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Downing Street 'appalled' by Gaza violence

Downing Street said today it was "appalled" at the deteriorating situation in the Gaza Strip after a third day of Israeli air strikes against the Palestinian enclave.

As the death toll rose above 325 and Israel promised a "war to the bitter end", Number 10 stepped up demands for a halt to the violence from both sides.

And United Nations secretary general Ban Ki Moon tonight condemned Israel's actions as "excessive" and demanded an immediate ceasefire.

But the US stopped short of calling for an end to the strikes against Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown held talks with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Olmert, today in which he urged access for humanitarian teams.

The devastation caused by the strikes have overwhelmed hospitals and exacerbated shortages of fuel, food and medicines in Gaza.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "We are appalled by the continuing violence in Gaza and reiterate our call to Israel and Hamas for an immediate ceasefire to prevent further loss of innocent life.

"In his discussions today with Prime Minister Olmert and (Palestinian Authority) President (Mahmoud) Abbas, the Prime Minister has also pressed for full, unimpeded and urgent access for medical teams: a humanitarian breathing space.

"We are in close contact with the UN to assess how best this support can reach those who need it.

"There is no military solution to this situation. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary remain in constant touch with international and regional partners to establish the parameters for a sustainable peace.

"We must redouble the international effort to ensure that both Israel and Palestine have the land, rights and security to live in peace."

Israeli ministers insist their actions are designed to put an end to rocket attacks against their own territory, which have so far claimed two lives.

Palestinian officials said their death toll was now more than 325, with at least 700 wounded.

Most are members of Hamas's security forces, but the UN said at least 57 civilians were among the dead.

In a statement earlier, Foreign Secretary David Miliband expressed "grave concern" over the situation.

"The rise in rocket attacks on Israel since December 19, and yesterday's massive loss of life, make this a dangerous moment which should be of concern to the whole of the international community," he said.

In an apparent expression of solidarity with Mr Abbas, whose Fatah party holds power in the West Bank but has lost control of Gaza to Hamas, Mr Miliband said support should be given to leaders who are committed to peaceful negotiations.

He called on Arab leaders to make clear that the interests of the Palestinian people lie in the creation of a viable state alongside Israel, not in continuing conflict.

"This is an important opportunity for Arab leaders to make clear that the interests of the Palestinian people can only be secured through a viable Palestinian state existing alongside a secure Israel," Mr Miliband said.

Campaigners throughout Britain organised emergency demonstrations today, with many protesters gathering outside the Israeli embassy in west London this evening.

Among the noisy crowds in Kensington, West London, were several Jewish groups voicing their anger at the Israeli Government.

Rabbi Chaim Blair, 22, Anti-Zionist Jew, said: "We're here for the same reason as everyone else.

"We're totally with the Palestinians and their suffering.

"We have no problem with the Palestinian people; we want to live together with them in peace."

Representatives of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network were also waving their banner alongside those of a number of Arab groups.

The crowds chanted: "Free, free Palestine - Occupation is a crime," and "Stop the killing, stop the crime - Israel out of Palestine".

Jihad Kader, 19, a student at King's College, London, said: "Protesting is the least we can do. Everyone wants Palestine to be free; we want the killing to stop."

Police said the section of High Street Kensington occupied by the protesters would remain closed to traffic until they dispersed.

Members of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign also gathered in towns and cities including Cardiff, Birmingham, Halifax and Sheffield.

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague backed Mr Miliband's call for an end to hostilities, but warned there is little leverage Britain can exert over the immediate situation in Gaza.

Mr Hague told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "Where I think the leverage comes in is over the medium and longer term, in the new administration in America, supported by allies like Britain, really giving huge emphasis and momentum to the Middle East peace process in the coming year.

"Then situations such as that in Gaza can be improved and that does require, of course, compromises on all sides, from Palestinians and from Israelis - certainly for Israel over the settlement policy in the West Bank - so that there can be some chance of achieving peace with moderate Palestinians.

"That would leave Hamas more isolated and Israel secure, so it is in the interests of Israel to do these things."

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Edward Davey said the Israeli response was "utterly disproportionate".

"The rocket attacks by Hamas are totally unacceptable, but Israel ought to have learnt from its attack on Lebanon which only served to strengthen the cause of extremism.

"If David Miliband does not realise this action is disproportionate then he must be the last person in Britain who thinks so."

Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak told the Kesset parliament that the country was not fighting the residents of Gaza.

But he added: "We have a war to the bitter end against Hamas and its branches," he said.

He added that the goal was to deal Hamas a severe blow and that the operation would be "widened and deepened as needed."

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