Britain’s deputy PM defends Israel but calls for humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza

Oliver Dowden says truce will enable aid to enter enclave and ‘crucially, hostages to come out’; UK’s foreign minister says lasting truce only possible if Hamas leaders exit Strip

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, shakes hands with Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden during a photo session at the third Summit for Democracy in Seoul, South Korea, March 18, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, shakes hands with Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden during a photo session at the third Summit for Democracy in Seoul, South Korea, March 18, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

With tensions growing between Israel and its biggest backers, British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden on Tuesday defended the country’s right to defend itself but called for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza on humanitarian grounds.

Dowden said the British government was “continuously” urging Israel to abide by international humanitarian law and had also raised concerns about getting aid into Gaza, where a humanitarian crisis is raging after over five months of fighting in a war that began with a devastating attack by the Palestinian terror group Hamas.

“That’s why we are calling for an immediate ceasefire to allow that aid in, and crucially, the hostages to come out,” he told Reuters in an interview in Seoul, where he was attending a US-backed Summit for Democracy.

Dowden’s comments came in response to a query about tensions between Israel and its most steadfast allies in the United States over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the war, particularly an expected military push into Rafah, the last Hamas stronghold in the crowded enclave.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron said a pause in the fighting between Israel and the terror group Hamas is vital to enable the release of hostages in Gaza, but a lot of conditions first needed to be met for a lasting ceasefire.

“Crucially what we must try to do is to turn that pause into a permanent sustainable ceasefire,” Cameron told Reuters in an interview during a visit to Thailand.

“We will only do that if a whole lot of conditions are fulfilled… we’ve got to get Hamas leaders out of Gaza, we have to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure,” he said.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron arrives to attend the annual Commonwealth Day Service of Celebration at Westminster Abbey in London, March 11, 2024. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

The United Nations human rights chief, Volker Turk, said on Tuesday that Israel’s restrictions on humanitarian aid for Gaza may amount to a starvation tactic that could be a war crime, after a UN-backed report found famine is likely by May without an end to the fighting. Israel rejected the accusation, saying Turk was seeking “once again to blame Israel for the situation and completely absolve the responsibility of the UN and Hamas.”

US President Joe Biden warned Netanyahu on Monday that an Israeli operation in Rafah would deepen anarchy in Gaza and they agreed that teams from each side would meet in Washington to discuss it.

In a speech on Thursday, US Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, a longtime supporter of Israel and the highest-ranking Jewish elected official, called for new elections in Israel, saying Netanyahu was an obstacle to peace.

Netanyahu responded harshly on Sunday, telling CNN in an interview that Schumer’s speech was “totally inappropriate.” Schumer on Tuesday defended his remarks on calling for Israeli elections during a meeting with US Jewish leaders.

A boy fills water containers from a hose in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 19, 2024 (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The UK’s Dowden stressed his support for Israel, saying there is a risk that the world was forgetting the horrors of October 7, when Hamas carried out a massive cross-border attack from the Gaza Strip that killed 1,200 people in Israel, mostly civilians. Terrorists also abducted 253 people of all ages including the elderly and children, who were taken as hostages to Gaza.

“I continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself, not only for the sake of Israel, but also I think around the world we should be standing up to this kind of barbarism,” Dowden said.

“But what in turn I’ll also say to Israel is that they need to show restraint and proportionality in the way that they prosecute the legitimate war against Hamas.”

In response to the massacre, Israel launched an aerial offensive and ground campaign, vowing to eradicate the terror group, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, and release the hostages.

People search the rubble and debris of a building that was reportedly hit by overnight Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 19, 2024. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The Hamas-run health ministry has said that more than 31,800 people have been killed since October 7, figures that cannot be independently verified and do not differentiate between civilians and combatants, of whom Israel says it has killed more than 13,000. An additional 1,000 terror operatives were said to have been killed inside Israel on and immediately after October 7.

Israel, which checks all trucks entering Gaza, has been under increasing pressure from aid agencies to allow more goods into the territory. It has blamed the UN for not delivering supplies fast enough after they are cleared, and for leading to a general fall-off in deliveries. It also accuses Hamas of stealing aid deliveries for itself, depriving civilians of resources.

Dowden’s remarks came as talks via mediators were held in Qatar to reach at least a temporary ceasefire that would include the release of hostages. A weeklong negotiated lull in November saw the release of 105 hostages, mostly women and children, in return for Israel setting free 240 Palestinian security prisoners held in its jails.

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