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Britain can play a role in bringing peace to Gaza, but first leaders have to get serious

<span>‘Israel is threatening an assault on Rafah, with unimaginable consequences for hundreds of thousands of civilians.'</span><span>Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images</span>
‘Israel is threatening an assault on Rafah, with unimaginable consequences for hundreds of thousands of civilians.'Photograph: Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday in Rafah, the Gaza border town now transformed in effect into a vast sprawling refugee camp, airstrikes reportedly killed more than a dozen members of one family. Among the dead, according to Reuters, was a one-year-old girl. On the same day, the UK airdropped food and medicines into Gaza for the first time, from a Jordanian plane, in response to a growing humanitarian disaster. Meanwhile, the Labour MP Sarah Champion – who chairs the international development select committee, newly returned from a fact-finding visit to the Egyptian side of the border – reported that “nothing that has been reported braces you for the true scale of the horror in Gaza”, adding that she was personally afraid UN workers might have to pull out due to the deteriorating security situation.

That could have been parliament’s focus on Wednesday, but instead it tied itself up in knots over a vote that achieved little beyond leaving MPs feeling badly bruised, parliament diminished and the country mostly confused. We could spend all day arguing over whose fault that was – who was playing games over whose amendment, in pursuit of whose imagined advantage in which marginal seat – but to do so seems obscenely parochial in the circumstances.

Across all British political parties, there is clearly now an overwhelming desire for the fighting to stop. But that only makes parliament’s inability to say so with one coherent voice – and then move swiftly to discussing how the world can make that actually happen – more infuriating.

This war is not going to be ended by fighting over the vanity of small political differences, and still less by intimidating MPs in their own homes. Conflicts that grind themselves into bloody stalemate – which is surely where this one is ultimately headed, given the impossibility of defeating ideology by force alone – end when combatants are offered a way out of the corner into which they have painted themselves.

Suspicions still abound over the ultimate aims of some more extreme rightwingers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration. But Israel’s stated war aims are to rescue the surviving hostages – on which front a deal brokered by the US, Egypt and Qatar may be moving closer – and perhaps above all to remove Hamas from power in Gaza, allowing Netanyahu to claim Israelis are safe from the threat of another 7-October-style atrocity. Having so far failed to locate Hamas’s most senior leaders, Israel is threatening an assault on Rafah, where it claims further Hamas battalions are hiding, with unimaginable consequences for hundreds of thousands of civilians sheltering there. But with a full-scale attack still some weeks away, there remains the narrowest of windows open for international diplomacy to create alternatives.

The former Israeli prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak have publicly raised the possibility of an interim international force led by Arab countries stepping in to police Gaza, though Barak added that when he suggested something similar to the Egyptians after a previous incursion into Gaza, they were reluctant to take on such an obviously poisoned chalice. Nobody is pretending any of this is easy. But the only long-term answers lie in the international community stepping in somehow to guarantee alternative leadership in Gaza, and thus begins the extremely long and difficult business of rebuilding a physically pulverised country and the Middle East peace process.

Related: Death and rape threats, bricks through windows: MPs must be able to serve without living in fear | Stella Creasy

By that measure, Wednesday’s most successful political intervention probably came from the Prince of Wales, whose call for an end to the fighting “as soon as possible” was approved by a Foreign Office that, under David Cameron, seems willing to think creatively. The prince’s message will have been heard where it was presumably intended to be, which is less in Westminster or Tel Aviv than in those Gulf states where the royals have strong connections. Though the soaring death toll in Gaza has put increasing strain on Britain’s relationship with its Arab allies, they may well hold the key to what happens next.

What Westminster says about any of this may of course cut little ice with Hamas or the more extreme members of Netanyahu’s cabinet. But as the former Downing Street foreign policy adviser Tom Fletcher says, moderate players in the region are still listening, seeking international support and cover that gives them leverage in internal arguments. As it does on Ukraine, parliament should speak with one voice over Rafah. The Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, who is of Palestinian heritage and has family trapped in Gaza, is also right to argue that parliament should explore its options through regular debates that can build consensus, rather than set-piece votes designed to divide. Cameron should make use of cross-party insights and experience. And all parties should refrain from exploiting the issue for political advantage when public emotions are running dangerously high.

No politician wins from violent intimidation being seen to have worked, so the speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, will of course face questions over how far death threats against Labour MPs (which have seemingly only intensified since the SNP last pushed for a ceasefire vote in November) influenced his handling of Wednesday’s vote. But he wouldn’t have been put in the impossible position of choosing between the rulebook and MPs’ safety if all parties had managed to agree a common position around the ceasefire they all now seem to want, and then spent an afternoon discussing how to get there. This is a serious moment, both for the Middle East and for tensions at home. A more serious country would rise to meet it.

  • Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist