‘As someone with Palestinian heritage, I couldn’t stay in the Labour Party’

Disillusioned with the UK opposition’s stance on Gaza, British Palestinian professor Kamel Hawwash plans to run in the general election.

Professor Kamel Hawwash
Kamel Hawwash will run in the election against a Labour candidate who has long held the constituency [File: Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images]

London, England – As the United Kingdom gears up for a general election, trust in the ruling and main opposition parties among some communities is in sharp decline over their positions on Israel’s war on Gaza.

In recent local elections, the opposition Labour Party performed well compared with the Conservatives who have been in power for more than a decade. Leaders of both parties have regularly backed Israel, saying it has the right to defend itself.

But Labour votes dropped in areas of England with high Muslim populations.

The ITV broadcaster said that in areas with more than 70 percent Muslim representation, Labour lost 39 percentage points of the vote share.

Israel’s latest and deadliest war on Gaza, which has to date killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, began after Hamas, which governs the Strip, attacked southern Israel. During its assault, 1,139 people were killed and hundreds were taken captive.

Labour’s national election coordinator, Pat McFadden, told the BBC that party officials were working on regaining support from those who withheld their vote, saying the situation in Gaza was a “high foreign policy priority”.

But for many pro-Palestinian Britons who usually vote Labour, the promises sound hollow and have come too late.

Al Jazeera spoke to Kamel Hawwash, a British Palestinian professor of civil engineering and former head of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who plans to run as an independent candidate in Birmingham Selly Oak. The constituency in the English midlands, home to a high number of Muslims, has long been held by Labour’s Steve McCabe.

Al Jazeera: What’s behind your decision to take on Labour?

Kamel Hawwash: After the events of October 7, when Keir Starmer [Labour leader] said he thought Israel had the right to cut water and electricity in Gaza, otherwise to commit a war crime, I thought that someone with Palestinian heritage couldn’t stay in the party which I was a member of at the time.

(Note: Starmer later backtracked from his comments, saying he had meant Israel had a right to self-defence and acknowledged the distress he had caused to some Muslim communities.)

Let me be clear: there were undoubtedly atrocities committed on October 7, but that was one day. Israel has continued to create atrocities for over 210 days now, every day. So that was the initial trigger, and I left the party.

I live in Birmingham, I’ve been here for over 30 years. But it’s also the home of the chair of the Labour Friends of Israel [parliamentary group], whose task is really to push the Israeli narrative both within the Labour Party and nationally.

I was in touch with some colleagues, particularly here in Birmingham, who were thinking about forming a new party that would hopefully get some MPs elected.

I want to challenge MP Steve McCabe for his position, particularly since October 7, when there’s been no condemnation of anything that Israel has done.

Al Jazeera: As a British Palestinian who was once a member of the Labour Party, how do you characterise its stance on Gaza?

Hawwash: Part of the reason for resigning was that we tried, as Palestinian community organisations, to meet Keir Starmer, and he refused to meet us. This is before October 7. This was to portray our anxieties about the way Labour policy was being formed.

Keir Starmer said he was a Zionist himself. He even made the comment that Israel made the desert bloom at a Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) lunch, which is a racist comment because it says the Palestinians didn’t make the desert bloom.

Well, where did Jaffa oranges come from? Where do olives come from? So there was history. It wasn’t just what happened after October 7.

[Note: Starmer told The Jewish News in 2020, “I support Zionism without qualification.” In 2021, he quoted the late Harold Wilson, former UK prime minister and Labour leader, in describing the Israeli Labour Party as “social democrats who made the desert flower”.]

Al Jazeera: How has Labour’s position changed since October 7?

Hawwash: When we called for a ceasefire right at the outset, and particularly as chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, we were calling for one thing, initially, one thing only: a ceasefire.

Labour decided that they wouldn’t back that; they would look for pauses, and they would play with words, but essentially, they would not stand and say to Israel, you must stop the killing.

There is no doubt that there has been a little shift [in the Labour Party]. It’s not a huge shift. Much of this has been pressure from members who have either left, but there is no doubt that in areas where there are significant Muslim populations, they have made it known that they will not support Labour, a party they have voted for, in some cases, all their voting lives.

A demonstrator holds a placard referencing Labour Party leader Keir Starmer as people protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, during a temporary truce between Palestinian Islamist group Hamas and Israel, in London, Britain, November 25, 2023. REUTERS/Hollie Adams
A demonstrator holds a placard referencing Labour Party leader Keir Starmer as people protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, in London, Britain, on November 25, 2023 [File: Hollie Adams/Reuters]

Al Jazeera: Do you expect more independent candidates to announce election bids?

Hawwash: I think this is probably the first time where independent candidates would do well.

I don’t think it’s just in the majority Muslim majority areas, though. They and others share other problems, such as the cost-of-living crisis, the demise of the NHS, and housing shortages.

Independent candidates can bring expertise, knowledge, and strong advocacy in parliament on issues that affect their local communities.

When we talk about Reliance, the party I am working with others to register at the moment, we will not have a whip [a way of ensuring a party line]. So, candidates will be really independent but with shared values.

Al Jazeera:  As a professor at the University of Birmingham, how do you view the growing student movement against Israel’s war on Gaza?

Hawwash: There’s an encampment here at Birmingham University. I’ve been and visited, and I spoke once. People from all walks of life came to support the students.

As I arrived, they were delivering free food to keep them going, people were asking what they needed.

Not only are the student protests peaceful. Security officials at universities and the police have had a hands-off approach; there’s nothing for them to come and challenge.

Note: This interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Source: Al Jazeera