Hackney Council has called for a “cessation of hostilities” in Gaza – with the ruling Labour group admitting that it had a “very, very challenging time” in deciding whether it should support a Green party motion on the issue.
The motion, put forward by Green party councillors Zoë Garbett and Alastair Binnie-Lubbock, was heavily amended by Labour before it was passed, but it asked Caroline Woodley, the elected mayor, to write to the prime minister.
Woodley was asked to write to Rishi Sunak calling for “an immediate and sustainable humanitarian ceasefire on all sides, lasting peace in the region and a renewed peace process, the urgent release of all hostages and to provide central government funding to support community cohesion and peace-making at a local level”.
No members of the public were present to hear the motion after pro-Palestine protesters disrupted the start of the meeting, which was suspended so the gallery could be cleared by security staff.
About 50 people attended a rally outside the town hall before the meeting, addressed by Garbett, Binnie-Lubbock and Labour councillor Fliss Premru.
Cllr Binnie-Lubbock said: “At the last council meeting in response to a question from a resident, the mayor promised to write to the government, but sadly, that urgency wasn’t really felt. In the meantime, thousands have been killed, maimed, displaced and starved.
“We can stand up and be counted. We owe it to our residents who deeply desire peace, who have friends and family who, or have lost friends and family in the region who see and experience antisemitism and Islamophobia, and want to feel safe.”
A spokesperson for Hackney Labour said: “The Mayor has sent a letter to the Foreign Secretary, which includes the words in the Labour amendment to the motion calling for ‘lasting peace in the region’.
“The Labour amendment also asks for ‘an immediate and sustainable humanitarian ceasefire on all sides’ and Mayor Woodley’s letter to the Prime Minister reflects these points.
“Both Labour and Green party councillors voted for the final motion.”
Cllr Guy Nicholson, the deputy mayor for delivery, inclusive economy and regeneration, said councillors of all parties had been “shocked and horrified” by events in the region but cautioned against the council inserting itself into international issues.
“I hope that colleagues on the Green benches recognise that yes, we have had a very, very challenging time as a group of elected members to arrive at the motion and the amended motion that we’re tabling today,” he said.
“But we have arrived at that with a deal of sincerity and a great deal of thought. And what it does is that it captures the very essence of what it is that we’re actually elected to do, that we can enable and that we can deliver, and that we do recognise that there is an important national call to be made upon our sovereign government.”
Cllr Nicholson said the council was taking a “Hackney first” approach.
“Our attention must not be taken away from what happens on the streets of Hackney and with the communities and amongst the residents of Hackney,” he said. “We have brought together all of our faith leaders, again, focused on the same set of objectives to keep us together and to ensure that Hackney is a diverse, thriving, and safe place.”
Earlier in the meeting, Cllr Susan Fajana-Thomas, the cabinet member for community safety and regulatory services, said that antisemitic and Islamophobic hate crime in the borough had started to fall, but was still higher than before the 7th October attacks.
Cllr Nicholson said that Hackney would remain twinned with the Israeli city of Haifa because their citizens shared a progressive outlook.
The borough has been twinned with the Jewish state’s third largest city since 1968, but activists have called for the relationship to be severed.
Cllr Nicholson said that the twinning arrangements were led by the borough’s speakers, who were “non-sectarian” and “inter-faith”.
The relationship with Haifa connected Homerton Hospital with its counterpart in the city, the Rambam Healthcare Campus, he told activist Heather Mendick, who posed the public question.
“It has involved the exchange of knowledge and experience of working practices within healthcare by these two institutions, the nurses and the practitioners who work there,” he said.
“Long may that relationship remain in place, even through these incredibly challenging times. No one in this chamber will shy away from the dreadful events that are playing out between communities in the Middle East at this moment in time.
“Haifa is, like Hackney, a mixed community. It’s a diverse community. It is a community of well-meaning, well-informed, well-educated and progressive citizens, like Hackney, and to bring our two healthcare institutions together and to bring together the hands of friendship through healthcare, then there can be no finer relationship between this council and another.”
Mendick and Cllr Anya Sizer, the speaker, clashed over her follow-up question, with Sizer branding references to apartheid as “inflammatory” and Mendick refusing to leave the podium.
Protesters shouted “stop bullying her”, “shame on you” and “there are no hospitals in Gaza any more” before the gallery was cleared.
The spokesperson for Hackney Labour said: “There was a deliberate and clear attempt to disrupt the proceedings in the council chamber and so the Speaker had no choice but to clear the disrupters so the meeting could continue its business, particularly as there were important financial items to be discussed and voted on as called for legally.”
Update: this article was amended at 11.15 on 26 January 2024 to include comment from Hackney Labour, and to clarify that calling for a lasting peace was included in the Labour amendment.