Photo: Steve Eason

The barbarism of the Israeli attack on Gaza is almost beyond words. One of the most sophisticated and well-equipped military forces in the world is bombarding and invading a strip of land containing 2.3 million people, nearly half of them children, already suffering from nearly two decades of siege, hungry, homeless, without water and electricity.

The Israeli defence minister boasted that ‘the ground shook in Gaza.’ According to a Financial Times report, by last Thursday, Israeli forces had fired more than 8,000 munitions into Gaza – far more than the 5,000 munitions the US and its allies fired at ISIS in the battle over Mosul in 2017. The results are absolutely devastating: Palestinians estimate many bodies are under rubble, and many who are still alive but cannot be rescued. An estimated 3,000 children have been killed out of a total now more than 8,000.

These are war crimes. The very minimum demand must be for a ceasefire and a halt to the war on Gaza. Yet this is too much for the British and US governments and their cheerleaders in politics and the media. Our politicians, far from denouncing such crimes, are allowing Israel to act with impunity. Rishi Sunak affirmed to the right-wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he hoped he would win. Suella Braverman searches daily for ways to criminalise protesters. In a vote on an already watered down resolution about stopping the atrocities, the UK abstained and the US along with Israel voted against.

This complicity is rewriting the political agenda internationally and here in Britain it is causing huge divisions in the Labour Party. There is widespread outrage at Starmer’s refusal to criticise Israel over punishment of civilians by cutting off water and electricity – a position he has desperately rowed back from but too late. He has compounded this by refusing to call for a ceasefire and has now been outflanked to the left by the London and Manchester elected mayors and the Scottish Labour leader all demanding one.

There are rumours of shadow cabinet resignations and a number of councillors around the country have resigned from Labour – in Oxford this meant the party has lost control of the council.

Labour MPs are now worried that the Muslim votes that Labour took for granted will no longer go to them but to other parties or to abstention. While Labour has spent recent years stressing its patriotic credentials in order to supposedly appease those in ‘red wall’ seats, many of these same seats have significant numbers of Muslim voters who may hold the balance between winning and losing at the next election.

While this might concentrate Starmer’s mind, it’s unlikely that he will change course. He is shadowing Tory policy so closely that he fears the criticism from the right in parliament and the media if he deviates. So we get a series of pathetic arguments – that a ‘humanitarian pause’ is better than a ceasefire, that a ceasefire would only give Hamas time to regroup, and the one relayed by Andrew Rawnsley in this week’s Observer that the UK government has little influence over Israel, less so the leader of the opposition, so there’s no point in having a big row about something Starmer can’t control.

If that’s the case then why not call for a ceasefire? So he is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and this is very damaging for his leadership. The huge demonstrations in London and elsewhere speak to a growing mass movement in support of the Palestinians. This is in response to the immediate horror but also represents a wider understanding of the issue and a rejection of the idea that Israel is defending itself or that it is fighting ‘terrorism’. The history is also much more well-known: the Nakba, the occupations, the repression of the Intifadas, the Oslo Accords, and the massive increase in illegal settlements in the West Bank. So the politicians are increasingly out of touch with public opinion here, with big majorities favouring a ceasefire.

All this marks a new phase and a rupture in politics both in Britain and internationally. The development of the war is hard to predict. If we look at it in a pessimistic way, the danger of this leading to much wider war is already there. The US has already bombed Syria and Iraq in strikes against Iran in order to deter any intervention from there or from Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the chances of Hezbollah staying out of conflict are not high, and it presents a much bigger challenge to Israel. Further conflict can lead to war with its allies in Iran and Russia, both of whom are involved in a proxy war with Nato in Ukraine.

That war continues to drag on with very high deaths and casualties. Ukraine is receiving huge quantities of western weaponry but is unable to break through in the war. Demands for a ceasefire here too are rejected by the government. So in both theatres of war the west sees it in their interests for war to continue despite the dangers involved.

Opposition to this comes from various governments especially in the global south, but the key to defending the Palestinians and forcing the Israelis back is a mass international movement of solidarity. This is growing very rapidly and has the capacity to force governments to change tack.

In every country there are political divisions and also the fear, not least in the US, that Israel will go too far and create worldwide instability through further wars. There is also the worry among governments that the mass protests can bring down the pro-western regimes in the Middle East. Our role in building mass opposition to Israel is crucial in forcing change.

There is a new space opening up round these mass protests. In London we have seen three huge demonstrations in as many weeks, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets. The need for a strong anti-imperialist, internationalist left has never been greater. There have been several setbacks over recent years. The acceptance of much of the Labour left of the IHRA definition of antisemitism has allowed the right to define criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and this has weakened the movement, as has the use of charges of antisemitism to attack Jeremy Corbyn.

The same was true when the Socialist Campaign Group MPs removed their names from a Stop the War Coalition statement against war in Ukraine. That was a blow that made it harder for those in and outside Labour to organise round these issues.

However the situation is changing again. The demonstrations have prompted even a few Labour MPs to speak at demos and the movement has got increased support for ceasefire from politicians. The key to this has been protest and a new anti-imperialist left needs to develop. The time has never been more urgent.

30 Oct 2023 by Lindsey German

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