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  1. Politics
  2. Labour
20 February 2024

Has Labour’s position on Gaza actually changed?

The party’s language towards Israel has toughened but its previous conditions for a ceasefire remain.

By Freddie Hayward

Has Labour’s position on Gaza actually changed? The brutal conflict has split the party since it erupted during conference last October. Until now, the leadership’s position has been relatively consistent: Israel has a right to defend itself and any ceasefire depends on degrading Hamas’s ability to attack Israel and the return of the Israeli hostages. The party’s left has called for Keir Starmer to be more forthright in his condemnation of Israel and to demand an immediate cessation of fighting.

Some concession to that demand now appears to have been granted. Labour is poised to call for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in an amendment to an SNP motion due to be voted on in parliament tomorrow. This is a marked shift in language: the party previously favoured a “humanitarian pause” and a “sustainable ceasefire”.

Little of substance has changed. Labour’s amendment does not go as far as the SNP, which calls for an “immediate ceasefire” without any conditions and also refers to Israel’s “collective punishment” of the Palestinian people. Instead, Labour states that “Israel cannot be expected to cease fighting if Hamas continues with violence”. Its previous conditions for a ceasefire also remain in place: Hamas’s capacity to harm Israel must be degraded and the hostages must be released. 

Nonetheless, this represents a significant change in language from the leadership, which follows a hardening of Labour’s criticism of Israel in recent days. Starmer will hope this shift will mollify those in the party who have been concerned by its policy. Some Labour MPs are coming under increasing pressure from their constituents to support an immediate ceasefire. Meanwhile, the Scottish Labour Party’s conference last weekend passed a motion backing this policy. 

Why has this happened now? The SNP motion was clearly designed to force Labour into a corner. But the international context is perhaps more important – the shift precipitated by the impending Israeli invasion of Rafah, where about half of Gaza’s 2.3 million population have sought refuge. 

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Voices on the international scene are increasingly critical of the forthcoming onslaught. On Sky News earlier, David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, pointed to calls from Australia, Canada and New Zealand for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. The hardening tone of the Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, and of President Joe Biden has created the space for Labour to change its language while remaining aligned with the international consensus – something that has been a priority for Starmer since the war began.

As a Labour spokesperson said: “Our amendment calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, in line with our allies. We need the hostages released and returned. We need the fighting to stop now. We need a massive humanitarian aid programme for Gaza. And any military action in Rafah cannot go ahead.”

The test of Labour’s position is whether the new wording will appease the 56 MPs who rebelled over the issue last year.

[See also: Why the NHS is Labour’s biggest political opportunity]

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