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Two British hostages still held by Hamas, Cameron confirms

Foreign secretary worried Israel may have broken international law, but refuses to criticise its actions in Gaza

Archie Mitchell
Political correspondent
Tuesday 09 January 2024 20:53 GMT
David Cameron says two-state solution is still 'feasible' between Israel and Palestine

Two British nationals are being held hostage by Hamas, David Cameron confirmed in his first full questioning by MPs since returning to government late last year. The foreign secretary also said he had concerns that Israel may have acted in breach of international law in the Middle East conflict, but that it was not his job to make a “legal adjudication” about the country’s actions.

During a tense exchange with SNP MP Brendan O’Hara, Lord Cameron said he had seen information in respect of the crisis that is “deeply concerning” but would not say whether he had received legal advice suggesting that laws had been breached.

The former prime minister told the Commons foreign affairs select committee: “If you’re asking me am I worried that Israel has taken action that might be in breach of international law, because this particular premises has been bombed or whatever – yes, of course I’m worried about that, and that’s why I consult the Foreign Office lawyers when giving this advice on arms exports.”

Lord Cameron also called on Israel to restore the water supply in Gaza, and confirmed that the two hostages were still being held along with others who are “very connected to Britain”.

He said the government is doing “everything we can” to relieve suffering. An estimated 240 people were taken prisoner in Gaza after Hamas’s 7 October attacks against Israel. Some 105 were released during a ceasefire in November.

Pressed on whether it is a breach of international law to turn water off in an occupied territory, Lord Cameron refused to answer. His permanent under secretary in the Foreign Office, Sir Philip Robert Barton, said it is a breach of international law.

Foreign secretary David Cameron confirmed the number of British hostages still being held in Gaza (PA Wire)

Tory chair of the committee Alicia Kearns pressed Lord Cameron on whether he had received any advice saying that Israel is in breach of international law. “I can’t recall every single piece of paper put in front of me,” he said.

But, in a bid for caution on the part of the Israeli government, he added that he “would have differences” with how Israel has responded to the Hamas attacks on 7 October.

More than 22,000 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel launched its attack on the territory, with the vast majority of victims being women and children, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian health ministry.

Speaking after the committee hearing, Ms Kearns said that she did not think Lord Cameron had provided clear answers to MPs on the issue of Israel and international law. She told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that she believed Israel, as an occupying power in Gaza, had breached international humanitarian law.

“The reality is that it is not always for courts to make determinations,” she said. “On issues such as international humanitarian law, and whether or not it has been broken or not, I made the point to him [that] he has previously made those determinations from the despatch box as prime minister.”

Relatives of a man killed in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday prepare for his burial (AFP)

The foreign secretary also that said a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine is possible, as the conflict in Gaza rages on. “Out of a crisis should come some opportunity,” Lord Cameron said.

Asked if the two-state solution, which would see Israel remain alongside an independent Palestinian state, is “remotely feasible” after the bitter war, he replied: “Yes, you’ve got to hope that it’s feasible.”

Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson was asked whether the prime minister shares Lord Cameron’s concerns that Israel may be violating international law. He replied: “It’s an issue we continue to keep under review, and obviously we have made our views clear to the Israeli government at a number of levels on this.”

It came as US secretary of state Antony Blinken urged Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet to maintain a path towards the creation of a Palestinian state.

Mr Blinken, who toured Israel’s Arab neighbours for talks on plans for the future governance of Gaza and integration in the Middle East, said earlier that he would be discussing the “way forward” for the war during the meetings.

He met one-on-one with Mr Netanyahu at Tel Aviv’s Kirya military base, and then with the war cabinet that was formed in the wake of the attacks by Palestinian Hamas militants.

Antony Blinken, left, meets with Israel’s foreign minister Israel Katz, second right, on Tuesday (Getty)

Repeating the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s right to prevent a repeat of the attacks, Mr Blinken “stressed the importance of avoiding further civilian harm and protecting civilian infrastructure in Gaza”, US state department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.

As well as trying to damp down regional tensions, Mr Blinken has been discussing plans for the future governance of Gaza, which could involve Israel’s Muslim-majority neighbours.

Mr Blinken earlier met with Israel’s president Isaac Herzog and foreign minister Israel Katz. He told Mr Katz there were opportunities for regional integration and connectivity “but we have to get through this very challenging moment”.

In the meeting with Mr Netanyahu, Mr Blinken “reiterated the need to ensure lasting, sustainable peace for Israel and the region, including by the realisation of a Palestinian state”, Mr Miller said.

Mr Blinken was also set to meet with families of hostages taken by Hamas, and discuss the “relentless efforts” to bring them back.

Several dozen protesters gathered outside the hotel where Mr Blinken was having meetings and called for a ceasefire to secure the release of hostages.

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