A deal between Israel and Hamas will inevitably be reached in the end, so the Government should oppose a ground invasion of Gaza, the shadow foreign secretary has said.
Douglas Alexander said the variable involved would be the number of children and civilians killed by the fighting before both sides eventually reach an uneasy truce. He urged Tobias Ellwood, the new Middle East minister, to signal a shift in position.
But Mr Ellwood said the Government was working towards a ceasefire and said Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond would fly to the region shortly.
Raising the Gaza crisis at Foreign Office Questions, Mr Alexander said: “Operation Protective Edge has already cost over 580 Palestinian lives, most of them civilians and many of them innocent children.
“Last week I warned an Israeli ground operation in Gaza would bring more suffering for the Palestinians and would be a strategic error for Israel.
“The Opposition is clear we oppose this escalation. Does the Government?”
Mr Ellwood replied: “You are right to remind the House of the heavy death toll being endured there… these are matters 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 said: “That was a troubling answer even for a new colleague welcomed to your position on the front bench. I welcome the fact the US secretary of state John Kerry has travelled to Cairo seeking an urgent ceasefire.
“But the pattern of rocket attacks, periodic invasion and permanent occupation does not bring security for Israel and brings further humiliation and suffering for the Palestinians.
“As in the past, this incursion will end with an agreement. The question is how many more children and civilians need to die before such an agreement is reached.
“Do you accept the absence of such an agreement will recruit more terrorists at exactly the point Hamas had been weakened by events in Tehran, in Syria and Egypt?”
Mr Ellwood replied: “I think you miss the point – the work that has been going on is in order to try and achieve a ceasefire, which is why the Foreign Secretary, who is in Brussels at the moment, will be flying to the region very shortly.
“We must not also forget Hamas is firing an average of 147 rockets every single day. Were that to stop, then the situation in Gaza would change significantly.”
Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale said: “We have seen kids being bombed on beaches, tanks attacking hospitals, hundreds of civilians – babies, mothers, patients – being killed.
“Thousands of Rochdale people and millions of people in the United Kingdom expect their Government to condemn more and understand less. Will you call Israel to account over their actions in Gaza?”
Mr Ellwood replied: “Nobody can fail but be moved by the incredible and heart-wrenching scenes we have seen on television. I spoke to the Israeli ambassador and the Palestinian head of mission to the UK yesterday and I raised concerns about the civilian deaths and casualties with the Israeli ambassador and urged him to ensure any allegations relating to the proportionality be investigated and he assured me this would be the case.”
Liberal Democrat Sir Bob Russell, MP for Colchester said: “Will you confirm if the Foreign Secretary last week, when he was the Defence Secretary, ordered his troops to fire on civilian communities in the way the Israelis have, he would be guilty of a war crime?”
Mr Ellwood replied: “I don’t think I’m going to get drawn into that – I think you raised the same issue with the Prime Minister yesterday and I think I’ll leave the comments there.”
Labour’s Andy McDonald, MP for Middlesbrough said: “Last week four boys all from the Bakr family aged seven to 11 years… had been playing hide and seek amongst the fisherman’s huts at the Gaza City harbour when, as they ran along the beach, their bodies were ripped to shreds in an instant by an incoming Israeli shell.
“What threat did those little boys pose to Israeli security and will you condemn the murderous behaviour of Israel as completely disproportionate and a crime against humanity?”
Mr Ellwood replied: “You make an important point implicitly that this location, the battlefield where this is being conducted, is in fact one of the most populous areas on the planet and Hamas and Israeli armed forces are conducting these operations in very densely populated areas.
“Unfortunately this is also where the tunnel systems are also operating and where on average 147 rockets are hitting Israel every single day. But as I said before, there are questions to be raised about the civilians and I put those to the Israeli ambassador yesterday.”
Former Conservative Middle East minister Alistair Burt said: “Whilst it is essential for there to be an urgent ceasefire, the reason why Gaza is ablaze again remains the same reason as ever – the inability of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Israel to make the necessary concessions to each other to ensure a Middle East peace agreement.
“Would you use your time in office to make sure the United Kingdom does all in its power together with friends in Washington and all the Arab states to drive the parties together again for the negotiations each must make with the other and ensure they do understand that whatever the justification for their actions – and God knows we have heard and sympathised with them all for decades – it is no longer worth the lives of any more little boys and little girls?”
Mr Ellwood said: “You are right to say we must participate with other nations in looking for a long-term solution. 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 stability of both Israel and Gaza will not be secured.”
Richard Benyon, Conservative MP for Newbury questioned Mr Ellwood on the use of white phosphorous in the conflict by the Israeli Defence Forces.
He said: “Many of us were appalled to see the use of white phosphorous shells in a previous incursion into Gaza.
“Will you inform the Israeli ambassador, and all sides in this conflict, that the eyes of the world are on them and whatever the reasons for prosecuting this conflict, it is how it is prosecuted that we will be watching very carefully indeed.”
Mr Ellwood replied: “This issue of the use of white phosphorous and, indeed, cluster munitions as well was raised in the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday.
“We have seen, to date, no evidence they have been used during recent events in Gaza. However, our defence section in Tel Aviv will approach the Israeli Defence Forces and enquire as to whether they are being used in this current campaign.”