Ministers accused of giving Israel green light to bomb

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Indy Politics

Ministers faced strong criticism from across the House of Commons yesterday as MPs accused the Government of helping to fuel the crisis in the Middle East.

Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, faced angry claims from Labour and Opposition benches that the Government had given diplomatic cover to continued Israeli bombing by failing to call for an immediate ceasefire.

In the Commons, Labour MPs led by Clare Short, the former international development secretary, attacked the Government for its stance on Israeli attacks.

Ms Short warned that "massive killing of innocent Lebanese civilians and destruction of infrastructure" amounted to a war crime. She said: "We are heading for further violence and catastrophe. And I'm sad to say that our Government is following President Bush's errors and pouring petrol on the flames."

Privately some senior ministers said they were "appalled" that Mrs Beckett had failed to visit the region to demonstrate British concern at the scale of the Israeli bombardment. Mrs Beckett told the Cabinet that those calling for a halt to hostilities, including the French government, were in effect demanding a one-sided ceasefire.

She told MPs Britain was committed to ending the conflict and maintained that Britain had urged restraint on all sides, and said she "regretted" loss of life.

But MPs queued up to criticise the Government. Joan Ruddock, Labour MP for Lewisham Deptford and a former minister, asked Mrs Beckett: "There can be no doubt that Hizbollah started this conflict. But would she not agree that the response by Israel with 300 Lebanese civilians dead, 1,000 injured, and half a million people dispossessed, is utterly disproportionate?"

Michael Ancram, the former shadow foreign secretary, asked: "Does she believe that the action taken by the Israeli government, understandable initially as a response against terrorism, is proportionate or disproportionate?"

Chris Mullin, a former Foreign Office minister, said: "Is it not just a tiny bit shameful that although we rightly condemn Hizbollah for what they have done, we can find nothing stronger than the word regret to describe the slaughter and misery and mayhem that Israel has unleashed on a fragile country like Lebanon?"

Mrs Beckett insisted that Syria and Iran were "giving support" to Hizbollah. She said: "Syria finances Hizbollah and facilitates the transfer of weapons including thousands of weapons which appear to be supplied by Iran."

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: "Both myself and others have repeatedly asked for the Prime Minister to support an even-handed response. We all accept the Hizbollah should be condemned.

"Tony Blair must now accept that Israel's actions are disproportionate and amount to collective punishment. There should be an immediate ceasefire as Kofi Annan has now confirmed."