Sir Keir Starmer has been accused of gaslighting Muslim Labour MPs after he attempted to calm fury over his support for Israel in the Gaza crisis.
The opposition leader met a dozen backbenchers yesterday amid reports that four members of his front bench could quit over his backing for Tel Aviv and refusal to back calls for an immediate ceasefire.
He has instead backed calls from PM Rishi Sunak and the UN for time-limited ‘humanitarian pauses’ to allow aid to enter the Palestinian enclave from Egypt.
But the meeting, which came after a Prime Minister’s Questions session where he conspicuously focused on domestic issues, appears to have made matters worse.
Sources branded the meeting ‘tokenistic’ and said there was still deep anger centred on an interview Sir Keir did with LBC, in which he appeared to justify Israel cutting off the water supply to civilians in Gaza.
A source at the showdown with Sir Keir said MPs were ‘livid’ and frontbenchers could quit if he backed a ground invasion of Gaza by Israel. Another party insider described the mood among Muslim MPs as ‘awful’ and warned that the Muslim vote could be hit, hampering Labour’s election chances.
Shadow faith minister Sarah Owen is among the Labour frontbenchers said to be on resignation watch. Her Luton North constituency has a large Muslim population.
It is feared by senior Labour party figures that shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Hopkins, who represents neighbouring Luton South, might also jump ship.
The meeting came after a Prime Minister’s Questions session where Sir Keir conspicuously focused on domestic issues, appears to have made matters worse.
Shadow faith minister Sarah Owen is among the Labour frontbenchers said to be on resignation watch
It is feared by senior Labour party figures that shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Hopkins might also jump ship
A number of Labour MPs have suffered councillor resignations in their constituencies over the party’s stance on the crisis
A total of 37 Labour MPs have signed a parliamentary motion, tabled by former shadow minister Richard Burgon, calling for an immediate ceasefire
Another told the Times people were ‘still feeling gaslit’ by Sir Keir’s LBC comments and the saga had ‘hurt the Muslim community deeply, they feel betrayed’.
It came as Israeli forces including tanks rolled into northern Gaza overnight in the biggest incursion of the war against Hamas so far to carry out ‘targeted raids’ on ‘terrorist cells’ ahead of a full-scale ground invasion.
In an indication Israel was widening assaults into Gaza, the military said ground forces attacked multiple targets in the Hamas-ruled enclave on Thursday before withdrawing.
The IDF said tanks and infantry struck numerous terrorist cells, infrastructure and anti-tank missile launch posts ‘as part of preparations for the next stages of combat’ against Hamas.
Israel’s battle-hardened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last night warned Hamas terrorists in a televised statement that they were ‘doomed’ as he vowed to push ahead with a ground invasion.
The backlash also saw 250 Muslim Labour councillors write to Sir Keir demanding he call for a ceasefire. And Yasmin Qureshi, a Labour frontbencher, broke ranks within the parliamentary party as she branded the situation in Gaza ‘collective punishment’ – an allegation being aimed at Israel for its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
In an interview with LBC after Hamas’s October 7 atrocity, Sir Keir suggested Israel had the ‘right’ to cut off power and water from Gaza. But, acknowledging the ‘distress’ caused by the remarks, he subsequently sought to clarify his position, arguing that he did not mean to back the siege of more than two million Palestinians.
His position has continued to enrage swathes of his party – and a string of Labour councillors have resigned over it.
The deepening row came as:
- French president Emmanuel Macron insisted a ground incursion by Israel into Gaza would be a ‘mistake’;
- United Nations boss Antonio Guterres rejected ‘misrepresentations’ of his comments that the Hamas attacks ‘did not happen in a vacuum’;
- Rishi Sunak backed ‘specific pauses’ in the conflict between Israel and Hamas to allow British nationals to escape Gaza and let aid in – but rejected calls for a ceasefire;
- The head of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group held talks in Beirut with senior Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad figures in a key meeting of the three leading anti-Israel militant groups;
- An RAF plane was last night on its way to Egypt with 21 tons of supplies for Gaza.
A party source told The Times last night it was ‘unacceptable’ that Labour would not back a ceasefire. The insider said people were ‘still feeling gaslit’ by Sir Keir’s LBC comments and the saga had ‘hurt the Muslim community deeply, they feel betrayed’.
The source suggested the meeting, which was attended by frontbenchers Shabana Mahmood and Afzal Khan, had made matters worse and was ‘tokenistic’.
Israeli armoured vehicles take part in an operation, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, at a location given as the northern Gaza Strip in this still image taken from handout video released October 26, 2023
In an indication Israel was widening assaults into Gaza, the military said ground forces attacked multiple targets in the Hamas-ruled enclave on Thursday before withdrawing
A ‘real operation’ was under way last night to keep leading figures from quitting, fearing that one resignation could quickly be followed by others. In a letter organised by the Labour Muslim Councillor Network, more than 200 signed to say: ‘Every day we fail … to push for cessation of hostilities, Gazan children and hundreds of innocent men and women pay the price.’ Labour said the meeting with MPs had been constructive, and Sir Keir had backed calls for a ‘humanitarian pause’, as mooted by US secretary of state Antony Blinken.
He said: ‘It’s clear that the amount of aid and essential utilities getting into Gaza is completely insufficient to meet the humanitarian emergency on the ground.
‘That’s why we have repeatedly said that aid, fuel, water, electricity and medicines must be urgently ramped up both through what can come in through the Rafah crossing and through Israel turning back on the supplies it controls.
‘In the long term there can only be a political solution to this crisis which is why we need to restart the hard work of talks for a two-state solution of a viable Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel.’
A Labour spokesman did not say whether Ms Qureshi – spokesman for women and equalities – would be disciplined. And they denied that there was a rift with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, who accused Israel of a ‘clear breach’ of international law in Gaza.