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Gaza policy highlights our democratic deficit

MICK WHITLEY MP explains why he has put forward an early day motion calling on the Foreign Secretary to make himself accountable to MPs over the appalling brutality in Gaza and for an immediate suspension to arms exports to Israel

THE Israeli offensive on Rafah heralds the opening of a new and terrible chapter in what has already become one of the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crises. 

Military operations threaten to critically undermine the operation of the Rafah and Karem Abu Salem crossings, essential entry points for the limited amount of aid that’s been allowed to trickle into the Gaza trip.

Rafah’s main healthcare facility, the Abu Yousuf Najjar hospital, has been forced to close and the city’s entire healthcare system is now at the point of collapse. Over 300,000 civilians are thought to have fled an area once designated as a “safe zone.”

The international community had urged Benjamin Netanyahu against pursuing a Rafah offensive. Joe Biden said that a ground offensive would constitute a “red line.” David Cameron warned that it would cause “devastating humanitarian impacts.” 

That the Netanyahu government was willing to risk global outrage in its pursuit of this offensive highlights how confident it was in its belief that no matter how dramatically it breaks with international law — and regardless of the humanitarian consequences for the civilian population of Gaza — it would face no meaningful sanction from its allies in the West. On this point, it was entirely correct.

The US has publicly toyed with imposing limited restrictions on weaponry that may be used in Rafah, even as it commits to sending an additional $1 billion in arms to Israel. Cameron, meanwhile, has ruled out any suspension of British arms licences.

While Western leaders rightly insist on the need for de-escalation and respect for international law in Ukraine and the South China Sea, their hollow calls for restraint in the Middle East are belied by the extraordinary quantities of weaponry and material being given to the Israeli government to service its bombardment of Gaza. 

Now, more than ever, the international community needs to prove that actions have consequences and that the Israeli government’s repeated violations of international humanitarian law will be met with a robust diplomatic and economic response. Most of all that should entail an immediate cessation of arms exports to Israel.

For lawmakers in Britain, the last few months have been accompanied by a gnawing sense of impotence and frustration. In theory, MPs are supposed to hold the British government to account and represent the voices of our constituents.

But just as Netanyahu is deaf to the calls for an end to the violence coming both from the international community and a growing proportion of Israeli voters, so too does the British government seem intent on ignoring demands from both MPs and the wider British public for an end to arms transfers to Israel.

The crisis in Gaza has exposed a significant democratic deficit at the heart of British foreign policy-making. Those of us who regarded with scepticism Robin Cook’s declaration of a new era of ethical foreign policy in 1997 have been vindicated by the past two decades in which successive British governments have pursued disastrous foreign interventions that ran contrary to the wishes of the British public. Now, the appointment of David Cameron as foreign secretary last year has served to further remove foreign policy from the arena of democratic decision-making. 

As a life peer, Cameron does not have a seat in the House of Commons and cannot take questions from MPs outside of the foreign affairs select committee. This means that his spurious claims regarding the supposed robustness of the British arms exports licensing system and his department’s own adherence to international law are not being sufficiently challenged.

However rigorous peers of all parties may have been in their questioning of the Foreign Secretary in the House of Lords, basic democratic values demand that the important work of scrutinising government foreign policy should first and foremost be a job for those of us who are accountable to electorates of our own. 

That is why I have this week tabled an early day motion (EDM) calling for an immediate suspension to arms exports and for Cameron to attend the House of Commons to take questions from MPs on this and other matters.

My proposal builds on the recommendation of the Commons procedure committee earlier this year that the Foreign Secretary should take questions from the bar of the house, the white line beyond which only MPs can cross beyond when the house is sitting. 

How we formulate our foreign policy shapes how we relate to the rest of the world. The more democratic and open our foreign policy-making is, the more likely we are to see international co-operation as the solution to the geopolitical challenges we face — from the conflict in Gaza to the existential threats of nuclear proliferation and the climate crisis.

I do not propose that bringing Cameron to the House of Commons would inaugurate a new era of accountable foreign policy or even begin to address the democratic dearth that defines our foreign policy-making machine. But the symbolism of the Foreign Secretary being brought to the Commons would at least demonstrate that something as crucial as foreign policy should not be the sole preserve of unelected peers and Foreign Office mandarins. 

It would give MPs the opportunity to deliver the message that we are hearing on streets and university campuses across Britain — that Britain must change course from its current reckless, unconditional support for the Israeli government’s devastation of Gaza. 

Mick Whitley is Labour MP for Birkenhead.

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