UK supports Israel’s ‘right’ to self-defence

*Hammond says Britain alarmed over civilian death toll in Gaza *Netanyahu says Hamas responsible for Palestinians’ deaths

JERUSALEM – British Foreign Affairs Secretary Philip Hammond said on Thursday that Britain was gravely concerned by the high number of civilian casualties resulting from Israel's military operation in Gaza.

Speaking on his first official visit to the region since taking over as Britain's top diplomat, Hammond said that London would do everything it could to help broker a quick end to the hostilities which have so far claimed the lives of more than 740 Palestinians in Gaza, 34 Israelis, mainly soldiers, and a Thai worker.

At a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hammond expressed Britain’s support for Israel's ‘right’ to self-defence, saying the current fighting was caused by Hamas firing rockets ‘indiscriminately’ at Israeli towns and cities. "But we are gravely concerned by the ongoing heavy level of civilian causalities," he said as dozens more Palestinians were killed in ongoing fighting in Gaza, among them at least six children.

"We want to see a ceasefire quickly agreed. We welcomed the earlier ceasefire proposal by Egypt and we were grateful to you, prime minister, for your immediate agreement to it,” he said. “We are disappointed that Hamas has apparently once again rejected ceasefire proposals.” Hammond, making his first foreign trip since his appointment last week, later flew to Cairo for further talks, the Foreign Office said.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights published figures on Wednesday showing more than 80 per cent of the casualties were civilians, and a quarter of them children. UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos expressed deep concern about the mounting civilian casualties in Gaza, telling BBC radio that it was almost impossible for Palestinians to shelter from Israeli airstrikes.

Netanyahu said Israel was doing everything it could to minimise casualties, pinning the blame on Hamas for using civilians as human shields. “We seek as best as we can to target (our attackers) but all the civilian deaths that are there – and we regret each one of them – are the responsibility of Hamas,” he said. But he said a decision by the UN's Human Rights Council to probe Israel's actions in Gaza while ignoring ‘rocket fire’ on Israel, was equally grotesque, vowing that it would not stop Israel from acting to ‘defend’ itself.

Netanyahu also expressed gratitude for the fact that British Airways had continued flying to Tel Aviv over the past two days despite many global airlines suspending flights after a rocket from Gaza struck close to the runway of Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv. The suspension of flights was hailed by Hamas as a great victory but early on Thursday, US airlines lifted the ban, with European carriers expected to follow suit later in the day.

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Aaj Kal