Major differences in tone emerged this week in the approach of Britain’s main political parties to the war between Israel and Hamas. As the death toll on both sides continued to rise, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg joined much of Westminster in weighing in on the crisis, while controversial MP David Ward’s remarks that he would probably fire rockets into Israel if he lived in Gaza brought the parties together in shock and condemnation.
In common with the other two party chiefs, the prime minister stressed Israel’s “right to defend itself”. And while he expressed “grave concern” over the “disturbing” civilian casualty numbers, he told MPs on Monday the current crisis was “triggered by Hamas raining hundreds of rockets on Israeli cities, indiscriminately targeting civilians in contravention of all humanitarian law and norms”. On the same day, Miliband told the Huffington Post: “We oppose the Israeli incursion into Gaza. I don’t think this will make the situation better. I fear it will make it worse.” He added: “I defend Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks. But I cannot explain, justify or defend the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, including children and innocent civilians.” While recognising Miliband and shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander’s support for the country, a joint statement from the Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council said: “These comments regrettably ignore the ideology of Hamas, the psychology of Hamas, the actions of Hamas and thus the reality faced by Israel.”
Stressing that the ground operation has uncovered tunnels built for launching terrorist raids against Israelis, they added: “We all regret the human tragedy playing out in Gaza. Israel is protecting its citizens and doing everything to minimise suffering in Gaza, while Hamas is trying to maximise their suffering and bring terror to Israel.” “Israel is entitled to the support of all political leaders who, if faced with a direct threat of violence to their people and on their territory, would undoubtedly be forced to bring such attacks to a sustainable end.” Labour Friends of Israel pointed out that the current situation had been met with a range of views among Israel’s friends, but acknowledged that LFI views “diverge” from the party leader. “We would ask that any future statements are more balanced and focused on Hamas and their actions, especially a clear condemnation of their use of human shields,” said director Jennifer Gerber. But perhaps the strongest direct condemnation came from Clegg, who hours after news emerged of the death of four children on a Gaza beach, used his LBC phone-in to describe the aerial bombardment of the densely-populated region as “a disproportionate form of collective punishment”.
But among those taking exception to the remarks was his defence spokesman in the House of Lord, Monroe Palmer. Saying that Clegg would do anything to secure peace and “fervently believes in the state”, he said: “I don’t agree with his words. I don’t think he thought them through completely in relation to this conflict. The thing he didn’t say is that all these deaths would end if Hamas had followed Israel’s lead and accepted a ceasefire.” Meanwhile, Ward has apologised amid calls for the Liberal Democrats to withdraw the whip after he took to Twitter on Tuesday night to say: “The big question is – if I lived in Gaza would I fire a rocket? – probably yes.” Clegg described the remarks as “utterly unacceptable” and the Lib Dems announced it was treating the case as a “disciplinary”. Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub has written to the Deputy Prime Minister to express his “shock and disgust” at the comments. Urging “forceful and immediate” action, he wrote: “Mr Ward has in the past made hurtful and shocking statements regarding Israel and the Holocaust. But there has surely been none so damaging and abhorrent as his latest statement justifying attacks.” The MP later issued a statement saying: “I utterly condemn the violence on both sides in Israel and Gaza. I condemn the actions of Hamas, and my comments were not in support of firing rockets into Israel. If they gave the opposite impression, I apologise.” He added: “While I defend the right of Israel to exist and defend itself, I will continue to speak out for the rights of the Palestinian people who are facing untold suffering. “A ceasefire in this conflict is essential. If we are to end the suffering, and establish a safer society for people in Gaza, the first step must be an end to violence on both sides.”
A Lib Dem spokesman said: “This is a categorical apology from David Ward. In light of this apology, the party and the whips will decide in due course if further disciplinary action should be taken.” But Lib Dem Friends of Israel’s Gavin Stollar said the apology is “as vacuous as it is laughable”. He also claimed Ward had “played the party” and would “reoffend”. The Board of Deputies – which earlier called for the permanent withdrawal of the whip – said: “David Ward’s latest statement directly contradicts his abhorrent and dangerous tweet. This ‘spin’ in no way negates the fact that David Ward has deliberately placed himself outside the party’s core beliefs and values. “We have seen Ward apologise and receive rebuke before, to no avail. The party will now be judged not by its words but by the action it takes. Time is running out for it to act.” Jewish News understands that the party’s chief whip spoke to Ward on Wednesday but that party rules dictate the formal procedure can only continue with a face-to-face meeting between the pair. The party said this meeting would take place in “due course”. A spokesman said that if this doesn’t result in “satisfactory outcome”, a second meeting would be held also involving Clegg and deputy leader Malcolm Bruce who would be able to take action from a warning to permanent removal of the whip. Based on the leaderships’ recommendations, a further disciplinary procedure could then be launched looking at his membership of the party. Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi urged Met Police Commisionmer Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe to investigate the tweet. He wrote: “Mr Ward’s tweets would appear to be prima facie evidence that he has committed the offence of encouragement of terrorism as defined by Section 1 (2) of the Terrorism Act 2006.”