Middle East

Britain alarmed over civilian toll in Gaza: Hammond

A Palestinian man looks at a neighboring house which witnesses said was damaged in an Israeli airstrike that killed two children, in the northern Gaza Strip July 24, 2014. (REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Britain is "gravely concerned" by the high number of civilian casualties resulting from Israel's military operation in Gaza, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Thursday.

Speaking on his first official visit to the region since taking over as Britain's top diplomat, Hammond said 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 745 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-defense, acknowledging that 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 cease-fire quickly agreed. We welcomed the earlier cease-fire proposal by Egypt and we were grateful to you, prime minister, for your immediate agreement to it.

"We are disappointed that Hamas has apparently once again rejected cease-fire 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 Center for Human Rights published figures Wednesday showing more than 80 percent of the casualties were civilians, and a quarter of them children.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos expressed deep concern Thursday 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 minimize 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, describing its use of civilians as "grotesque (and) inhuman."

But he said a decision by the U.N.'s Human Rights Council to probe Israel's actions in Gaza while ignoring Palestinian 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 Thursday, U.S. airlines lifted the ban, with European carriers expected to follow suit later in the day.





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