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14 February 2024

Layla Moran: “I’m searching for kernels of hope in the rubble”

The Liberal Democrat MP on polarisation and her relatives trapped in Gaza.

By Alona Ferber

In the weeks before Christmas, when Israel’s war in Gaza was in its third month and nearly 30,000 Palestinians had already been killed, around 300 people were trapped inside the Holy Family Church complex, the only Catholic church in the Strip. They had been sheltering there since the start of the war, and Israeli forces were not letting them leave. The army had allegedly used white phosphorus, which can cause severe burns, in the vicinity of the church, and on 16 December Israeli snipers reportedly killed two women in its grounds (the army has denied this).

The Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, whose mother is Palestinian, had five relatives trapped inside the church. She shared chilling updates on their situation on X. “My ask of the Israeli government is please leave my family alone,” she told Sky News at the time, adding that their experience “makes a mockery of the suggestion that the Israeli army is protecting civilians. They’re not.”

Moran, 41, still speaks regularly to the immediate family of her Gazan relatives. “They are hungry, they are frightened,” she told me when we met in her Westminster office in early February. They are living “hand-to-mouth… There’s a well, but it’s contaminated. Who’s going to get sick next?” And yet “they consider themselves the lucky ones because they’re inside the church complex”.

Moran, who was dressed in red with a black scarf around her neck, is the only British MP of Arab descent (Nadhim Zahawi, she pointed out, is proudly Kurdish). Her mother, Randa, is a Christian Palestinian from Jerusalem. Her father, James, was a British diplomat. Moran’s great-grandfather Wasif Jawhariyyeh chronicled decades of Jerusalem’s history in diaries that were published in 2013. Moran moved frequently as a child because of her father’s work, and was educated at international schools. She doesn’t speak fluent Arabic, to her evident chagrin (she converses with her Gazan relatives in English), but she does “cook fluent Arabic”.

Being a Palestinian now is “heartbreaking”, she said. Moran finds herself “in a sort of empty space between two things. Now I’m trying to desperately search for kernels of hope in the rubble. The extremes of the debate have completely captured the debate.”

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Few publicly acknowledge that there is humanity and valid grievance on both sides of the Israel-Hamas war. But since the conflict began, Moran and the Labour MP Alex Sobel, the only MP of Israeli descent, have written joint op-eds in the Guardian and Jewish News in an attempt to be constructive. “There is a difference between a government and a people,” Moran told me, “and there is a difference within a government of its extremes and the ones who want to make peace.”

She doesn’t “like extremes of things. I’ve always been moderate, centre-ground.” The British government’s statements on the war have only fuelled polarisation, she said. They have contained “very unbalanced language” and were “unequivocally on the side of the Israeli government at every opportunity”. The government has struggled “to use the word ‘condemn’, even for the most contemptible acts you can imagine”.

At time of going to press there has been no hostage release deal, more than four months after the 7 October attacks, and Israel has said it will launch a ground offensive in Rafah, southern Gaza. A few weeks before we met, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ordered provisional measures in South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide. For many Palestinians, the ruling did not go far enough. “I think there were a lot of people who thought the ICJ had more power than it had, and therefore were disappointed when things didn’t happen,” said Moran, who has followed other ICJ cases, such as Gambia’s 2019 case against Myanmar alleging genocide of the Rohingya population. “Our job,” she said of the Lib Dems, “is to back the court without fear or favour.”

The very fact that the question of whether Israel has committed genocide was asked “is huge”, Moran said. She disagrees with what the Foreign Secretary David Cameron implied when he said the term should not be “bandied about”: “That’s not what South Africa was doing. South Africa was using the correct process, which was a court, to interrogate a very high-stakes, emotive war crime. I thought it was significant that the court didn’t just throw it out.”

She almost wishes it had: “I don’t want to believe that there is the possibility that [genocide] is happening to my family, any part of my people, or anywhere in the world at all. There is something deeply, deeply disturbing about thinking that that is even possible.”

Moran, a former maths and physics teacher, entered the Commons in 2017 as MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. She stood for leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2020, but lost to Ed Davey. Of recent calls for Davey, a former postal affairs minister, to resign over the Horizon scandal, Moran was unequivocal: “Absolutely not.” The response is clearly “the Tories trying to have a pop”.

Every year since becoming an MP, Moran, who is the Lib Dem spokesperson for foreign affairs, has introduced a Palestine Recognition Bill to parliament. She is keen to emphasise that she is not an “MP for Palestine”: “I never came into politics wearing my heritage front and centre.” But “it’s important for me to showcase the very best of the Palestinian people, which is to be thoughtful, to be compassionate, and to show the world that we are very capable people who deserve our own state and who can be trusted for that state”.

Since the war began, some observers say Hamas has set back the Palestinian cause decades. Moran disagrees: “I would actually push back on those who say that Palestinian statehood is further away. I think it’s closer than ever.” Definitive plans for what happens in Gaza after the war remain elusive. Polling indicates that Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the First and Second Intifadas currently in jail in Israel for murder, is the most popular Palestinian political figure. But Moran warned that “in Palestinian politics… the minute someone raises their head above the parapet, or it looks like they’re becoming a leader, there is some kind of excuse [for Israel] to put them in jail”.

The Gaza war has put into focus Iran’s impact on the wider region. Tehran funds Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon (which has been engaged in cross-border fire with Israel since October), and the Houthis in Yemen, who have been attacking ships in the Red Sea, ostensibly in support of Hamas. Moran has called on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, a branch of the country’s armed forces, to be proscribed as a terror group, and criticised Rishi Sunak for striking the Houthis without going through parliament. There is also a risk that there will be no “off ramp”. “We have to be really creative about the diplomatic track… but it’s also about trade and aid and engagement.”

The West’s big mistake, she said, is that it has no comprehensive strategy for the region. The Lib Dems have put a great deal of thought into their Middle East policy, she said, bringing the party’s friends of Israel and Palestine groups together to negotiate, for instance. But elsewhere she questions “how much deep thinking went into the Middle East before 7 October for major political parties in this country”.

Towards the end of our time together, I told Layla Moran how much our conversation has meant to me, an Israeli Jew: it is rare for Israeli Jews and Palestinians to speak at length about the 75-year conflict.

There have always been competing narratives in Israel and Palestine. But “once you understand that there can be two versions of the same thing, and that they can both be right”, said Moran, “then it becomes much easier to see how someone else can be hurt, and that those two things are equally valid”.

[See also: Sheryl Sandberg: “Ending hate on social media will cost billions”]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland