Israel-Palestine: ‘A Ceasefire Now is Not Feasible’

GARY KENT argues that humanitarian pauses are the best hope at this moment to relieve the suffering in Gaza, before they can be turned into truces or a ceasefire and political settlement.

We are all weeping at the terrible scenes in Israel and Gaza. Let’s recall the moving stanza in WH Auden’s emotional poem, ‘The Shield of Achilles’:

“The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.”

The next question is: what should be done about the unbearable suffering in Israel and Gaza?

The ILP has a proud record in another, albeit smaller and less bloody, conflict that revolved around competing rights, aspirations, and ancestral voices on narrow ground: Northern Ireland.

From the 1970s to the end of the century, the ILP refused to take a one-sided approach that ignored a complex history. It refused the hard-left’s false framing of Northern Ireland as a failed, artificial, and Orange state, although there were grains of truth in that. And it refused to endorse demands such as Troops Out Now which would have given an advantage to paramilitary groups.

The ILP did its best to join Catholics and Protestants in their quest for common humanity based on class politics. It empathised with working class Protestants and Catholics and helped support the formulas that now allow them to live peaceful lives.

The same principles apply in the Middle East. Yes, we all want to see a ceasefire or, as Jon Lansman rightly and wisely argues, we should strive for a stable ceasefire.

Many of those marching are horrified by the death and destruction and go along with the demand for a ceasefire now. In my opinion, Keir Starmer rightly rejects this. It is, I believe, an emotional spasm that makes people feel good but has no traction.

Nor should we have any truck with hard-left placards that stress “A Free Palestine, from the river to the Sea” as there is no space within that call for Israel, which is a legitimate state founded by the UN for good reasons.

Powerful metaphor

Writing in New Left Review in 1967, Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher devised a powerful metaphor, which is still vital: “A man once jumped from the top floor of a burning house in which many members of his family had already perished. He managed to save his life; but as he was falling he hit a person standing down below and broke that person’s legs and arms. The jumping man had no choice; yet to the man with the broken limbs he was the cause of his misfortune. If both behaved rationally, they would not become enemies.”

Many argue that UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967 means Israel is defying international law. But it actually affirmed that just and lasting peace in the Middle East requires the simultaneous application of two processes:

“(i) Withdrawal of Israeli Armed Forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
(ii) Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries free from threat or acts of force.”

A ceasefire now is not feasible. It won’t be stable. Hamas doesn’t want a ceasefire, and will repeat its rape and rampages if it can. Israel cannot ignore this existential threat or the fate of more than 200 men, women and children who have been cruelly abducted.

But the US and its allies are also right to argue for respect for the laws of war. Thousands of Gazans, innocent people, have died and their lives are miserable. There is no set sequence for doing this but my suggestion is that humanitarian pauses are the best beginning in the hope that they can relieve the suffering before they can be turned into truces or a ceasefire and political settlement.

As in Northern Ireland, we all know the eventual shape of the deal. There it was power-sharing and in the Israel/Palestine context, it is a two-state solution. It’s impossible for Hamas to be part of this settlement. We also know that Benjamin Netanyahu is not a leader who can be part of this long overdue settlement. He has to go, as it seems most Israelis now agree.

Parliamentarians who broke collective responsibility are entitled to do so and carry the consequences in party discipline. Confused thinking does no good in the Middle East. If Labour is to be a positive force in foreign policy, in opposition or in government, it must stick to the principles the ILP rightly pioneered in Northern Ireland. It won’t be easy but it has to be done.


Gary Kent has been a Labour Party member since 1976 and has worked in Parliament since 1987. He was secretary of the Socialist Committee on Ireland and now focusses on Iraqi Kurdistan and Labour foreign policy. He writes a monthly column for Progressive Britain.

This article is part of a debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict. As such, it reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the ILP or its National Administrative Council.


