Keir Starmer’s speech on the international situation in the Middle East
Keir Starmer’s speech on the international situation in the Middle East
31 October 2023
Thank you all for coming today.
And thank you to Chatham House for hosting and for your resolute commitment to dialogue on this issue.
An issue that so many people recoil from out of despair.
A despair that in the last three weeks has arguably reached new depths.
Indeed, anyone who has followed this closely will have seen images that can never be unseen.
Tiny bodies, wrapped in bundles.
In Israel and Gaza.
Mothers and fathers shattered by the ultimate grief.
The innocent dead.
Israeli. Palestinian. Muslim. Jew.
It’s a tragedy where the facts on the ground are changing by the minute, but where the consequences will last for decades and the trauma might never fade.
A crisis where the search for solutions is shrouded, not just by the fog of war but by an ever-darkening cloud of misinformation.
Nonetheless, we must do what we can and we must explain what we do.
Democratic accountability matters – particularly in light of the rising temperature on British streets.
Our efforts must respond to the two immediate tragedies.
To the 7th of October – the biggest slaughter of Jews – and that is why they were killed, do not doubt that, since the Holocaust.
Men, women, children, babies murdered, mutilated and tortured by the terrorists of Hamas.
Over 200 hostages, including British citizens, taken back into Gaza.
Make no mistake.
This is terrorism on a scale and brutality that few countries have ever experienced – certainly not this one.
And that is an immutable fact that must drive our response to these events.
As must the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza which again, plays out on a previously unimaginable scale.
Thousands of innocent Palestinians…
Desperate for food and water, reduced to drinking contaminated filth, hiding out in hospitals for shelter whilst in those same buildings, babies lie in incubators that could turn off at any moment.
At every stage during this crisis, my approach has been driven by the need to respond to both these tragedies.
To stand by the right to self-defence of any nation which suffers terrorism on this scale alongside the basic human rights of innocent Palestinians caught, once again, in the crossfire.
To focus, at every stage, on the practical steps that might make a material difference on the ground.
In the short-term – on the humanitarian conditions in Gaza and the efforts by Israel to rescue her hostages.
But in the future, also to the hope that I know still burns brightly for those who want peace.
The two-state solution.
An Israel where every citizen enjoys the security they need.
And a viable Palestinian state where the Palestinian people and their children enjoy the freedoms and opportunities that we all take for granted.
That is why, while I understand calls for a ceasefire, at this stage I do not believe that is the correct position now, for two reasons.
One, because a ceasefire always freezes any conflict in the state where it currently lies.
And as we speak, that would leave Hamas with the infrastructure and the capability to carry out the sort of attack we saw on October the 7th.
Attacks that are still ongoing.
Hostages who should be released – still held.
Hamas would be emboldened and start preparing for future violence immediately.
And it is this context which explains my second reason, which is that our current calls for pauses in the fighting for clear and specific humanitarian purposes, and which must start immediately is right in practice as well as principle.
In fact it is – at this moment– the only credible approach that has any chance of achieving what we all want to see in Gaza – the urgent alleviation of Palestinian suffering.
Aid distributed quickly.
Space to get hostages out.
That is why it is also the position shared by our major allies, in the US and the EU and I urge all parties to heed its call.
Over time, the facts on the ground will inevitably change in relation to both hostages being rescued and Hamas’s capability to carry out attacks like we saw on October the 7th.
And we must move to cessation of fighting as quickly as possible.
Because the reality is that neither the long-term security of Israel nor long-term justice for Palestine can be delivered by bombs and bullets.
Open-ended military action, action without a clear and desired political outcome is ultimately futile.
This needs to begin now because a political agreement – however unlikely that seems today, however painful the first steps are to take – is the only way to resolve this conflict, once and for all.
That is why our position and our counsel has always been that Israel must submit to the rules of international law.
The right to self-defence is fundamental but it is not a blank cheque.
The supply of basic utilities like water, medicines, electricity and yes, fuel to civilians in Gaza cannot be blocked by Israel.
Every life matters, so every step must be taken to protect civilians from bombardment.
Palestinians should not be forced to leave their homes en masse, but where they have no choice but to flee within Gaza we need crystal clear guarantees that they will be able to return quickly.
