Israel-Palestine: Gaza, Ceasefires & the Labour Rift

The debate on Gaza within the Labour Party has polarised around the whether or not to support calls for a ceasefire. But this isn’t a binary choice, argues WILL BROWN, as recent developments show.

This contribution to the discussion on the war in Gaza is written with some trepidation as I am neither an expert on the middle east nor the Israel-Palestine conflict. Rather, this is a commentary on the debate within the UK Labour Party and wider left and is written from that perspective. Inevitably, it will stray into areas others may well know better.

Perhaps reflecting the conflictual and aggressive political culture that we now inhabit, reactions to the Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October and Israel’s violent response have quickly descended into an often vitriolic debate that has also coalesced over whether to support calls for an immediate ceasefire.

One might have hoped the atrocities committed by Hamas, and Israel’s murderous blockade and bombing of Gaza, would have prompted a more compassionate and even-handed response that recognised the common humanity of victims on both sides. Such voices have been hard to find.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland has been one, reminding us that “this is not a football match … a binary contest in which you can root for only one team”. And there was an open letter from Israeli writers who made a plea to the western left, saying: “There is no contradiction between staunchly opposing the Israeli subjugation and occupation of Palestinians and unequivocally condemning brutal acts of violence against innocent civilians. In fact, every consistent leftist must hold both positions simultaneously.”

However, in general, the ceasefire debate seems to have ignored a number of factors. First, despite the issue generating so much hot air, the Labour Party’s position is of very little importance on the ground. Whether Keir Starmer calls for a ceasefire or not is hardly going to shift the dial one notch. Even if he were prime minister, the UK’s diplomatic influence and leverage in the region is marginal at best.

The debate does have an influence within the UK, however, especially on Labour’s internal divisions and on the party’s electoral prospects in some constituencies. And what the party has to say may have some relevance in terms of expressing solidarity with civilian populations and the beleaguered progressive forces on both sides in the conflict.

But we need to have a little humility in recognising that falling on one side or other of the ceasefire debate isn’t going to affect the chances of one coming about. While the debate has raged on in Britain, those political actors with some influence – the Israeli and Hamas leaders, Qatar and the US – have negotiated the first potential truce.

Second, as the deal announced on 22 November shows, parsing the difference between a humanitarian pause on the one hand and a ceasefire on the other, condemning one as a sell-out of Israel or the other as a sell-out of civilians in Gaza, is to miss several points at once.

Humanitarian law

The difference between humanitarian pauses and ceasefires is a grey area – neither is defined in international law and the practical difference turns on the intended length of the cessation of hostilities.

International humanitarian law does have much to say about the delivery of humanitarian assistance, the protection of non-combatants and the treatment of the wounded (combatants and non-combatants).

The choice between a pause and a ceasefire isn’t an either/or question and it’s conceivable that one could lead to another if there was political will on either side. Peace seems a long way off and the ability to achieve it, unlikely as it seems, will be a process, not an event. However, it may be that periods of truce might provide some space for ways forward to be explored, hostage releases to be negotiated and aid to be delivered.

The deal agreed on 22 November – initially a four-day halt in exchange for the release of hostages – is the first sign that either set of leaders is prepared to consider a pause in violence. This may reflect growing pressures on Netanyahu to do something about the hostages and on Hamas due to the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Given what has happened, shouldn’t even these initial limited moves be welcomed if they result in a reduction of violence and an increase in the delivery of food, water, shelter and medical care?

The prospect of any longer-term progress seems to turn on the removal of the hardline leaderships on both sides of the conflict. At present, Israel is saddled with the toxic legacy of Netanyahu’s programme of undermining core pillars of Israel’s democracy, while in Gaza the injustice and injury inflicted by the Israelis may, in fact, shore up a Hamas leadership that was increasingly unpopular before the war started.

However grim the prospects, the focus of the UK Labour left needs to rise above its fixation on a false binary choice over a ceasefire, and the name-calling and denunciations that have characterised the debate so far.


Will Brown is a UK academic working in politics and international relations.

Some other suggested reading not linked in the text:

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. Chris Wilson
    9 December 2023

    I agree with Will and commend the ILP for facilitating a more thoughtful debate against the background of distressing images continually shown by the media.

    What do folk think about the Israeli ‘Peace Now’ group? At the very least it demonstrates that there are other voices in Israel not being heard.

    I would also highlight the humanitarian work of the British Red Cross, working in partnership with Red Crescent and Magen David Adom (the Israeli equivalent), to offer what help they can to all affected. While they cannot facilitate a political solution they can, at least, offer a source of practical support for desperate people.

  2. Matthew Brown
    5 December 2023

    Will mentions the need to express solidarity with “the beleaguered progressive forces on both sides in the conflict”. These are all too often overlooked by many elements of the western left, and hidden from view as the media directs our focus on those driving the murder and destruction.

    But we can find them if we look – progressive elements such as the exasperated Palestinian trade union federation whose members have long been attacked, victimised and silenced in Gaza by the fundamentalist Hamas militias who have exerted dictatorial control there since 2006; or grassroots peacebuilders such as John Lyndon who has been working for years with community organisations on both sides of the divide as they strive to overcome the opposing hatreds built up by decades of prejudice.

    The cries of these beleaguered progressive forces – for “rationality”, “principle” and “ideological coherence” from the international left – need to be heard, now more than ever.

