Council won’t ‘engage in foreign policy’ over Gaza conflict says Mayor Woodley

fhat Smith asks Hackney Mayor Caroline Woodley to call on the UK government to support a ceasefire in Israel and Palestine

fhat Smith asks Hackney Mayor Caroline Woodley to call on the UK government to support a ceasefire in Israel and Palestine. Photograph: Julia Gregory. Free for use by partners of BBC news wire service

Hackney’s mayor told a resident urging her to demand the government backs a ceasefire in Israel and Palestine that the council does not get involved in foreign policy.

South Hackney resident Ifhat Smith made her request at a full council meeting that on Wednesday 29 November. She also asked the council to lobby government for more support to promote community cohesion in Hackney.

The newly-elected Labour mayor Caroline Woodley responded: “I barely dare speak, because I feel we’re in a room of bear traps and anything I say is going to upset someone.

“In our role here in local government we are dedicated to our local people, Hackney people and local policy.

“We do not engage in foreign policy, but I do understand that Hackney residents are so deeply impacted by this conflict, and that I have to represent  the strength of feeling that has come forward.”

She expressed her horror at “the atrocities we have witnessed on 7 October, the terror that was enacted and the deaths that occurred, and all that we have seen since”.

Hamas staged a deadly raid on Israelis on 7 October, reigniting the conflict in Israel and Palestine and the loss of thousands of lives.

A truce started last Friday (24 November) and a number of Israeli hostages held by Hamas have been released.

Woodley said: “We are in the midst of a really fragile truce and we must ask our political leaders to honour the meaning of a truce, what it means to really stop and pause and take care and try to put all energy into negotiations to take us to a place for a full and permanent ceasefire. We all want this to stop.”

She added that all hostages must be released.

Woodley added: “We have to recognise the right to defend, we have to recognise that we were in a situation of ceasefire when the atrocities of 7 October took place, and for us in local government to understand the full history and grievances and damage that has been done over the years is just such a huge task.”

She said: “What we have tried to do is go and visit faith partners, we’ve knocked on doors, we’ve spoken to individuals, to residents to try to understand the hurt.”

Woodley added: “We have to find a way to come back, to bring everyone together. I believe day to day that is the case.  Our neighbours are still side by side and looking to one another for help and support.”

She said the council would always support peaceful protest.

Campaigners have held a series of protests, including one outside Hackney Council’s pensions committee calling it to divest investment in companies supplying equipment to the Israeli government. Pupils also joined a protest calling for a ceasefire.

Woodley added: “We all want the same thing. We want the bloodshed to stop, and we want more care and more healing and to take care of one another in Hackney.”

Eight Hackney Labour councillors have signed letters calling on the Labour leader Keir Starmer to back an all-out ceasefire.

Smith told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “I’m not happy with the hurt that’s felt in the community. Thankfully in Hackney we are a community that is respectful.

“We want humanity to succeed. The first thing we should do is to be human to one another.”

She said she was disappointed by the mayor’s response.

Earlier councillors marked a minute’s silence at the beginning of the full council meeting on Wednesday 29 November “to remember the innocent victims of the devasting events in Israel and Palestine and those in the borough who have been impacted by these tragic events”.

There was insufficient time to discuss the Green group motion calling for a ceasefire, release of all hostages and more support for community cohesion.

The motion was the fifth on the order paper and motions are dealt with on a “first-come, first served” basis.

Councillors did not vote to extend the time allocated for motions so they could discuss it.

Green councillor Alastair Binnie-Lubbock suggested discussing it first, but this proposal was defeated.

His motion called for “an immediate ceasefire to end the violence. Humanitarian aid and basic services must be immediately restored.”

The motion said: “There can be no place for hate in our borough. Hackney must be a safe place for those of all faiths and nationalities. We must support those whose families and loved ones are caught up in this conflict.”

Earlier in the meeting Green leader Zoë Garbett said: “This conflict is having a very real impact on people in Hackney.”

She condemned “disgraceful incidents” of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia and the loss of life, which has left Hackney residents bereaved.

“I visited one Hackney family who have lost over 120 members of their family in Gaza – which is heartbreaking.”

Garbett said she was disappointed the Green motion was not discussed.

A Labour amendment called for a further extension of the truce, an immediate release of all hostages, “and to focus all efforts on bringing a permanent ceasefire and lasting peace in the region”.

After the meeting Michael Levy, who leads the Conservative opposition group, said: “I do not think that foreign policy has got a place in Hackney Council.”

This article was amended at 09:25 on Saturday 2 December 2023. It originally stated that hostages had been released by both sides. This has been corrected to state that Israeli hostages held by Hamas have been released.