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How the Gaza Conflict is Dividing Europe’s Left

Towards the end of prime minister’s questions last Wednesday the Labour frontbencher Yasmin Qureshi rose to her feet to read an email from a constituent in Gaza, and to ask Rishi Sunak for his response.

“My heart can’t handle this any more. We are being massacred, relentlessly bombed. Homes destroyed. No water, no food, no electricity,” her constituent had written.

With MPs on all sides of the house silent and hanging on her every word, Qureshi, the shadow minister for women and equalities, pressed on: “Save the Children reports that one child is killed every 15 minutes. As I speak, the lives of 130 babies in incubators are in danger if fuel does not reach their hospital in time.

“This is collective punishment of the Palestinian people in Gaza, for crimes they did not commit. How many more innocent Palestinians must die before the prime minister calls for a humanitarian ceasefire?”

When Sunak replied, emphasising both Israel’s right to defend itself and the importance of doing everything possible to help innocent Palestinian civilians, MPs knew the question had, in reality, been more awkward for Qureshi’s own leader Keir Starmer, than for the prime minister.

For the past three weeks, since Hamas’s horrific attacks killed at least 1,400 Israelis, the Labour party has been struggling to hold itself together over its responses to events in the Middle East. Starmer has faced growing criticism from the left and from Muslim Labour politicians and supporters over some of his remarks in the media, and for not backing a ceasefire.

On Friday both Anas Sarwar, the leader of Scottish Labour, and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, threw their weight behind calls for a ceasefire, widening the split and placing Starmer under ever increasing pressure to do the same.

Labour is desperately trying to prevent the strains developing into a crisis, just at a point in the political cycle where Starmer had appeared to have got most of his party very solidly behind him.

Dozens of senior MPs report having had “very difficult” meetings with angry constituents all week, particularly Muslim supporters, but also normally loyal party figures who believe Israel has been breaking international law in its response to the atrocities committed by Hamas.

A pro-Palestine protest in Paris last Sunday

When a ninth Labour councillor in Oxford quit the party on Thursday in protest at the leadership’s response to events Gaza, it cost Labour its majority on the city council.

One of those who quit, Dr Amar Latif, says that it was an interview Starmer gave to LBC’s Nick Ferrari that caused him to step down. “He was asked if he thought the siege on Gaza was justified, and he said ‘Yes’.”

Latif says the Hamas attacks were abhorrent but that Starmer in his responses demonstrated “a disregard for international law”. Starmer later clarified his comments by saying that he supported aid and did not believe that Israel had the right to cut off water, fuel or medicines.

By then it was too late. The Oxford rebels had issued a statement accusing him of being “complicit in war crimes”.

“Starmer has got it all wrong,” says veteran Labour supporter Jo Linzey on Oxford’s Cowley Road. She says that Jeremy Corbyn, who once referred to Hamas as his “friends”, had the right idea. She doesn’t know if she’ll vote Labour at the next election.

By this weekend – three weeks after the Hamas attacks and three weeks since the launch of Labour’s most successful conference in years, hundreds of the party’s councillors and almost a quarter of its MPs have backed calls for a ceasefire, in defiance of the leadership.

Across much of Europe, the war between Hamas and Israel is causing similar strains on the political left.

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz (left), with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, in Cario on 18 October.

On the Place de la République in central Paris last Sunday, up to 30,000 vocal, mainly leftwing, demonstrators gathered in solidarity with the people of Palestine, waving its red, white, black and green flag and chanting “Gaza! Gaza! Paris stands with you.”

But there were some notable absentees. As some European progressives, after decades of opposition to Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians, hesitate to unambiguously condemn Hamas’s massacre of innocent civilians, nowhere is the left more torn than in France.

So while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the veteran leader of the radical-left France Unbowed (La France Insoumise, or LFI) showed up, the heads of all the other parties in France’s leftist Nupes coalition, the Socialists, Greens and Communists, very visibly did not.

The announcement of the demonstration, explained Olivier Faure, the Socialist party (PS) leader, did not describe Hamas as a “terrorist group”, merely – in line with Mélenchon’s choice of language since the Islamists’ 7 October attack – condemning “war crimes”.

LFI’s initial statement on the day of the attacks adopted Hamas’s description, calling them “an armed offensive by Palestinian forces … in the context of Israel’s intensification of its policy of occupation of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem”.

The refusal of Mélenchon and his team to use the T word has profoundly divided the Nupes coalition, formed to fight last year’s parliamentary election: Faure’s Socialists recently suspended their participation, while the French Communist Party (PCF) called for “a new type of union”.

Mélenchon said in a blogpost it was “clear the point of no return has been reached” for the alliance – although the leader of LFI’s parliamentary group, Mathilde Panot, has since insisted he does not want to bury it.

But the 72-year-old firebrand sparked widespread further outrage last week by accusing parliament speaker, Yaël Braun-Pivet, a Jewish member of President Emmanuel Macron’s party, of “setting up camp in Tel Aviv to encourage the massacre” in Gaza.