You cannot overstate the importance of this last point.
In conflicts like this, the most painful blows are those that land on the bruises of history.
And for Palestinians – the threat of displacement sends a shiver down the spine.
It must be disavowed urgently, clearly and by all.
Because, while it may feel like a truism, so often the trauma of the present, leads directly to the tragedy of the future.
Hamas know this.
They knew Israel would have to respond.
Their aim on October the 7th was not just to kill Jews, it was to bring death upon their fellow Muslims in Gaza.
A plan, written in blood, to isolate Israel from the West, destroy its improving relations with other Arab Nations and ultimately, provoke wider regional conflicts across the Middle East.
That threat remains real.
And I echo President Biden’s sage advice to Israel.
To understand, in its own interest, why a whirlwind of understandable emotion and rage must not blind it to the fact that it is Hamas it must target, Hamas that is the enemy, Hamas brutality that must be prevented, and not the Palestinian people, who must be protected.
So I say again – we have to get many more aid trucks across the Rafah crossing.
We have to get food, water, electricity, medicine and fuel into Gaza.
We have to preserve innocent lives.
Hospitals must be protected and cannot become targets.
Across the West – we have been calling for this for weeks.
But it hasn’t happened.
The siege conditions haven’t lifted.
That’s unacceptable – and it cannot continue.
The risk of regional escalation is real and must be prevented.
This is why millions of people across our country are rightly concerned.
Concerned as well – about the impact this is having on communities here in Britain.
There are some who want us divided.
But our approach to multi-culturalism is envied around the globe.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims live side-by-side and this is so ordinary it is barely remarked upon.
Inter-faith marriages are common.
People celebrate each others’ traditions and festivals as naturally as they do their own.
The freedom of religious expression is uncontroversial.
We don’t stop often enough to reflect on how unusual this is.
How Britain’s modern diverse democracy is an existential challenge to people, all around the world, who say this cannot be done, something we’ve worked hard for, through the generations and that at moments like this we do have a responsibility to fight for it.
We cannot have a Britain where Jewish business are attacked, Jewish schools marked with red paint, Jewish families hiding who they are.
We cannot have a Britain where Muslim women feel scared to take public transport, Mosques are attacked, Palestinian restaurants receive death threats.
No – this isn’t our Britain.
And in the Labour Party we will have to reach out to communities under pressure and show them the respect and empathy they deserve as a fundamental British right.
But ultimately, the gravest ramifications of failure, will of course be felt in the Middle East itself.
For too long the international community has put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the too difficult box.
There is no recent equivalent of anything like the concerted push for peace we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s.
No – what has happened is we have continually paid lip service to a two-state solution.
Because it’s easier – convenient – perhaps to look away.
To look away from Gaza.
Knowing it is controlled by those who want to kill Jews and wipe Israel off the map.
To look away from Israel.
Knowing people live without the security which they deserve.
To look away from the West Bank.
Knowing more settlements are being built against international law.
Now – I don’t say any of this to start a new round of arguments or hand-wringing.
Instead this must be the time for a new resolve.
A renewed push, from all parties, to find a way to peace.
It will mean engaging with our Arab partners, working urgently on viable plans for a Palestine free from the terrorism of Hamas.
It will mean engaging with Israel, seeking to address its security concerns in the future but showing clearly that the settlement building is unacceptable, unlawful and has to stop.
The Palestinian people need to know there is a genuine will and determination from Israel, from Arab states, from the West to finally address their plight in deeds as well as words.
Because the Palestinian claim to statehood is not in the gift of a neighbour.
It is an inalienable right of the Palestinian people and the clear logic of any call for a two-state solution.
So my Labour Party will fight for that cause.
We will work with international partners towards the recognition of a Palestinian state as part of a negotiated, just and lasting peace.
Because even in the darkest days – in fact especially in the darkest days – we have to keep alive the light of peace.
Fight, despite the horror of the present, for the fragile hope of the future.
Focusing, always, on the difference we can make.
This is an old conflict, but it is not and never has been an issue that will be solved by the black and white simplicity of unbending conviction.
Rather, the colour of peace – always in conflict resolution is grey.
And in the coming days and months we must do everything we can to fight for it.