‘The bombs simply have to stop’

Nichola Hunter-Warburton and Jennifer Chigozirim Chibuobasi report on a debate on Gaza
Protestors calling for ceasefire outside the venue of a general election debate at Bournemouth University
Protestors calling for ceasefire in Gaza outside the venue of a general election debate at Bournemouth University. Photo: Gokul Aanandh Bhoopathy

Around 25 anti-war protesters gathered near the venue of a political debate under an overcast sky last week. Holding placards that read ‘FREEDOM FOR PALESTINE’ and ‘ALL 12 UNIs IN GAZA BOMBED!’, they erupted in chants: “What do we want? Ceasefire. When do we want it? Now!”

Across the road, the targets of their ire — candidates from Bournemouth for the upcoming general election — slipped into the auditorium where the debate was to take place quietly. There were Jessica Toale and Tom Hayes of Labour; Jeff Hanna and Jon Nicholas of Liberal Democrats; and Darren Jones of Green Party. But no Tobias Ellwood. Ellwood and the Conservatives were invited to the event. But neither he nor any Tory representative could make it, organisers said, because of “other constituency commitments”.

Some time later, far away from the horrors of war, the candidates faced questions on Gaza. What was their position? Did they support a ceasefire?

“Completely in favour of a ceasefire, and an immediate one,” said Nicholas. “The bombs simply have to stop.”

That said, he added: “The blanket disapproval of all of Israel is pernicious and wrong. I also think the blanket dismissal of those on the Palestinian and Gaza sides is equally wrong. There are people here, and it feels so much they have become tools for external rhetoric that doesn’t smell the cordite.”

Nicholas was speaking at a general election debate organised by the Students’ Union at Bournemouth University (SUBU). The political perspectives on the ongoing conflict has a particular resonance now, as the Scottish National Party (SNP) is expected to table a fresh vote in the Commons this week, calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Darren Jones (extreme left) responds to a question while Jeff Hanna, Jessica Toale, and Jon Nicholas (left to right) look on. Photo: Gokul Aaanandh Bhoopathy

“The situation in Gaza is appalling,” said Jessica Toale, the Labour candidate for Bournemouth West. “We all want the fighting to stop. There’s no question there. How do you get to that point? You can’t just call for a ceasefire, you have to say what steps are we going to take to get to the tough diplomatic work we need to get an enduring cessation of fighting.”

Toale’s response comes at a time when the impending SNP vote has placed her party chief Sir Kier Starmer under fresh pressures. The Labour leader has so far stopped short of calling for an ‘immediate’ cessation of fighting, choosing instead the language of ‘a ceasefire that lasts’ — a stance that has led to 10 resignations among frontbench Labour MPs.

If Toale had any sympathy for the SNP motion, it was well-masked in her response, and she offered the familiar party line smoothly: “We think that the humanitarian truces and the humanitarian pauses will enable essential aid to get into Gaza and to do the tough diplomatic work that needs to get the two parties in a position to have an enduring ceasefire. And I truly, truly hope that we get there sooner than later.”

The conflict in and around Gaza, raging since last October, has led to several protests in the Bournemouth area. This included one by activists of the Led by Donkeys group, which saw 11,000 sets of clothes laid out across a three-mile stretch on Bournemouth beach, symbolising the children who lost their lives on both sides; and a pro-Palestinian gathering in Bournemouth Square organised by the Dorset Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Last week, protesters also held a demonstration outside the home of Ellwood, the sitting MP from Bournemouth East.

Hanna, the Liberal Dem candidate for Bournemouth West, said he hoped the SNP vote wins and the UK government comes out in support of a ceasefire. “Hamas committed atrocities that we must remember,” he said. “And I have every sympathy with all those involved. But I would like to see a ceasefire. I am saddened that the United Kingdom has not come out in favour of a ceasefire.”

Jones, too, said he supports a ceasefire. “It is clearly a terrible situation, a situation that no one should have to go through,” he said. “The only way out of this is dialogue. Hopefully, we will move to a position where all the posturing ceases and they do get adults around the table.”

Stop the fighting. Dialogue. Peace. Although they were from different parties, all candidates offered similar views on the war in Gaza. Had Ellwood been there, it is unlikely he would have said anything different, given this is one of the issues on which the Conservatives and Labour agree. But it would have been nice to hear a Conservative voice on a critical issue at an election debate aimed at a crucial vote bank.

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