  3. John Buckell
    4 December 2023

    So refreshing to read balanced articles that acknowledge both the need for justice for the Palestinians and the right of Israel to exist. Most of the left have got it wrong again because they see every conflict as caused by the west or its allies, and disregard complexity.

    A left position would be as outlined by Ben Saltonstall – justice for Palestinians and Israelis, probably involving a state for each side-by-side.

    Once again, voices in the ILP are injecting some genuine socialist perspective on an issue.

  4. Ben Saltonstall
    2 December 2023

    Thank you so much, Will, for writing this thoughtful and humane article. I was despairing at the left’s selective concern about killing, which is so one-sided as to be open to interpretation as antisemitic. As you point out, calling for a one-sided ceasefire is futile and, I would add, unhelpful because it simply adds fuel to the fire.

    Israel has no choice but to respond to Hamas’s atrocities and its genocidal call for the extermination of Israel. As Jonathan Freedland points out, if it didn’t it would be seen as weakness and open up the country to threats from the wider Middle East (which we have seen time and time again).

    To be clear, these forces are not fair and open-minded progressive democrats – they belong to the totalitarian mysogynistic regime in Iran, which tortures and murders teenage girls who let their veils slip. They are far-right authoritarian ‘Islamic’ fundamentalists. (Actually, I think their ideology has more to do with politics and the oppression of women than religion. Islam is a fountain of human culture.)

    I’d add the vile dictatorship in Syria to the list but it has its hands full at the moment committing genocide against secular and left-wing communities in Syria, which our so-called ‘left’ ignores even as children are being deliberately targeted by Assad’s murderers.

    In striking back at Hamas, Israel is killing far too many innocent civilians. Like most people, I want it to stop, but like many, I know the politics on both sides won’t allow that to happen. Hamas’s leadership sits in luxury in Qatar and Turkey while Israel destroys schools and hospitals in an effort to flush out Hamas cowards who are hiding underneath them. This is deliberate. Hamas has intentionally put Palestinian civilians on the front line to discredit Israel, and Israel has fallen for the bait.

    Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the IDF to destroy Hamas (impossible since the leaders are nowhere near the fighting and bombing) to cover up his own authoritarianism. He has been shoring up Hamas for years because, like him, they oppose a two-state solution. He facilitates the far-right settler movement led by the loathsome Bezalel Smotrich, his finance minister. Now he wants to save his political skin by presenting himself as a war leader.

    Amos Oz, the late Israeli writer, said the Israel/Palestine conflict was (I’m quoting Howard Jacobson): “A tragedy of two rights… Then later, in embitterment, a tragedy of two wrongs.” For me, that about sums it up.

    There are many people of goodwill in the middle on both sides, but they are politically powerless, as Israel and Hamas commit atrocity after atrocity in a relentless parade of human folly. At the moment there doesn’t seem to be a political way out and our responses can only be of the most basic kind – sending aid, pressing for humanitarian pauses so the aid can reach Palestinian civilians, and calling for the release of Israeli hostages.

    In the long run, I’d like to see the west guarantee Israel’s security but threaten to withhold weaponry unless it withdraws from Jerusalem and the West Bank. There’s a suggestion that Nato could be part of the solution in Gaza. Maybe, maybe not. But any idea is worth exploring to stop this intolerable murder.

    For anyone interested in a thoughtful, if inconclusive article (because there isn’t a simple right or wrong) by a British Jewish writer, I’d recommend Howard Jacobson’s blog, ‘The Death of Tragedy’.

  5. Ernest Jacques
    29 November 2023

    A brilliant summation and food for thought.


    All your armies
    All your fighters
    All your tanks
    And all your soldiers
    Against the boy
    Holding a stone
    Standing there
    All alone
    In his eyes
    I see no sun
    In his smile
    I see no moon
    And I wonder
    I only wonder
    Who is weak and
    Who is strong
    Who is right and
    Who is wrong
    And I wish
    I only wish
    That the truth
    Has a tongue.

    By Ghassan Kanafani

  6. Ernest Jacques
    24 November 2023

    There are some points in Will Brown’s article that are irrefutable as calls for a Gaza ceasefire by Labour leader Keir Starmer and the British government is unlikely to resonate with or affect the leaders of the two warring sides, Hamas and Israel.

    But his reference to Jonathan Freedland, saying the situation is not like a football match where you root for one of two sides, is (to my mind) flippant and unworthy. I am not a football fan (I prefer rugby league) but football matches are played by two teams with 11 players on each side and one ball. The comparison with Gaza would mean Israel had 111 players and any number of balls while the Palestinians had five players and no goalkeeper. And of course, there is no referee.

    My main problem with this argument is that it misses the key reason millions of people in Britain and around the world support the Palestinian people, why 75% of British people support an immediate ceasefire and only 5% do not.

    It’s not because they hate Israelis (although a tiny few might) but because they want an end to the bombing and genocide, and because Palestinian people have suffered nothing but violence and inhumanity at the hands of Israel since the end of the British Palestinian Mandate in 1948. And throughout this time, successive Conservative and Labour administrations have looked on in silence and even helped to arm the Israelis.

  7. Chris Wilson
    23 November 2023

    Many thanks Will, a much-needed, informed and thoughtful contribution. It would be helpful to begin to identify those voices and actors in both Israel and Palestine committed to finding a lasting settlement beyond the poisonous and awful binary choice of Hamas or Netanyahu.

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