“Not in the name of the French people!” Mélenchon said on Twitter, now known as X. Braun-Pivet retorted that she was “deeply shocked” by both the allegation and the choice of words, adding: “The claim that I favour massacres is once again a new target on my back.”

Beyond the leftwing coalition, the veteran hardliner’s stance is even creating tensions within his own party, with at least two more moderate LFI MPs sharply criticising the definition of Hamas by one of their colleagues, Danièle Obono, as “a resistance movement”.

Jean Garrigues, a political historian, said Nupes was always a union of convenience, assembled to ensure the left won a fair share of parliamentary seats but made up of parties with major ideological differences over everything from the green transition to support for Ukraine and French secularism.

“LFI’s strategy of conflictualising and systematically obstructing everything in parliament has also really angered its partners,” Garrigues said. “It’s only logical that all this has led to rows over the Hamas massacres that reveal historical contradictions between irreconcilably different leftwing traditions.”

Partly, Garrigues wrote in Le Monde, LFI’s stance was aimed at boosting its appeal to Muslim voters. But it was “also in line with the whole history of far-left support for Palestine, rooted in blind anti-Zionism” – and directly opposed to the Socialist party’s tradition of seeking a point of balance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It’s only logical that all this has led to rows over the Hamas massacres that reveal historic contradictions between irreconcilably different leftwing traditions

Jean Garrigues, political historian

The conflict between Israel and Hamas has also given rise to political and diplomatic tensions in Spain, which currently holds the presidency of the EU council. The country’s acting prime minister, the socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, condemned Hamas’s attack on Israel as news of the atrocities emerged.

“We are following the terrorist attack with great concern and we stand with the victims and their families,” he said on the day of the Hamas attacks. “We vehemently condemn the terrorism and we call for an immediate end to the indiscriminate violence against the civilian population.”

But Israel’s embassy in Madrid later accused some members of Spain’s caretaker coalition government of aligning themselves “with Isis-style terrorism” after three acting ministers from Sánchez’s partners in the far-left Unidas Podemos alliance suggested Israel was breaking international law and committing genocide and war crimes in Gaza.

The embassy did not name the ministers concerned – Ione Belarra, the Podemos leader who serves as Spain’s social rights minister, her Podemos colleague, the acting equality minister Irene Montero, and the acting consumer affairs minister, Alberto Garzón of the United Left platform.

Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has faced growing criticism from within his own party.

But it condemned their remarks as “absolutely immoral” and suggested they would endanger the safety of Jewish communities in Spain. Spain’s foreign ministry hit back with a blunt statement, accusing the embassy of “spreading falsehoods” and pointing out that Spanish political leaders were free to express their opinions.

Enrique Santiago, general secretary of the Spanish Communist party and an MP for the leftwing Sumar alliance, which last week reached an agreement with Sánchez aimed at winning support for a new coalition government, has refused to call Hamas terrorists and insisted on the right of occupied people to self-defence.

“There isn’t one international law for Ukraine and another for Palestine,” Santiago posted. “The right of illegally occupied people to defend themselves ends only when they achieve their independence. The international community should compel Israel to obey UN resolutions and respect Palestine.”

There isn’t one international law for Ukraine and another for Palestine

Enrique Santiago, general secretary of the Spanish Communist party

In Germany, however, with a broad cross-party political consensus around a strictly pro-Israel stance having developed in the postwar era, the conflict in the Middle East has proved less of a wedge issue for the left than in other European countries.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz, of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), was one of the first heads of government to visit Israel after the Hamas attacks. On his trip, he reasserted that the security and existence of the Israeli state was Germany’s Staatsräson or “reason of state”, literally tied to the foundation of modern Germany.

Vice-chancellor Robert Habeck, of the Green party, expressed his solidarity with Israel in an emotional video address. His party colleague Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, actively opposed calls for the European Union to join the UN’s call for a ceasefire at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday, insisting on the need to fight terrorism.

Europe’s agonising over how to respond played out at a European summit last week at which the 27 member states in the end unanimously called for “humanitarian corridors and pauses” to the shelling of Gaza to allow in food, water and medical supplies.

But the deal was only reached after concessions to Spain, which had wanted mention of a “ceasefire” in the final conclusions, and after serious internal rows among the EU’s top officials.

Earlier Ursula von der Leyen, the German president of the European Commission, had provoked furious responses from some EU officials for expressing unconditional support for Israel.

Under the Lisbon treaty, which came into force in 2009, the EU set itself new ambitions to become a force in foreign policy. But the latest events in the Middle East have tested its unity, and therefore its ability to deliver on that goal, to the limits.

It may be of little consolation to Keir Starmer, but it is not as if he and Labour are alone in struggling to find a united way forward on the escalating crisis in the Middle East.

Source : The Guardian