  1. Gary Kent
    30 November 2023

    I agree with Mary that removing Hamas and Netanyahu would not resolve the conflict, at least easily or necessarily. But the prospects of a two-state solution could be massively advanced.

    A degraded Hamas that cannot again attack Israel, at least in the force it did on 7/10, could calm the real fears of Israelis. Hamas could be replaced by the Palestinian Authority in elections and secure Arab and western money to rebuild Gaza.

    That becomes more possible with a normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which could become economic powerhouses in the Middle East. That could sideline Iran and lift the pressures it is exerting on Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.

    It would also be a major advance if Netanyahu were replaced by an Israeli prime minister who no longer sustains extreme settlers in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s aim of annexing the West Bank would kill the two-state solution. Settlements in the West Bank would have to be closed, as Ariel Sharon did in Gaza, though some might remain in deals
    between Israel and Palestine.

    Mary also writes that I recognise the history of this conflict but fail to take it back to its roots. She then refers to the re-ordering of the Middle East by British and French imperialism. I am unsure what this means in practice.

    I used to hear such appeals very often in Iraqi Kurdistan where leaders argued that Sykes-Picot, a secret Anglo/French treaty in 1916, doomed the Kurds. The fate of the Kurds was more complex. Roots are not eternal prisons. Established states cannot be easily changed. Have a listen to the Kenyan foreign minister’s speech on irredentism and empire at the UN.

    The dreadful events in Israel/Palestine may have made it impossible to ignore that two peoples are so bitter towards each other. Peacebuilding organisations, with external support, can help. Those who want peace and reconciliation should shun the absolutist
    demonisation of one people and the lauding of another in favour of diplomatic, political, economic measures that bridge the gaps, or war will return.

    That is why the clearly anti-Israel protests are missing the mark by failing to show empathy with peoples on both sides and spurning a two-state solution. Brendan Cox’s initiative is exactly the sort of rally that helps this rather than hindering it.

  2. Mary Stratford
    28 November 2023

    I am not sure I chided anyone but let me respond to Gary’s comments. What I was trying to say, however inexpertly, was that removing Hamas or Netanyahu from the picture will not resolve the problems, although who wouldn’t want to see change in both countries.

    What is happening now in Gaza will simply fuel armed resistance and hinder any chance of improving the situation. This can be seen in the various attempts by the west to support resistance to oppressive regimes in Arab countries during the Arab spring. The result was the emergence of even more horrific organisations, such as Daesh and Isis in Syria and Iraq, and the horrific situation in Libya.

    Gary rightly recognises the history of this conflict but fails to take it back to its roots – ie. the promises made to Arab countries of self-determination should they support the Allies against the Ottoman empire during the first world war, promises cynically broken in particular by Britain followed by the further betrayal of the Balfour declaration.

    The Palestinians have long been pawns in the political games of other nations. The state of Israel does not exist in a vacuum and while it justifiably fears for its existence that does not give it the right to act in ways which breach international laws. The aggressive actions of Israeli settlers over the last few years are simply shocking but have not resulted in any action by the Israeli state to prevent them. Indeed, it could be argued they have been given clear messages of support while the west has watched on or made ineffectual protests.

    In any other situation, significant sanctions would have been imposed, but not against Israel. While I condemn Hamas for its abhorrent actions on 7 October, I am equally appalled by the actions of the Israeli state, which give credence to the notion of genocide that Gary condemns as a trope.

    My thoughts are with all those suffering in this situation. If I were able to this weekend I would join the vigil for peace organised by Brendan Cox, but peace will not come without some form of justice for the Palestinian people. Without it, this bloody mess will continue and both antisemitism and Islamaphobia will continue to be an abhorrent reality on both sides of the political spectrum, in this country and elsewhere.

  3. Gary Kent
    26 November 2023

    Words matter. There may be no set definitions or sequences, as Will Brown rightly says, but pauses, truces, temporary ceasefires, permanent ones, and political settlement are different in scope and sequence. Adopting ‘Ceasefire Now’ as a slogan in the immediate aftermath of an orgy of rape and murder denied Israel’s right to self-defence.

