Page updated 4th December 2023
Many constituents have contacted me about the terrible events in Gaza and Israel, including the votes in the House of Commons on the 15th of 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 believed that the approach we put forward – which reflected the recent important decision of the UN Security Council – was 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 and permanent ceasefire would actually have brought one about, I would have done so, but it would not. Why? Because 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, and as it turned out our calls for a pause, along with others in the international community, did result in a cessation of fighting for several days. I very much welcomed that – as I am sure you did too – along with the release of hostages and prisoners that resulted, and I’m very sorry that it was not prolonged.
The end of the cessation of hostilities in Gaza is deeply concerning, and we must urge all sides not to throw away such progress as has been made.
It is also really important that we as a country are clear about what must and must not happen now.
I support what Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Labour Party, had said:
“All sides must work for a return to cessation that would allow for the release of more hostages, provide much needed time and space to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and open a dialogue for a political solution that provides for a long-term, cessation of hostilities.
We will only reach that long-term solution if Israel is assured that Hamas cannot carry out an attack like October 7 ever again. Those who can influence Hamas must demand they release the remaining hostages immediately.
The levels of death and destruction over the past weeks has been intolerable. Far too many innocent Palestinians, including women and children, have been killed as part of military operations. There must be full accountability for all actions.
As fighting sadly resumes, Israel must not besiege or blockade Gaza. They must comply with international law by protecting innocent lives and civilian infrastructure like schools and hospitals.
With winter coming and the people in Gaza being forced to live in an ever-smaller section of the strip, attempts to address the humanitarian catastrophe cannot regress, aid must be ramped up. The people of Gaza need aid, food, water, fuel, shelter, and medicine in huge volumes, to ensure hospitals function and lives are saved. We know the risk of disease is high and must be mitigated.
Those displaced in this conflict also need assurances of their right to return home and rebuild their lives. Gaza cannot be left as a refugee camp, there can be no reoccupation or reduction of its territory.
The UK and partners must start work immediately to find a pathway to an enduring cessation of hostilities and a lasting political solution. We want to see the threat of Hamas removed, the end to illegal settlements and settler violence in the West Bank, and a plan for the reconstruction and renewal of Gaza.
Palestinians must be assured their future will not be like the past, that they and their children will be able to enjoy the security, opportunities and rights that we take for granted.
That will not be easy. Diplomatic work never is. But the past few days have shown what diplomacy can do. These are the essential steps if we are to deliver a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel, the only credible basis for long-term peace. Military action without this sort of plan cannot succeed.”
In this disastrous tragedy, every life – Israeli and Palestinian – matters. Like you, I was shocked by the killings in Israel of the 7th of October. The reports of what happened are frankly appalling, including the deliberate rape and killing of women. I am also 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 another 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 further hostages they are holding. This pause would also help get more 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.
The International Criminal Court is carefully monitoring what is happening in Gaza, although Israel is not, of course, a signatory to the ICC convention.
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 think we all want an end to the fighting, the release of hostages, a return to a political process and a peace agreement, and I long for the day when we can see this happen.
Rt Hon Hilary Benn
MP for Leeds Central