Page updated 2nd February 2024
Many constituents have contacted me about the terrible events in Gaza and Israel.
Labour is calling for an immediate truce which would allow for the release of more hostages and prisoners, and action to tackle the humanitarian crisis facing so many Palestinians, as well as hopefully lead to a sustainable ceasefire. A pause will not be sufficient. The fighting must cease.
The level of death and destruction we have seen over the past weeks has been intolerable. Far too many innocent Palestinians, including women and children, have been killed in Israeli military operations, and this must come to an end. There must be full accountability for everything that has happened, and the International Criminal Court is carefully monitoring events in Gaza, although Israel is not, of course, a signatory to the ICC convention.
The genocide case that has been brought by South Africa will be for the International Court of Justice ultimately to rule on. But in the interim, the Court has said that Israel must “take all measures within its power” to desist from killing Palestinians in contravention of the genocide convention, and to prevent and punish the incitement of genocide and facilitate the provision of “urgent basic services”. However, the Court stopped short of ordering a ceasefire.
Israel must not blockade Gaza. They need to comply with international law by protecting innocent lives and dealing with the humanitarian crisis. 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 truly shocking. Civilians, hospitals, schools, and refugee camps must be protected and cannot be targets for bombing.
Similarly, we cannot have the Red Sea blockaded by the Houthis who have been firing missiles at international commercial shipping and in the direction of Royal Navy and US Navy vessels. They have been warned to stop doing this, and I support the action that has been taken, including by the RAF, to take out their missile launch sites.
With winter now here and the people in Gaza being forced to live in an ever-smaller section of the strip, the UN has described the situation as a humanitarian catastrophe. Aid must be increased. People need food, water, fuel, shelter and medicine in huge volumes to ensure that hospitals can operate, and lives are saved. It is unacceptable that these supplies are being restricted by Israel.
On aid to UNWRA, the organisation has sacked staff members accused of taking part in the 7th of October attacks, but as I have seen for myself UNWRA does vital work in supporting the Palestinian people and aid to it needs to surge and not stop. We cannot see innocent Palestinians lose life-saving aid.
Those displaced in this conflict – in Gaza by the fighting and in the West Bank by violent settlers – also need assurances about their right to return home and rebuild their lives. Gaza cannot be left as a refugee camp and there can be no reoccupation or reduction of its territory. In pressuring Israel to act on the settler violence in the West Bank, the UK Government should now be imposing a travel ban on those settlers involved in violence, serious criminal activity or the fostering of hatred.
I have been asked about arms sales to Israel in the wake of the attack on its citizens on 7th October in which 1200 people were killed. The reports of what happened that day are appalling, including the deliberate rape and killing of women, and Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel. In such circumstances, Israel has a right to defend itself, subject of course to international humanitarian law.
The issue of arms sales has been raised with ministers who have said that all applications for export licences to Israel are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the Strategic Export Licensing Criteria. More widely, I am concerned about the weaknesses in our arms export regime that the Government has failed to address. We need to establish a new arms export regime that is truly transparent, free from arbitrary political judgments and committed to upholding international law.
As well as the priority of stopping hostilities, we need a political process in order to resolve the conflict. If bringing peace to the Middle East was simple, it would have happened a long time ago. Instead, all we have seen are repeated cycles of violence, killing, tears 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 and I have voted for such a state to be recognised. I deplore Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rejection of any move to establish a Palestinian State. As Keir Starmer said his comments were unacceptable and they were wrong. “Palestinian statehood is not in the gift of a neighbour. It is the inalienable right of the Palestinian people. It’s also the only way to a secure settlement and a secure future.”
The only people who can bring that about, however, 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 know 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.
As a member of the Shadow Cabinet, I am unable to sign EDMs.
Hilary Benn MP