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‘Starmer Is Complicit in Dehumanising Palestinians’: Why Labour Councillors Are Leaving

Labour has been rocked by a wave of resignations after Keir Starmer endorsed the collective punishment of Palestine. One councillor leaving the party explains why

Keir Starmer claimed Israel 'has the right' to collectively punish Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Two years ago, I was proud to be elected as a Labour councillor for Notting Dale, the ward in North Kensington, London, where I grew up. Since then, I have had the privilege of serving the community here and acting as deputy leader of the Labour group. Yesterday, I submitted my resignation from the party following Keir Starmer’s appalling statements, which amounted to the endorsement of war crimes committed by Israel against civilians in Gaza.

It is absolutely correct to unequivocally condemn the killing of innocent civilians on both sides. Instead of adopting this highly uncontroversial position, Keir Starmer chose to provide disturbingly one-sided support for Israel even as it was committing what he, as a former human rights lawyer, must have known to be war crimes.

Endorsing a War Crimes

In an interview on LBC radio, Keir Starmer said Israel ‘has the right’ to withhold power and water from Gaza, endorsing the collective punishment of 2.2 million civilians — a war crime under Article 33 of the Geneva Convention. Starmer has continued to dismiss any criticism of the indiscriminate and disproportionate killing of Palestinians by repeatedly asserting that ‘Israel has a right to defend itself’. 

The Labour leader has rejected calls for a ceasefire or to oppose Israel’s illegal ‘evacuation order’ of more than 1 million Palestinians even as Israel’s government and armed forces make their criminal intentions clear: the Israel Defence Forces declared ‘the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy’ while the president of Israel Isaac Herzog denied the existence of innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip.

Instead of condemning war crimes, Keir Starmer joined the chorus of voices engaged in the utter dehumanisation of Palestinians, signalling his apparent indifference to the suffering of civilians in Gaza, whom he regards as acceptable collateral damage in Israel’s campaign to ‘defend itself’. 

At the time of writing, over 3,500 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed and more than 12,000 have been injured. As a former human rights lawyer, Keir Starmer understands full well that his public declarations undermine international efforts to restrain Israel and instead give the green light to an unfolding massacre.

A Hostile Environment for Muslims

Each civilian in Gaza is of equal value to an Israeli civilian. The loss of each Palestinian life should be mourned just as vocally and unambiguously as the life of an Israeli lost during the deplorable attacks on 7 October. To say otherwise betrays severe anti-Palestinian racism. The fact that Starmer failed to vocalise this is something Arabs and Muslims will not forget come the next election.

This goes beyond comments from Labour shadow cabinet ministers. MPs and councillors are being told to stay away from Palestine solidarity demonstrations, and I know of colleagues who have been told to delete tweets expressing solidarity with Palestine. This chilling suppression of free expression is part of a broader authoritarian culture created by the Starmer leadership within the party.

It is difficult to overstate how emotive the Palestine question is for many Arabs and Muslims and how powerful our affiliation with Palestinians living under illegal occupation and a brutal system of apartheid. On that basis, his response will only serve to reinforce the findings in the Forde Report, which accused the party of operating a ‘hierarchy of racism’ where anti-black racism and Islamophobia are not addressed as seriously as other forms of racism.  

Many Arabs and Muslims within the party have felt unsafe and unrepresented — an experience which has been compounded by Stamer’s sanctioning of disproportionate Israeli aggression.

In a letter to the Labour Party, I explained how the general disregard for the concerns of Muslim members is further highlighted by its dealing with incidents in our own Labour group in Kensington and Chelsea. The party has persistently failed to respond to serious evidence of racism, including an incident of Islamophobic hate speech reported against a Labour councillor in our group. The councillor in question received an administrative suspension but remained a Labour Party member, revealing an unacceptable double standard where certain forms of racism are more tolerated than others.

In November 2020, the Labour Muslim Network released a report on Islamophobia within the Labour Party. The report, which constituted the largest-ever consultation of Muslim members and supporters of Labour, found 29 percent of Muslim Labour members had suffered Islamophobia within the party while 37 percent had witnessed it. 44 percent said Labour doesn’t take Islamophobia seriously, and more than half of those surveyed said they didn’t trust the Labour leadership to tackle it. 

Aside from the moral imperative for any progressive party to see Palestinians as human beings and to take all forms of racism seriously, the Labour Party also risks serious electoral damage. British Muslims across the country are rightly furious over the leadership’s stance, and they will make that discontent clear at the ballot box. The party talks about reconnecting with its ‘traditional’ working-class heartlands — these communities are often very diverse, and we form a significant part of them.

I am not alone in leaving the party. Over the past week, more than a dozen councillors have left the Labour Party. Usman Bhaimia in Gloucester, a Labour councillor for twelve years, said he had resigned because the party is ‘no longer a safe space for Palestinians, Muslims and those who care about justice.’ In Oxford, councillors Shaista Aziz and Amar Latif sought urgent clarification of Starmer’s remarks. They received no response from the party and resigned forty-eight hours later.

I joined the Labour Party in 2015 because, for the first time in my life, a mainstream party’s values and ideals aligned with mine. In its frenzy to bury the legacy of the Corbyn years and the alternative this represented, the party has transformed into the worst version of itself. 

From the abhorrent commitment to continue housing asylum seekers on a barge to a failure to oppose the privatisation of the NHS to reneging on pledges to redistribute wealth and nationalise public services, Starmer’s leadership has denuded the party of every progressive programme — even those that are clearly in the public interest and which enjoy popular support.  

All this must be challenged, but Starmer’s complicity in the extreme dehumanisation of Palestinians, which amounts to complicity in the atrocities carried out against them, means I can no longer do that from within the party.