This week in Gaza, dozens of families are burying their dead. Hundreds of others are caring for wounded friends and relatives. Thousands are washing the remnants of tear gas from their clothes and skin.
When the latest killings started on Monday, I watched in horror as the death toll spiralled upwards – and like many MPs from all parties, I expressed my anger both in Parliament and in public in the following days. In particular, I called for all involved to stop the violence, for an urgent investigation into what happened on Monday, and for Britain to end the arms trade with Israel immediately. These demands don’t seem, to me, to be particularly controversial – yet the backlash has been extraordinary. Many people online have accused me of “siding” with the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the government has refused to even engage with the idea of an end to arms sales to Israel, despite the fact that it is breaking its own arms exports control policy.
What dismays me most about these responses is the insinuation that criticism of the actions taken on behalf of Israel’s government was somehow disproportionate, or stemming from a hatred of the country itself. People are quick to accuse politicians of politicising this kind of horrific moment, but the truth is that failing to do so would be a dereliction of our duty as those holding the government to account. I am fully aware that the issues in Gaza are not black and white, that Hamas engages in violent terrorism, that some in Israel feel under attack at every border, but that won’t stop me from making clear who I believe bears the greater responsibility for what, in this case, has happened.
The UK government’s response to the slaughter on Monday was equivocating. It went only as far saying that Israel’s use of live fire was “extremely concerning” and reiterating that they will not “waver from our support for Israel’s right to defend its borders”. In the House of Commons, a number of MPs stood up to lay the blame entirely on Hamas, and to defend the Israel Defence Force’s actions. Such a response, though, effectively equates the limited but nonetheless deplorable violence from small numbers of Palestinians with the disproportionate, excessive and deadly force from the Israeli government. It suggests a kind of moral equivalence which is simply belied by the facts. There are elements in Palestine hell-bent on violence, and that should be condemned. But responsibility for the deaths on Monday lies with those who fired the guns.
And it’s not just the unequal levels of violence on Monday that dispel any ideas that both sides are “equally to blame”. The Gazans live under siege, in what’s often described as an “open prison”, guarded by the Israeli government. Import and export restrictions on food and produce from Gaza make life near-impossible for farmers to build a living, let alone a future. Restrictions on movements split apart families, and bar Gazans from travelling abroad unless they commit to not returning for a year.
On Monday, as bullets were removed from bodies in under-resourced hospitals, US and Israeli officials were toasting the opening of the new American embassy in Jerusalem. It was no less coincidental than it was sickening. The protests by Palestinians had been occurring regularly, building up to the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, a commemoration of the displacement, but Trump’s provocation contributed to the scale of those on Monday. The US government’s actions after the killings confirmed just how deep the relationship between the superpower and Israel goes. Not only did the US veto an investigation into what happened on Monday, but its ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, walked out of the Security Council meeting as the Palestinian representative began to speak, literally turning her back on the killings.
Britain’s role in the violence shouldn’t be forgotten either. We supply the Israelis with the equipment they can use to shoot Palestinians in the back, to drop tear gas on their protests. That we can continue to issue arms export licenses to Israel for sniper rifles, ammunition and parts for planes is, quite simply, a scandal.
It’s these factors – the facts on the ground on Monday, the support from the US, and Britain’s ongoing arming of Israel – which convince me that UK politicians should indeed “take a side” when it comes to this issue. That doesn’t mean we can’t condemn violence from Hamas and others – we absolutely and forcefully must – but it does mean we can be crystal clear in calling for an end to arms sales to Israel, and for an independent investigation into what happened this week. It’s not partisan to say that those shooting protesters shouldn’t be sold guns, or that such actions should be properly looked into.
I know that the strength of feeling in this debate can sometimes cloud judgement, and that the truth is indeed a casualty of war. But Britain cannot try to “play both sides” at moments like this, or appease anyone because our own position on the world stage is seen to depend on it. Peace and justice must go hand in hand if we’re to end the cycle of violence and deliver freedom for the people of Palestine and of Israel. That’s why it’s so crucial that we hold those responsible for violence to account.