David Cameron has declined to say whether he believes Israel’s actions in Gaza are “criminal”, as a tentative ceasefire takes effect.
The Prime Minister was criticised by Ed Miliband over the weekend for failing to take a tough enough line with Tel Aviv over the crisis.
The Labour leader said the UK needed to send a clear message that the military operation was “wrong and unacceptable”.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast this morning, Mr Cameron said UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon had been right to condemn an Israeli strike near a UN-run school in Gaza as “a moral outrage and a criminal act”.
But he stopped short of using the same language himself, insisting: “I think the UN is right to speak out in the way that it has, because international law is very clear that there must not be the targeting of civilians or the targeting of schools if that is what has happened.
“The UN as the international body is right to speak out in the way it has.”
Pressed on whether he regarded the attack as a “criminal act”, Mr Cameron replied: “The UN has spoken very clearly and I think they are right to speak very clearly…
“I’m not an international lawyer, so that’s up to international lawyers. But international law is very, very clear that the use of force always has to be proportionate and civilians should not be targeted.”
Mr Cameron said the Government had been “very clear that there needs to be an immediate comprehensive humanitarian ceasefire, that we want this conflict to stop”.
“We obviously do think it is appalling the loss of life that there has been,” he said. “From the start, though, we have also made the point that if the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel stop then that would be probably the fastest way to stop this conflict.”
A ceasefire intended to open a “humanitarian window” in Gaza began at 7am UK time, although the Israeli military has said it will not apply to areas where troops are still operating and where they would respond to any attacks.
The ground element of the four-week operation to tackle heavy rocket fire and tunnel incursions from Gaza is believed to be scaling down, although air strikes have been continuing. An estimated 1,800 Palestinians – a third of them said to be civilians – and more than 60 Israelis have died.
Ten people were killed in the latest incident at a UN school in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, which had been converted into a shelter. The Red Crescent charity said the attack happened while people were queuing to get food from aid workers.
Israel’s ambassador to London, Daniel Taub, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the human suffering and loss of life in Gaza was “appalling”.
But he added: “I think we need to stop for a moment and remember exactly what is happening.
“Hamas’ strategy… is to operate from the vicinity of UN facilities, of hospitals.
“We are aware that there are terrorist organisations across the world… who are watching what is happening in Gaza asking themselves ‘Have we found the Achilles heel of democracies fighting terrorism?’
“In that situation, not responding is simply not an option.”
Asked whether Israel would still strike if its own citizens were the victims, he replied: “The answer is yes. We cannot have a situation where terrorists prove that hiding behind civilians is a way of getting carte blanche.”
The ambassador called the most recent attack on a UN school a “tragic incident” and stressed that Israel was investigating what had happened.
But he added: “Three times over the past week and a half we have found UN schools… that have been used as stockpiles, as storage houses. It is clearly not appropriate that schools, hospitals should be used for this sort of activity.”
Mr Miliband suggested that Mr Cameron was out of step with public feeling in Britain, arguing: “The Government needs to send a much clearer message to Israel that its actions in Gaza are unacceptable and unjustifiable.
“What I want to hear from David Cameron is that he believes that Israel’s actions in Gaza are wrong and unjustified, and we haven’t heard that from him. I think that’s what the British public are thinking as they are seeing these tragic events unfolding on our television screens.”
But Downing Street has insisted: “The Prime Minister has been clear that both sides in the Gaza conflict need to observe a ceasefire. We are shocked that Ed Miliband would seek to misrepresent that position and play politics with such a serious issue.”