What Would Keir Starmer As Prime Minister Mean for Palestine?

A friend of Israel.

by Hamza Yusuf

3 July 2024

Keir Starmer at a Labour Friends of Israel event. Labour Friends of Israel
Keir Starmer at a Labour Friends of Israel event. Labour Friends of Israel

Keir Starmer will be the next prime minister. The modest and uninspiring manifesto the party launched has left commentators and keen observers speculating about what a Labour government spearheaded by Keir Starmer means.

Some suggest it’s a return to austerity, others insist the party is missing a concrete plan for the country, whilst there are some proposals which are deemed welcome. There may therefore be an element of uncertainty regarding some policy areas and the ramifications.

On Palestine, however, it is a straightforward exercise that negates the need for speculation.

Keir Starmer is a friend of Israel. It would be an easy task to use his unstinting support for Israel as it continues to pulverise Gaza as the exclusive evidence of that. That would suggest he previously had no real stance and only became invested in matters pertaining to Israel and Palestine following the 7 October attacks. The horror of the day compelled him to stand with Israel, so the argument might go. That logic lets him off lightly.

That’s not, however, to minimise what he said. The now infamous endorsement on LBC of Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians as Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant declared a total siege and cut off all water, food and power was reprehensible. The decision to whip his party to vote against a ceasefire when Israel had already killed more than 10,000 Palestinians and to later reprimand an MP for daring to suggest the killing on an industrial scale in Gaza amounts to genocide is unforgivable.

But just as Israel’s systematic ethnic cleansing did not commence following 7 October, neither did Keir Starmer’s enthusiastic championing of the settler colonial project.

To understand what will happen moving forwards is to take a cursory glance at what has come prior. “I support Zionism without qualification”, the former human rights lawyer proclaimed shortly after winning the Labour leadership contest. The statement amounted to an embodiment of the phrase, “begin as you mean to go on”.

At this critical juncture, where from Gaza to the West Bank, Palestinians are facing oppression, occupation and land theft, unwavering Palestinian solidarity paired with firm support for avenues that sustain global pressure against Israel are integral.

But those are the very avenues that Keir Starmer has previously been indifferent about or actively neutralised. For example, the International Court of Justice case, brought by South Africa accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza, has only been met with a deafening silence from the former human rights lawyer.

Its importance can’t be understated. Analysts suggest the court case could accentuate Israel’s crimes and therein catalyse the global diplomatic and political isolation of Israel. Becoming an international pariah heavily contributed to the demise of apartheid in South Africa, so there is precedent and perhaps room for cautious optimism. And yet Keir Starmer has failed to offer anything substantively on the court case. In fact, he still won’t countenance using the term genocide to describe the cataclysmic conditions on the ground in Gaza as Israel’s slaughter continues unabated, instead scoffing at the suggestion of applying the word.

That is true to form. In April 2022, Keir Starmer was asked whether he agrees with Amnesty International’s forensic report that concluded Israel is an apartheid state. He categorically rejected it.

Proponents of Keir Starmer may pour cold water on the importance of such reports; perhaps arguing that Israel widely earning the title of genocidal or apartheid state has little material and tangible impacts for improving Palestinian lives under occupation. Putting aside that decolonisation and the quest for freedom is a multipronged, incremental process, Starmer has not rushed to support and buttress the efforts that have borne fruit either.

When one considers the fatal human price Palestinians pay in trying to resist and dismantle Israel’s oppression, the non-violent economic initiatives to nullify Israel become a strategically indispensable tool.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has had significant success in recent months as the global, non-violent grassroot action against Israel intensifies. Student encampments flowered across the UK as part of a global movement standing in solidarity with Palestinians, demanding their universities divest from companies complicit in Israel’s genocide.

They have had some successes. The University of Reading recently agreed to divest from Barclays bank following sustained pressure by students. A report found that Barclays holds over £2 billion in shares of companies whose weapons, components and military technology have been used against Palestinians by Israel. Barclays also provides over £6.1 billion in loans and underwriting to these arms and military technology companies, including holdings of £2.7 million in Elbit Systems.

At Trinity College Dublin, the university pledged to cut ties with Israeli companies that have activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and appear on the United Nations blacklist. Yet to date, the Labour leader has not offered anything resembling support and solidarity in the direction of the student protestors.

Boycotts are also a central pillar. The coffee chain Pret A Manger recently cancelled plans to open dozens of stores across Israel. Palestinian organisers and activists hailed it as victory for their efforts, after a concerted campaign of pressure and boycott threats.

Unsurprisingly, Keir Starmer rejects them. He made clear early on that the Labour party will not support BDS, suggesting the movement is “counterproductive” and “wrong”.

Even the mere thought of opposing the profiting from stolen resources on stolen land apparently irks Starmer: In 2020, when Labour MP Stephen Kinnock called on the UK to “ban all products that originate from Israeli settlements in the occupied territories”, the Labour leader was “infuriated” and Kinnock was subsequently given a “dressing down”.

Nor is Starmer’s opposition rooted in an ideological belief that such economic measures to punish states are inconsequential. By contrast, when the Conservative government imposed economic sanctions on Russia, Starmer insisted they “go further”, thus illuminating that his antipathy is reserved exclusively for when Israel is on the receiving end.

And now, just as the ball is set rolling and the International Criminal Court prosecutor applies for arrest warrants related to war crimes for Israeli officials, one can again look to precedent. As director for Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer blocked the arrest of former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni over alleged war crimes during the bombardment of Gaza in 2008.

Essentially, Keir Starmer has shown meticulous consistency in ensuring Israel has a dependable ally when it comes to being shielded from accountability. So when he suggests his government will seek legal advice on banning UK arms sales to Israel or when he states he would take “full part” in resolving Israel’s brutality in Gaza, it is hard not to treat is as virtue signalling hot air.

Beyond the policy realm, the Palestinian struggle for freedom, self-determination and liberation is one rooted in the politics of humanity and justice. A soon-to-be prime minister that has a history of repeating colonial tropes and has presided over a culture of racism and hostility to those from minority communities in his party is not going to develop a moral backbone on 5 July.

And for someone with a track record of backtracking on a litany of commitments, it is revealing that the one position Starmer has resolutely held is the colonisation of Palestinians. At best, Palestinians will get milquetoast commitments and artificially balanced statements from him. At worst, a continuation of the unyielding support for Israel’s oppression.

He has not been an ally of Palestine up to this point and won’t start being one once he enters Downing Street.

Hamza Yusuf is a British Palestinian political researcher and writer based in London.

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