Israel has a right to defend itself, says minister

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Israel has a right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Gaza but its response must be "proportionate", a Foreign Office minister has insisted.

Tobias Ellwood, the new Middle East minister, said Israel must ensure it takes all necessary steps to minimise civilian casualties, as he fielded questions on the conflict in Gaza on 22 July 2014.

More than 600 Palestinians and 30 Israelis have been killed in the past 14 days of fighting, according to officials.

Labour MP Simon Danczuk said that among those killed were babies and children, and urged the Foreign Office to "call Israel to account" over their actions.

Mr Ellwood said he had raised concerns about civilian casualties with the Israeli ambassador and was assured that "any allegations relating to the proportionality" would be investigated.

'Grossly disproportionate'

Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander asked the government if it would join Labour in opposing Israel's "escalation" of the conflict with its ground operation in Gaza.

Mr Ellwood replied: "These are matters that are being raised in Brussels as we speak and I think the foreign secretary [Philip Hammond] intends to put out a statement on his return."

Mr Alexander remarked that his answer was "troubling even for a new colleague welcomed to your position on the front bench".

He said the Israelis and Palestinians would eventually reach a deal to end the current conflict, but added: "The question is how many more children and civilians need to die before such an agreement is reached."

The minister said the government was working to achieve a ceasefire and said Mr Hammond would fly to the region shortly.

He pointed out that Hamas "is firing an average of 147 rockets" a day at Israel, and added: "Were that to stop then the situation in Gaza would change somewhat significantly."

However, Lib Dem David Heath said it was "transparently obvious" that Israel's response to the rocket attacks is "grossly disproportionate" and urged the government to look at trade agreements with Israel. Mr Ellwood replied: "I see no need at the moment to look at any of EU negotiations."

Tory former Middle East Minister Alistair Burt blamed the latest conflict on the "inability of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israel to make the necessary concessions to each other" to ensure a Middle East peace deal. The UK must do all in its power to get talks back on track, he urged.

Mr Ellwood agreed: "A cessation of the violence will allow the opportunity to tackle the underlying causes of instability in the Gaza strip, without which the long-term security of both Israel and the Gaza will not be secured."

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