Sir Keir Starmer is under growing pressure to call for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas after Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham and Anas Sarwar all broke ranks to challenge his stance on Gaza.
Party sources made clear the Labour leader was not about to strengthen his position on Friday despite the demands from the mayors in London and Greater Manchester, and the Scottish party leader.
Sir Keir is united with Rishi Sunak and the US in pressing for humanitarian pauses in the fighting while supporting Tel Aviv’s right to defend itself against the militants who launched a wave of bloodshed in Israel earlier this month.
But the Labour leader has angered MPs, including some on his frontbench, by not going further and provoked a series of resignations of Labour councillors with his since-retracted support for Israel’s siege of the strip which is home to more than two million Palestinians.
The scenes of destruction and the large death toll caused by Israel’s airstrikes on Gaza have added to the pressure, as have fears a ground invasion will provoke a wider conflict.
Thousands of innocent civilians have already been killed in Israel and Gaza.
With the humanitarian crisis set to deteriorate even further, I’m calling for a ceasefire.pic.twitter.com/9HPau9X9jP
— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) October 27, 2023
Mr Khan, who became the first Muslim mayor of the capital in 2016, released a video on social media to “join the international community in calling for a ceasefire”.
“It would stop the killing and would allow vital aid supplies to reach those who need it in Gaza,” he said.
“It would also allow the international community more time to prevent a protracted conflict in the region and further devastating loss of life.
“A widespread military escalation will only deepen the humanitarian disaster. It will increase human suffering on all sides. No nation, including Israel, has the right to break international law.”
There have been too many innocent lives lost in Israel and Palestine.
We need a ceasefire now. pic.twitter.com/kFgcU58LAQ
— Anas Sarwar (@AnasSarwar) October 27, 2023
Four hours later, Mr Sarwar, who in 2021 became the UK’s first Muslim to lead a political party, made the same demand, with his own video.
“We are all so desperate for peace and are desperate to see the end of violence,” he said.
“And that is why we need to see the immediate release of hostages, immediate access to humanitarian supplies, food, medicine, electricity, water, into Gaza…
“The immediate cessation of violence, with an end of rocket fire into and out of Gaza. And let me be clear, that means a ceasefire right now.”
Mr Sarwar said there must be a “proper peace process” to allow a “safe, secure and free Palestine and a safe, secure and free Israel”.
He argued there is “no justification for the collective punishment of the people of Gaza” and said that withholding essential supplies is a breach of international law.
Later in the afternoon, Mr Burnham was joined by his deputy Kate Green, who served on Sir Keir’s frontbench until standing down as an MP in 2021, and 10 leaders of Manchester councils in adding to the “growing international calls for a ceasefire by all sides and for the hostages to be released unharmed”.
“We recognise that Israel has the right to take targeted action within international law to defend itself against terror attacks and terrorist organisations and to rescue hostages,” they added.
“We also have profound concerns about the loss of thousands of lives in Gaza, the displacement of many more and widespread suffering through the ongoing blockade of essential goods and services. It is vital that urgent support and humanitarian aid is allowed into the area.”
Shadow cabinet member Steve Reed told colleagues calling for a ceasefire he understands and empathises with them but set out why the leadership was not calling for one.
The shadow environment secretary argued that if the UK had suffered a similar atrocity “our state would have sought to defend ourselves to protect our citizens by dismantling the capability of a terrorist organisation that carried it out”.
“That applies to Israel too, they have the right under international law to do that,” he told Sky News.
“But in taking that work, they must continue to follow international law as they carry it out, but long term, the only solution to this crisis is not going to be military.”
A Labour Party spokesman issued a defence of Sir Keir’s decision.
“Of course, we understand why people want to call for a ceasefire. The Palestinian people are not Hamas, and they are suffering terribly.
“That’s why we support humanitarian pauses so that aid, fuel, water electricity and medicines can urgently get to those who need it,” he said.
“We also have to recognise Israel was subject to a vile terrorist attack. Israel has a right and a duty to defend itself, rescue the hostages and stop Hamas from being able to carry out that sort of terrorist attack ever again.
“Hamas are currently firing rockets into Israel and have built the infrastructure, including tunnels, from which to carry out further attacks, so that military operation is ongoing.
“That must be done within international law and aid must get in quickly, safely, and regularly to halt a humanitarian disaster.”
Sir Keir has been holding meetings within his party to soothe some of the anger, including in talks with Muslim Labour MPs in Parliament on Wednesday.
They urged him during the “firm” exchange to back a ceasefire, believing the British public support the move as well.
Downing Street argues that pauses, as Israel pummels Gaza with airstrikes, are needed to get evacuees out and aid in but says a ceasefire would “only serve to benefit Hamas”.
The Foreign Office has been contacted by around 200 British nationals in Gaza as officials undertake complex negotiations with both Egypt and Israel to get them free.