Page updated 23rd November
I have been contacted by many constituents about the terrible events in Gaza and Israel, and in particular, about the votes in the House of Commons on the 15th November.
I voted for the Labour amendment to the King’s Speech which said:
“…this House wishes to see an end to the violence in Israel and Palestine; unequivocally condemn the horrific terrorist attack and murder of civilians by Hamas, call for the immediate release of all hostages and reaffirm Israel’s right to defend its citizens from terrorism; believe all human life is equal and that there has been too much suffering, including far too many deaths of innocent civilians and children, over the past month in Gaza; reaffirm the UK’s commitment to the rules-based international order, international humanitarian law and the jurisdiction of the ICC to address the conduct of all parties in Gaza and Hamas’s attacks in Israel; call on Israel to protect hospitals and lift the siege conditions allowing food, water, electricity, medicine and fuel into Gaza; request the Government continue to work with the international community to prevent a wider escalation of the conflict in the region, guarantee that people in Gaza who are forced to flee during this conflict can return to their homes and seek an end to the expansion of illegal settlements and settler violence in the West Bank; and, while acknowledging the daily humanitarian pauses to allow in aid and the movement of civilians, believe they must be longer to deliver humanitarian assistance on a scale that begins to meet the desperate needs of the people of Gaza, which is a necessary step to an enduring cessation of fighting as soon as possible and a credible, diplomatic and political process to deliver the lasting peace of a two-state solution.’
This amendment was defeated by the Conservatives. I then abstained on the SNP amendment, which was also defeated.
I voted in this way because I believe that the approach we put forward – which reflects the important decision of the UN Security Council – is the most likely route to get us to what we all want – which is an end to the fighting. If I thought that voting for an immediate ceasefire would actually bring one about, I would have done so, but it won’t.
At the moment, neither side is listening to calls for a permanent ceasefire and the international community can’t impose one; it has to be agreed by the two sides. And we have to be honest that there can’t be a one-sided ceasefire.
We have had, therefore, to use the influence we have as a country in ways which are effective.
In this disastrous tragedy, every life – Israeli and Palestinian – matters. Like you, I was shocked by the attack on Israel of the 7th October and I am shocked by the number of innocent Palestinian citizens, including so many children, who have been killed in Gaza in recent weeks. And the pictures we have seen from inside the hospitals of Gaza – with no fuel to run generators for operations or incubators for newborn babies – and of the lack of food and water are unbearable. That’s why we need a full and immediate humanitarian pause in the fighting across the whole of Gaza to alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians and for Hamas to release the hostages they are holding. This pause would also help get sufficient food, water, electricity, medicine and fuel in and deal with the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place. Civilians, hospitals, schools, and refugee camps must be protected and cannot be targets for bombing.
I welcome the news of an agreement to release some of the hostages and to have a substantial humanitarian pause in hostilities between Israel and Hamas. This pause is what Labour has been calling for alongside our international partners.
We now need all the remaining hostages to be released – which will lengthen the pause – and all sides must uphold this agreement.
As well as ensuring that this pause is used to tackle the urgent and unacceptable humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, we must use this time to create steps towards a full cessation of hostilities rather than an escalation of violence.
If bringing peace to the Middle East was simply a question of voting in favour of a single word, it would have happened a long time ago. It hasn’t. Instead, all we have seen are repeated cycles of violence, killing, distress and misery.
When the fighting ends, things cannot go back to how they were before. There will be no peace if Hamas continues to attack Israel, and if successive Israeli governments ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people through their failed policy of containment, which has clearly not delivered security to their people.
I have long supported the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. I have voted for such a state to be recognised. But the only people who can bring that about are the political leaders of the Palestinians and of Israel, with the committed support of the international community.
There have been moments in the past when peace seemed near, only for it to ebb away. But as the example of Northern Ireland shows, it is possible for a seemingly hopeless conflict to come to an end and for a sustainable peace to be built, but that requires courageous political leadership on the part of the parties involved.
For far too long, that leadership has been absent in Israel. Indeed, the current government has done its best to try and destroy the prospects for a Palestinian state by its policy of illegal settlement building, the use of military courts and arbitrary detention, and by failing to stop the killing of Palestinians and the seizure of land in the West Bank by settlers.
But the same is also true on the Palestinian side. Hamas will not be able to destroy the state of Israel, just as the IRA was unable to bomb Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. And continuing to kill Israeli citizens and take hostages only pushes back the prospects for peace.
At the heart of this tragedy are millions of innocent lives: Palestinians and Israelis, men, women and children. People who want no part in this destruction, who want nothing more than security for their families, and whose greatest desire is a future that is not dictated by hatred and war. We need to have their safety, their protection and their lives at the forefront of everything we do.
It may seem such a long way away in the current, awful circumstances, but having seen the conditions in which people live in Gaza (as well as in the West Bank), I hold to the belief that a safe and secure Israel alongside a safe and secure independent Palestinian state is the only way forward. Until this happens, this cycle of violence will repeat itself again and again, and that is why political leaders in Israel and the Palestinian territories need to recognise that violence must now give way to negotiation and compromise.
I realise that you may take a different view about the vote on 15 November, but what unites us is that we all want an end to the fighting, the release of hostages, a return to a political process and a peace agreement. I long for the day when we can see this happen.
Rt Hon Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central