Exclusive interview: New Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond speaks to the SNJ about the escalating crisis in Gaza

New Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond visited the SNJ office today, Thursday

New Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond with SNJ editor Sue Smith during a visit to the office in Lansdown, Stroud today

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Stroud News and Journal: Photograph of the Author Exclusive by , Reporter

FOREIGN secretary Phillip Hammond visited the Stroud News & Journal office for a whistle-stop tour this afternoon, Thursday.

After being shown around the newsroom in Lansdown, Mr Hammond sat down with reporter Kate Wilson to discuss his impromptu visit to the town and the escalating situation in Gaza.

Mr Hammond had been in Cheltenham earlier in the day visiting GCHQ to show his support for the staff and the work they do following a difficult year plagued mainly by the Snowden revelations.

His visit to the intelligence gathering centre was part of his new role as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth affairs – a position he was granted in the recent Government reshuffle replacing William Hague.

He has stepped into the role at a time when the world’s foreign affairs are in crisis and has spent his first two weeks juggling the escalating ebola epidemic in west Africa and pressure to enforce Russian sanctions in the aftermath of MH17.

However, speaking to the SNJ, Mr Hammond said the most trying aspect of the last two weeks was the terrible ongoing escalating humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

When asked what Britain was doing to end the violence, Mr Hammond said the focus is trying to get an unconditional ceasefire, although this proving very difficult.

“Dealing with Hamas and the Israelis is challenging because they have diametrically opposed views of the world,” he said.

“Britain along with the Americans, the French, the Egyptians and the Germans are trying to persuade them that the first thing is simply to stop the killing.

“Once we get a ceasefire in place we can discuss all the other issues, and we will, but we do have to stop all the attacks and counter attacks first.

“Unfortunately at the moment neither side is prepared to call an unconditional ceasefire and both sides are setting pre-conditions for a ceasefire which are unrealistic.”

Since Israel began its offensive in Gaza on July 8 more than 1,300 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians.

In the most controversial incident on Wednesday, at least 16 people were killed when shells hit a UN-run school in the Jabaliya district of Gaza City.

Some 58 Israelis have been killed, 56 of whom were soldiers and two civilians. A Thai worker in Israel has also died.

“We can’t stop the attacks that are going on but we can provide humanitarian support,” said Mr Hammond.

In the last few days the Government has announced £10 million of emergency support and according to the Foreign Secretary it will continue to provide whatever material resources are required.

The UK is working very closely with America, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt in an international effort to broker a solution.

“Britain on its own can’t solve this crisis but we can be part of an international community effort,” he added.

“We don’t have direct relations with Hamas but Turkey and Qatar do. We have direct relations with Israel and will try to influence the Israeli response.”

Mr Hammond refuted claims made by Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George earlier today urging David Cameron to show international leadership in the Gaza crisis. “The one thing the international community is not lacking in leadership.

“We are all behind the Egyptian Initiative, which is also supported by the US but the problem is that neither the two protagonists will accept the central requirements of the initiative which is an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire.

“Israel demands that Gaza be demilitarised before it will ceasefire and Hamas demands that all the border crossings are unconditionally opened and neither of those is a realistic opening position.

“We have to have a ceasefire first then we will have a long and complicated negotiation about the demands of both sides.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned Wednesday’s strike on a Gaza school, where it is believed Israeli artillery was the cause, as ‘unjustifiable’ calling for those responsible to be held to account.

Mr Hammond said that damage to civilian shelters, whether they are in UN buildings or not is ‘disturbing’ “Israel knows, and we are continuously emphasising to them, that all their responses have to be legal and it is not possible from the outside at the moment to analyse and say definitively what happened and who was doing what.

“However in the fullness of time each of the parties will have to account for their actions.

“The shelling of various schools and shelters in Gaza are deeply regrettable and we are all appalled by the loss of life but the issue is about what the targets were.

“Whether they were military targets being attacked and whether the attack on those military targets was proportional – and that is a complicated question.

“I know there are a large number of people who have made up their minds about proportionality simply by looking at the casualty figures but in terms of international war that is not the criteria that will be applied.

“On the one hand we have to look at how the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) have acted in Gaza and on the other hand we have to look at the IDF claim that Hamas has deliberately concealed military positions and rocket launchers in areas of civilian population, such as houses, schools, nurseries and hospitals and in some cases have prevented civilians from leaving areas after Israel has issued warnings.

“All of these claims and counter claims are impossible to investigate properly in the heat of war but they will be looked into.”

Discussing Britain’s ability to influence Israel into a ceasefire, Mr Hammond said the main problem was the overwhelming support in the country for the continued military response.

“There is a real feeling on the ground in Israel that the country’s security is under direct threat and across the political spectrum there is huge political approval for ground incursion into Gaza. 

“It is quite unusual in Israeli politics to have across the spectrum political support for anything so there is a real challenge for those of us on the outside who are urging this action to stop.”

When asked about the likelihood of an unconditional ceasefire Mr Hammond said he wasn’t optimistic it was going to happen in the very near future.

“I think we will get to a ceasefire but I’m not optimistic that it’s going to happen tonight, or tomorrow,” he said.

“We have been trying for 10 days now to achieve it. We have had one or two false starts and if anything the two parties are more intransigently dug in than they were 10 days ago but we won’t stop working at it.”

The foreign secretary also dismissed the need to re-call Parliament as he believed there would be no real purpose in doing so.

“I have no doubt of the mood among members opinion and I have no doubt of the mood of public opinion around the UK,” he added.

"If Parliament was sitting it would be urging the Government to do everything possible to secure an immediate ceasefire and that is what we are doing."

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