Israel-Gaza conflict: The 50-second exchange that’s piling pressure on Keir Starmer

Labour Leader, Keir Starmer at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool.
Sir Keir Starmer is facing pressure from his own MPs over his stance on the Israel and Palestine crisis. (PA) (Karl Black)

What's happening? Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is meeting Muslim MPs from his own party as he attempts to dampen a backlash over comments he made on the Israel crisis.

Starmer has faced criticism and tens of resignations from Labour councillors amid anger over his stance on the conflict.

It started with an interview an interview he gave on LBC on 11 October, four days after Hamas militants launched a brutal assault on Israel territory, brutally killing hundreds of civilians and soldiers. As Israel reacted to the atrocity, Starmer suggested in the interview that Israel had the “right” to cut off power and water from Gaza.

Initial disquiet over his comments grew with some arguing that cutting off such basic needs would likely be considered a war crime. Starmer eventually sought to clarify his comments

However, he later sought to clarify his position, arguing that he did not mean to back the siege on more than two million Palestinians.

He has subsequently acknowledged the “distress” caused by the remarks and he and his deputy, Angela Rayner, met with Muslim Labour MPs on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the issue.

Here Yahoo News UK breaks down what has caused the backlash…

The interview

On 11 October, days after the Hamas attacks began, Starmer gave an interview with LBC where he spoke about Israel’s “right to defend itself”.

When asked if that meant cutting off power and water, Starmer replied: “I think that Israel does that have that right, it is an ongoing situation.

“Obviously everything should be done within international law but I dont want to step away from the core principles that Israel has a right to defend herself and Hamas bears responsibility for these terrorist attacks.”

The interview sparked a backlash from many members of his own party, with concerns that it has angered voters, particularly in Muslim communities.

But Starmer did not publicly acknowledge his comments until 20 October – nine days after the interview took place.

He appeared to contradict his own comments, telling ITV News: “I know that LBC clip has been widely shared and caused real concern and distress in some Muslim communities, so let me be clear about what I was saying and what I wasn’t saying.

“I was saying Israel had the right to self-defence... I was not saying Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines.”

The backlash

London, UK. 14 October, 2023. Thousands of Palestine supporters march from the BBC HQ in Portland Place to Whitehall calling for an end to UK support of Israel's siege and war on Gaza. Organised by a coalition including Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Friends of Al Aqsa, Stop the War Coalition and Muslim Association of Britain, the protest comes as Israel cuts off food, water and electricity to Gaza following an attack on Israel by Hamas militants from the territory. Credit: Ron Fassbender/Alamy Live News
A protester holds up a placard criticising Keir Starmer during a march through London Earlier this month. (Alamy) (Ron Fassbender)

While Starmer has yet to face any resignations from Labour MPs, several councillors have resigned over his comments, which they say is “complicity in war crimes”.

Oxford councillors Shaista Aziz and Amar Latif kicked off a wave of resignations on the council – with Imogen Thomas, Edward Mundy, Paula Dunne, Duncan Hall, Dr Hosnieh Djafari-Marbini and Jabu Nala-Hartley quitting the party last week.

While there was initial anger at Starmer's comments on LBC, that has since condensed in calls for the Labour leader to issue an outright call for an Israeli ceasefire - something the UN has already done and which Starmer has stopped short of.

The councillors said in a statement: “At a time when it’s been crucial to call for an immediate ceasefire and a de-escalation, and to insist Israel abides by international law, Keir Starmer and the shadow foreign secretary (David Lammy) have instead endorsed collective punishment, blockade, siege and mass civilian casualties.

“As Starmer has said ‘Israel has that right’ to continue deadly attacks on Gazans. This is complicity in war crimes.”

The backlash intensified on Wednesday after over 150 Muslim Labour councillors demanded that Labour's leadership should call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza in an ”unprecedented letter of unity”.

More names are being added to the letter, according to the Labour Muslim Network.

Yahoo News UK has contacted them for a response.

Starmer has since repeatedly stated his - and Labour's - position that Israel must abide by international law; that hostages should be released; more humanitarian aid be allowed to enter Gaza; and for the water and power to be switched back on.

He told MPs in the House of Commons on Monday: “We stand with Israel and her right to defend herself against the terrorists of Hamas. We stand for international law, the protection of innocent lives, humanitarian support for Palestinians.”

However, during prime minister's questions on Wednesday, Labour's shadow equalities minister Yasmin Qureshi also supported calls for a ceasefire, saying people in Gaza were subject to "collective punishment" for "crimes they did not commit".

Sunday’s visit to Islamic centre

Starmer's meeting with Muslim leaders in south Wales over the weekend has also generated criticism.

The Labour leader visited the South Wales Islamic Centre on Sunday and posted images showing him meeting figures from the local community.

In a post on X, he said he was “questioned by members” and “made clear it is not and has never been my view that Israel had the right to cut off water, food, fuel or medicines. International law must be followed”.

But the centre accused Starmer of having “gravely misrepresented” the meeting.

In a statement apologising for the “hurt and confusion” caused by hosting Starmer, the centre said: “We wish to stress Keir Starmer’s social media post and images gravely misrepresented our congregants and the nature of the visit.

“There was a robust and frank conversation which reflected the sentiments Muslim communities are feeling at this time.

“Members of the community directly challenged Keir on his statements made on the Israeli government’s right to cut food, electricity and water to Gaza, warranting war crimes as well as his failure to call for an immediate ceasefire.”

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