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Britain’s foreign secretary warned Wednesday that longtime ally Israel is “undermining” support from the West as civilian casualties mount in the Gaza Strip.
The nearly month-long conflict has claimed the lives of more than 1,250 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials. Fifty-three Israeli soldiers have died since the offensive was launched on July 8, and three Israeli civilians have been killed by militants' rockets.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he has told Israel’s government that Western public opinion – which has largely been sympathetic in the wake of rocket attacks launched from Gaza - “is rapidly turning against” the country due to the scale of its offensive against Hamas.
“Israelis have to understand that while they are defending their security in seeking to root out these rocket launchers and deal with the attack tunnels, they are also undermining the support for Israel that exists in the West,” Hammond told BBC radio when asked about a deadly attack on a U.N. school in Gaza on Wednesday.
The foreign secretary took a much sterner tone than Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron, who along with the White House has expressed concern over mounting casualties but repeatedly stressed Israel’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks. The U.S. consistently has laid the blame for the escalation in hostilities on Hamas provocation, while joining the U.N. in calling for an immediate ceasefire.
Hammond's strident remarks come amid mounting diplomatic pressure on Israel, which already has drawn condemnation from U.N. agencies. Chile and Peru have recalled its ambassadors over what Chile described as "great concern" over "what appear to be a collective punishment" to Gaza's Palestinians.
Hammond called the situation in Gaza a “catastrophe” and adding that the U.K. has urged Israel from the beginning to take “the greatest care” in avoiding civilian casualties.
He noted that “both sides have legitimate concerns and demands,” but said those can only be addressed once a cease-fire has been reached.
“The world is appalled by what it’s seeing and is united in demanding of both sides an unconditional and immediate cease-fire,” Hammond added. “That is the way to stop the death toll mounting and to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people.”
The foreign secretary was repeatedly pressed over whether he considered Israel’s actions “proportionate,” but called the term “emotive” and refused to be drawn in.
“In the fullness of time there will be proper evaluation of what has gone on, what these military actions were targeted against,” he told the BBC journalist. “In due course, the claims on both sides will need to be investigated.”