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Keeping Gaza on the Ballot

While the genocide in Gaza has dominated the thoughts of millions of people across Britain, our political and media class are desperate to sideline the issue — we can't let this happen, writes Andrew Feinstein.

(Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

For the last three weeks, I’ve been talking to the incredible and diverse people of the Holborn and St Pancras constituency as part of my campaign to take on Keir Starmer and become their independent MP. Those conversations have shown that the current genocide in Gaza looms large in the minds of many, alongside the concerns they have about the cost of living and the housing crisis.

Specifically, almost every person I have spoken to has expressed the urgent need for a ceasefire in Gaza. They have also emphasised their continued anger at the UK’s complicity in the slaughter of innocent men, women and children through the continued supply of British arms to Israel.

At the same time, I’ve been humbled by the opportunity to address the hundreds of thousands of people at the bi-weekly anti-genocide protests taking place in London, which have been organised by Stop the War and the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. These protests have shown, time and again, that Gaza remains one of the key issues of our current politics.

Despite all this, Gaza has largely disappeared as a talking point during this general election campaign. Why?

Two reasons seem to loom large. The first is that media coverage has fallen into the trap of portraying the election as a straightforward battle between the Tories and Labour. It is an approach encouraged by the Labour Party, which has, for example, refused to allow Starmer to appear in televised debates against anybody but Rishi Sunak.

General election coverage is built on clashes and contrasts, on battles over ideas, on the heat of disagreement. But in this case there is little difference between the Tories and Labour in their approach to almost every topic, and quite literally no difference in their approaches to Israel and Gaza. Without difference, there is no heat — and Gaza therefore falls off the agenda to be replaced by proposals to criminalise under-16s for drinking energy drinks and xenophobic tub-thumping about immigration.

Take the first ITV leaders’ debate. A question is asked by an audience member about whether the leaders will be strong enough to do what is necessary to end the ‘horrible scenes’ in Gaza, which the moderator reframes — astonishingly — around ‘the Hamas terrorist atrocities of October 7 and then what unfolded thereafter.’ With Israeli violence successfully erased, both Sunak and Starmer gave virtually identical answers. Neither even deigned to use the words ‘Palestine’ or ‘Palestinian’. It was the only time that Sunak or Starmer did not attempt to differentiate themselves in policy or speak over each other with their canned critiques. And with no follow-up questions asked, the debate moved swiftly on.

The second is that many in the media have worked hard to take the heat off Labour. Labour continues to face a backlash from many of its once-loyal communities about its stance on Gaza, which has only been exacerbated by the party machinery’s last-minute nobbling of candidates like Faiza Shaheen and the parachuting-in of candidates like Luke Akehurst, an actual lobbyist paid to defray criticisms of Israel.

Just this week, friendly journalists have claimed that the imminent Labour Party manifesto ‘gives a strong endorsement to an independent state of Palestine.’ As ever with Starmer, the real story is told by the small print. The party is now committed to recognising Palestinian statehood, but only ‘before the end’ of a peace process that doesn’t exist, and according to an oddly worded timeframe that gives no hard or measurable sense of scale. The phrasing of the pledge means, realistically, that Labour does not commit to recognising Palestine except at some nebulous future point that may take years or decades to arrive — or which may simply never materialise.

Since Ed Miliband’s leadership, the Labour Party has committed to recognising the state of Palestine on its very first day in office. This commitment was included in both the 2017 and 2019 manifestos. The example has recently been set by Spain, Ireland and Norway, who have joined the 144 of the UN’s 193 member states in recognising Palestinian statehood without any qualifiers. Starmer’s ‘radical’ approach is actually to dilute Labour’s position — and in the midst of a genocide.

The failure of the media to point this out — and the decision to instead present it as some sort of meaningful step towards Palestinian statehood — only serves to draw the heat out of an incendiary topic, helping Starmer and his party look like they are responding to their once-loyal base while doing the opposite.

In reality, the Labour Party under Starmer has repeatedly refused to call for the most basic measures that would pressure Israel to stop its genocide. It has refused to countenance an end to arms sales, hiding instead behind the release of the government’s legal advice. In February this year it even trashed Parliamentary convention in order to allow Starmer to pass an ersatz ‘ceasefire’ motion that placed no real conditions on Israel, and which hollowed out the very meaning of the word. There is little so suggest that, in power, Labour will do anything different.

I’ve travelled to Israel a number of times, including in my youth, when my mother took me to Yad Vashem to learn about the Holocaust that killed dozens of members of her extended family. More recently, I’ve worked with Breaking the Silence, an Israeli group made up of former IDF soldiers who oppose Israel’s 75-year occupation. And I’ve been there to interview arms dealers, military figures, and activists.

Those visits confirmed to me that, just like the apartheid regime I fought in South Africa in the 1980s, Israel will not change its ways because it is asked nicely. Israel must be forced to meet its legal obligations. Like apartheid South Africa, it must be compelled to concede the humanity of those it has oppressed by a combination of measures, ranging from cultural and sporting boycotts to UN arms embargos and economic sanctions and the fearless application of international law.

It is a shame and a failure of democracy that, in this general election, such basic but necessary demands — and those so close to the hearts of many of the people who will be voting come July — are not even being discussed.