The first signs of serious unease are emerging in Conservative ranks about the government’s stance on the conflict in Gaza.

The new foreign secretary has been treading a careful line in recent days. Too careful, think some of his colleagues.

Channel 4 News can reveal that the Conservative MP Margot James has written to Philip Hammond to ask him to rethink government policy towards the war.

Her letter leaves him in no doubt about the strength of feeling not only on the Tory benches, but also in the country at large.

“My constituents, not all of them Muslim, regard the Israeli action as wholly disproportionate to the threat posed by Hamas,” she writes.

She continues: “I ask that the government rethinks policy towards the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“The scale of suffering in Gaza is far too great, the loss of life, and particularly the lives of children and other vulnerable individuals, cannot be justified on the grounds of defence in proportion to the level of threat faced by Israel from Hamas.

“I also think that we should make it clear that it is unacceptable for Israel to just dismiss US proposals for peace without any debate whatsoever.”

This is directly contrary to Hammond’s repeated refusal just a day ago to say whether Israel’s shelling of Gaza was “proportionate”.

In a radio interview he said: “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.”

Bear in mind James has just been appointed parliamentary private secretary to William Hague, who left the Foreign Office only a few weeks ago, and you get a sense of the pressure building on the government.

James goes on to describe herself as “a firm supporter of Israel” for many years. But the shelling of a UN run school (pictured, above) marked, in her view, “a new low” in the conflict.

Other MPs and even ministers agree with her assessment.

One minister told me they were “really disheartened” by Hammond’s apparent unwillingness to upset Israel.

It’s thought that the Foreign Office is making its concerns felt behind the scenes about the horrendous civilian death toll. But that may not wash with MPs for much longer.

They want public condemnation from Her Majesty’s Government, without further delay.

Below: full text of letter

Dear Philip

I am writing to you on behalf of many constituents who have contacted me to register their despair at the loss of life in Gaza.  My constituents, not all of them Muslim, regard the Israeli action as wholly disproportionate to the threat posed by Hamas.

I have for many years been a firm supporter of Israel.  I remain a supporter of Israel’s right to security, and to a state in which their citizens can live without fear of bombardment.  However I do not think that the swift, and terrible, elimination of so many Palestinian lives, homes, hospitals and schools can be deemed a proportionate response to the crude rocket fire to which Israel is undoubtedly subject.

I have visited the town of Sderot and understand, and sympathise with, the concerns, frustrations and fears, of an Isreali community living close to the border with Gaza.  But the rockets fired by Hamas, that I saw there, are of an antiquated nature by comparison with the modern weaponry used by Israel to defend their civilians against such attacks.  Attacks which are in any case rendered virtually victimless by the air missile defence system that Israel has in place.

I accept, perhaps more so than the constituents on whose behalf I am writing to you, that Hamas bears substantial responsibility for the lives lost on both sides.  It seems that the original killings of the three young Israeli men was their doing.  Neutral observers confirm that Hamas, and related factions, fire their rockets from, and maintain their weapons within civilian areas, and worse still, from hospitals and schools.  Likewise the network of tunnels under the border have been built in areas of dense population.  This deliberate use of the lives of innocent Palestinian civilians as, in effect, human shields has undoubtedly made it difficult for Israel to avoid the loss of civilian life.

However, given the sophisticated surveillance systems accessible to the Israeli army surely we could have expected far fewer civilian casualties from these operations?  The shelling of a UN run school, being used as a shelter in Gaza, two days ago, in which fifteen people died, marked a new low in a conflict which has seen a truly terrible level of death and destruction in a very short space of time.

Israel makes the point that Hamas has refused several Israeli offers of a ceasefire; even when tabled by neutral players like Egypt.  However, it should be acknowledged that Israel has also rejected, out of hand, proposals made by the United States that would not only have enabled a ceasefire, but would also have re-started the peace process. The US proposals would have brought all players in this tragic confrontation to the table.  I think that these US proposals are worthy of consideration.  We have seen with Isis in Iraq and Syria that there may well be forces within the Middle East, more extreme and violent than Hamas. 

To conclude I ask that the government rethinks policy towards the conflict in Israel and the Palestinian territories.  The scale of suffering in Gaza is far too great, the loss of life, and particularly the lives of children and other vulnerable individuals, cannot be justified on the grounds of defence in proportion to the level of threat faced by Israel from Hamas.  I also think that we should make it clear that it is unacceptable for Israel to just dismiss US proposals for peace without any debate whatsoever. 

I will end by wishing you and your diplomatic staff well in your endeavours to help bring about a swift and peaceful resolution to this tragic conflict.

Kind regards,

Margot

Margot James MP

Member of Parliament for Stourbridge

PPS to the Rt Hon William Hague MP, Leader of the House

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