    Israel could not allow such a pogrom to go unanswered and had to rescue citizens ripped from their homes and families. There is much private and public pressure on Israel about how they seek to degrade the ability of Hamas to repeat pogroms, as it clearly wishes.

    Hamas is hiding behind innocent civilians and putting them at risk. Israel says it is seeking to minimise civilian casualties within the rules of war but that’s always difficult.

    I was in Mosul’s suburbs in 2017 when the city centre was occupied by Isis. The liberated village was peppered by bullets and buildings had been razed by aircraft bombs. The battle was to rid Mosul of another genocidal and misogynistic force, and that involved clearing Isis out house by house, finding the tunnels and rat runs used to ambush Iraqi soldiers. They had three years to prepare the killing zone. Hamas had much longer to create the ‘Gaza Metro’.

    The question for left-wingers is how do legitimate governments exercise military action when necessary. Many on the hard left take no responsibility to think that through.

    A decent movement to stop the suffering on both sides would not start with a slogan that elides Hamas responsibility and puts Israel alone in the dock, especially when the other slogan commonly deployed is ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’. This leaves no room for Israel or a two state solution. And nor should false tropes about apartheid Israel and genocide go unchallenged.

    What if people at the protests who want to end civilian suffering were to show empathy with Israelis and Palestinians by combining both flags on placards and badges, and advocating a two state solution, which is, after all, the position of the Labour Party? It would not be comfortable or safe.

    Mary Stratford cites decades of Palestinian suffering, which I discussed with a group in the West Bank seeking just solutions for Israelis and Palestinians. Such voices need to be heeded very carefully, as Will has also highlighted.

    But the historical context is more complex. It also includes the efforts by Arab states to destroy Israel in 1948, 1956 and 1973 as well as the mass expulsion of Jews from Arab countries. Israelis know they only have to lose once and they are finished.

    That is why a two state solution guaranteeing Israel’s security and Palestine’s viability is essential, although it has clearly been undermined by Netanyahu and weak Palestinian leaders in the occupied territories. The basis for that is outlined in the UN Security Council Resolution I cited in my article. Its words deserve careful reading.

    Mary Stratford chides me for saying that Hamas and Netanyahu are not up for a settlement while Sinn Fein and the DUP were open to one. Hamas and the IRA are completely different beasts. Hamas opposes any deal. Maybe that will change but it seems improbable, at the very least, in the short term.

    The IRA spent decades in a futile and bloody effort to destroy Northern Ireland. Ultimately, the IRA went from bloody intransigence to biddability. It accepted the existence of Northern Ireland and its parliament and put its weapons beyond use. It was at this stage that power-sharing became possible and voters decided that Sinn Fein and the DUP were a better bet than the moderate centre to advance communal interests.

    A small window is now opening for concerted moves to normalise relations in the Middle East and the Saudi/Israel deal is not dead. Its imminence explains the timing of Hamas’s actions and efforts to scupper it by the geriatric Iranian regime which has been under pressure from the Woman, Life, Freedom revolutionaries there.

    The role of western activists is a material and muddling factor. The Irish poet WB Yeats rightly observed in 1919 that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Many are swept along by hyperbole. Misinformation and disinformation are rife. Conspiracism is poisoning debate and that is often attached to antisemitism.

    When the ILP finessed its analysis of Northern Ireland – then one of the major crises facing the UK, and worsened by hard left nonsense – it was about much more than finding the perfect words, but being clear-headed. It made a difference that saved lives. The ILP could make a positive contribution to the Israel-Palestine debate by exercising leadership and judgement to reach those who rightly want to end civilian suffering on both sides.

