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Why Labour MPs Must Support a Gaza Ceasefire

In just over a month, 11,200 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza by Israeli forces. This cannot go on. Labour MPs must put themselves on the right side of history and vote for a ceasefire, writes former Scottish Labour Party leader Richard Leonard.

MPs are due to vote on a call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

Tomorrow, Labour Members of Parliament will be asked to search their consciences and vote for a ceasefire in Gaza. This is the biggest decision for Parliamentarians since Iraq.

To support the call is not an act of protest but the exercise of power. To support the call is not to side with the Scottish National Party either, but to side with humanity, with the people whose homes, hospitals, schools and refugee camps are being bombed, and with the United Nations and the humanitarian agencies who are all demanding it. 

Anything short of a ceasefire puts the lives of more Palestinians and Israelis, more humanitarian agency workers, journalists, health workers, doctors and nurses at risk. Alternative calls for ‘de-escalation’ are tantamount to indecision at best or at worst with compliance with a reign of violence that has so far killed more than 11,000 people, 40 per cent of them children.

Meanwhile, requests for a so-called ‘humanitarian pause’ really empty the words of their meaning. It is a contradiction in terms. It is not humanitarian to briefly ‘pause’ this slaughter to allow a besieged people some limited access to food and water or to drive them from their homes, never to return, so they can be bombed somewhere else at a later date.

Innocent people are being punished for a crime they did not commit. The war crimes of Hamas on 7 October — the murder of Israeli civilians and hostage-taking — cannot justify illegal and egregious breaches of the Geneva Convention by the Israeli Government and the military personnel under its command. A ceasefire must mean an immediate ceasefire on both sides, enforced by UN peacekeepers on the ground, with the return of hostages and an end to the fighting.

The idea that a vote for an SNP amendment to the King’s Speech would revive a party in serious political trouble debases a profoundly moral question to a purely electoral calculation. But to address the point, I believe it also profoundly misreads the Scottish political landscape.

My successor as leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Anas Sarwar, stated just over two weeks ago that we need ‘the immediate cessation of violence with an end to rocket fire into and out of Gaza. And let me be clear, that means a ceasefire right now.’ So voting for anything other than this position doesn’t embolden the SNP but risks hindering the Scottish Labour Party’s hopes of advance. And if voting for a ceasefire emboldens the SNP, then you could argue that a vote against emboldens the Tories.

There are those who believe that a ceasefire would get in the way of the total destruction and elimination of Hamas and that a ‘humanitarian pause’ is ‘realistic’ in light of Netanyahu’s belligerent position and the stance taken by the US administration. This is, in essence, what the recent Chatham House intervention by Sir Keir Starmer concluded. But this is to act and think as though history began with those despicable acts on 7 October.

Rather, we need to properly understand the full historical picture if we are to fully comprehend present events and shape the future. That’s why what happened in 1917 and in the years since, not least in 1948, in 1967, in 1973 and in 1982 matter. For 40 years, the Israeli Government demonised Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It vowed to root out and destroy the PLO. All that did was to pave the way for Hamas to move from the fringes into the vacuum that was created. History will repeat itself until we break the cycle.

In more recent times, the last Labour Government, with David Miliband as Foreign Secretary, hailed a ceasefire in 2009 which followed 13 days of an Israeli air and ground offensive which had killed 750 Palestinians and at least 14 Israelis. The UN resolution was reportedly based on text drafted by the UK and supported by the US and France, although the US abstained in the final vote. Fourteen nations voted for it, with none against. This is a reminder that a ceasefire is realistic and credible. That the Conservative Government’s opposition to it is wrong. It is the job of Labour to be more humane, to challenge the established limits of any situation and to make the case for a rebalancing of power.

To be an elected Member of any Parliament in a democracy is to hold in your hands a great privilege. It offers a chance to make a difference, to do the right thing. It is my deepest conviction that all that people want, including the people of Israel and Palestine, is a chance to live in peace. Past mistakes cannot be undone. We cannot turn back the clock. The years and lives lost cannot be brought back. But every war sows the seeds of another war. We must instead strive to end decades of conflict.

Time is running out. The daily and nightly bombardments have to stop. The dehumanisation of the people of Gaza must cease. International humanitarian standards must be respected. This is no time for abstention or neutrality.

A war in the Middle East would not be a limited war. It risks becoming a general war, a total war, a nuclear war. So that is why we must demand an immediate ceasefire now, an end to the siege with water, power, communications, food and medicines fully restored, UN peacekeepers on the ground, and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction across the Middle East, including nuclear weapons. 

And there can be no just and lasting peace without the enactment of long-established UN resolutions including an end to subordination and repression, occupation, blockades, settlement expansion, and the upholding of the rights of national determination for Palestinians and Israelis.

There is no inevitability about what is happening. The future is unwritten. Labour MPs should follow their conscience, their own moral compass, and the views of the people who send them to Parliament, from whom their power is borrowed. 

We can chart a different course in the direction of hope in place of fear and despair.