Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, after what is believed to have been the deadliest day of the conflict on Tuesday, when 128 Palestinians died.

New Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond

New Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond

Mr Hammond acknowledged that an end to the bloodshed did not appear close, but said the UK was involved in work behind the scenes on an Egyptian peace plan which could lead to wider discussions on the issues underlying the conflict.

He was speaking as news emerged of Israeli tank shells hitting a United Nations school in Jebaliya refugee camp which was crowded with thousands of Palestinians sheltering from the fighting, causing 15 deaths and more than 90 injuries.

The overall Palestinian death toll in the three-week conflict stands at 1,258 at least, with more than 7,100 wounded, according to local health officials. Israel has lost 53 soldiers and three civilians.

The Israeli military said it hit 75 sites, including five mosques it claimed were being used by militants.

Reports suggested that a delegation of Palestinians was heading for Cairo to discuss the Egyptian proposals.

But asked if the international community was any closer to brokering a ceasefire, Mr Hammond told Sky News: “I’m afraid we are not, if people are insisting on preconditions.

“What we are saying to both sides, what the United Nations are saying to both sides, what the whole international community is saying to both sides, is that the humanitarian necessity must come first. We must stop the bloodshed now by an unconditional ceasefire by both sides.

“We then recognise that there is a need to move immediately to talks about the stack of issues that are underlying this conflict – the way in which Gaza has been blockaded, the conditions in which the people of Gaza are living, the threats to Israel’s security from Hamas, rocket attacks and tunnel attacks from Gaza.

“All of these things absolutely do need to be discussed. But first we have got to stop the killing.”

Israeli tanks near the Gaza border. Photo: Jinipix/Israel Sun

Israeli tanks near the Gaza border. Photo: Jinipix/Israel Sun

Mr Hammond added: “Behind the scenes there are a lot of people doing a lot of work talking to both sides trying to get a practical focus on stopping the bloodshed. And then a rapid move to substantive discussions about future conditions of Gaza.

“The Egyptians have a proposal on the table for a three-stage process. Everybody is behind the Egyptian proposals. The Qataris and the Turks are working very hard to leverage their influence on Hamas. We are talking to all sides in this dispute.

“I think what public opinion, not just in the Arab world but across the entire world, wants to see is an immediate ceasefire. And public opinion will not understand why either side refuses to accept an immediate ceasefire in order to end this suffering.”

Mr Hammond refused to say whether he thought Israel’s actions in Gaza were disproportionate.

Asked five times on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme whether he thought Israel’s military action was disproportionate, he said there will be a proper evaluation of the offensive “in the fullness of time”.

His comments differ sharply from those of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who accused Israel of imposing a “disproportionate form of collective punishment” on Gaza.

The Foreign Secretary initially said “disproportionate” was an “emotive word”, before adding: “What Israel does in Gaza must be proportionate. That’s a requirement of international law.

“It would not be legal if it was not proportionate.”

After being asked a fifth time, he told the programme: “People will jump to judgments. In the fullness of time there will be proper evaluation of what has gone on, what these military actions were targeted against.

“Israel will argue that the actions it has taken are taken against military targets and that Hamas has deliberately planted military installations in the middle of civilian areas, using civilians as human shields.

“In due course, the claims on both sides will need to be investigated. What is needed right now is an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.”