  4. Mary Hull
    22 November 2023

    Mary, I agree with you. Let’s not get hung up on terminology – most ceasefires are short-lived anyway. Let’s not tie ourselves in knots and try to word perfectly pitched stances but instead come back to a humanitarian response which recognises the innocent people on both sides whose current traumas and grief I find both deeply distressing and unimaginable.

    I too think Gary’s article is flawed and the comparison to Northern Ireland weak but I welcome the attempt at finding a middle ground rather than repeating some of the utterly one-sided vitriol some on the left are currently expounding. I hope the promised pause happens, hostages are returned and aid gets into Gaza.

    I also hope, of course the destruction of Gaza ceases but know this won’t happen, just as Hamas will not cease to find ways to attack Israel. I applaud those incredibly brave people on both sides who, despite suffering personal losses, are coming together on platforms and asking for peace. Their voices need to be heard.

  5. Ernest Jacques
    22 November 2023

    Gary’s argument for rejecting a ceasefire in Gaza is unimpressive, and his link to the Northern Ireland peace settlement seems bizarre and off-the-scale. While the IRA did bomb two public houses, killing 21 innocent people in 1974, the British state jailed innocent Irishmen. I cannot recall one incident of the British state bombing cities, towns, villages and hospitals, and in the process killing tens of thousands of innocent people, including the old, vulnerable and babies.

    Genocide cannot be sugar-coated, and (to my mind) there is no way that anyone with a beating heart and an ounce of compassion can justify the killing of innocent civilians, including the old and vulnerable (men, women, children and babies in hospitals and incubators), nor the bombing of homes of more than two million people. Forgive me if I concur with renowned thinker and peace campaigner Professor Noam Chomsky, who has described the Israeli attacks on Gaza as “hideous, sadistic, vicious and murderous”.

    Yet those in the Labour Party who speak out on behalf of the Palestinians and demonstrate their opposition to genocide are labelled Antisemitic. The party leadership has even gone so far as to issue an official directive to all constituencies, warning that discussions of Israel’s war against Gaza may be met with disciplinary action.

    Most of the political establishment and media, at home and abroad, simply ignore the context of this never-ending conflict. For 50 years since Israel won the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Israelis have bulldozed Palestinian olive groves and homes, stolen land and systematically imprisoned and killed those who object, including observers such as journalists. They have done so with impunity and the tacit support of the USA, Britain and other western democracies. Moreover, it is British and American bombs that are annihilating the citizens of Gaza. There is nothing from the Labour leader about that.

    Violence and inhumanity beget violence and inhumanity. And the Palestinian people have suffered violence and inhumanity for decades while the western world remains silent.

  6. Mary Stratford
    21 November 2023

    While Gary makes some pertinent points I cannot agree with his conclusion. Despite drawing parallels with the situation in Northern Ireland, he then dismisses the possibility of Hamas or Netanyahu being part of any eventual political settlement. Surely, the history of the Northern Ireland peace process demonstrates exactly the opposite in that arch foes such as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley had to be part of that change for it to work. In a sense Gary’s piece has been taken over by events as clearly both Hamas and the Israeli government are now seemingly close to a ceasefire deal.

    Like most of us I was horrified by the Hamas attack, which cannot be justified in any way given they clearly targeted civilians and the nature of the atrocities they carried out. Israel does have a right to retaliate but no human with any empathy can defend the onslaught it has unleashed on a population where 50% of are under the age of 15. As such, perhaps an “emotional spasm” is an understandable response.

    I will continue to call for a ceasefire but I really don’t care what it’s called as long as the violence can be halted. In that, I stand with the leader of the UN who called Israel’s actions “unprecedented” and echoed calls for an immediate ceasefire.

    Recent events, however, have not just happened out of the blue. They are in response to the continued oppression of the Palestinian people, which has largely been ignored over recent years, and I suspect in part prompted by Iran’s desire to halt the spreading normalisation of diplomatic relations with Israel across the Arab world prior to 7 October.

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