-rights are upheld and that a free Palestinian state becomes a reality is not a Muslim issue, it’s a human-rights and humanitarian issue that unites hundreds and thousands of working class people of all backgrounds, faith and no faith, trade unionists and people of conscience.
Your framing of this being only a concern for Muslims is divisive and an attempt to minimise the global call from people for a ceasefire, the end of the Israeli occupation and the creation of a safe, secure homeland for the Palestinian people in accordance within international law.
Not every Labour councillor, elected official or members who resigned are Muslims – we are a growing number of people of all backgrounds who proudly stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people and demand you as leader of the Labour Party speak and act in accordance with international law.
We note that you still haven’t withdrawn your words and apologised for what you have said, along with members of the front bench who repeated the same line. You will be aware that lawyers have suggested that individual politicians could be legally liable for aiding and abetting war crimes on the basis of their unequivocal support for Israel.
We call on you as Leader of the Labour Party to:
- Openly demand Israel immediately stops its military bombardment of Gaza, ending massive, disproportionate and lethal military force against a civilian population, contravening international law.
- Call for an immediate ceasefire across the Gaza Strip.
- Call on Israel to allow the International Criminal Court and UN Human Rights Council access to Gaza to carry out a fully independent investigation into the attack on the al Ahli Hospital in Gaza, reportedly killing more than 500 Palestinian men, women and children.
- Call for the deployment of UN peacekeepers at all borders to ensure safety for those living under Israeli occupation and in fear.
- Call for an independent investigation into reports white phosphorus was used against civilians in Gaza by the Israeli military.
- Call for a ban on any further arms sales to Israel by the UK Government, in light of investigations into war crimes
- Call on Israel, the Palestinian authority, and all international governments to work towards creating a Palestinian state that can exist alongside Israel free from occupation.
Internal to the Labour Party, we call on you to:
- Immediately lift all restrictions placed on CLPs gagging them from raising motions, debating and discussing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and Palestine, and preventing them from openly standing in solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis.
- Lift the ban on Labour MPs, Councilors and others from attending protests in solidarity with Palestine.
- [Ensure] the Labour Party create safety for all members and especially Jewish and Muslim members in the Party’s structures.
Lubaba Khalid, Resigned Young Labour Bme Rep and ten others