Straw slams Israel's use of 'disproportionate' violence

FORMER Foreign Secretary Jack Straw today issued a strong warning that Israeli attacks on Lebanon were making the situation in the Middle East worse.

As Tony Blair flew out to Washington for talks with George Bush, the Commons Leader became the first UK Cabinet Minister to label the Israeli military action as "disproportionate".

He made clear the continuing assault risked destroying the Lebanese government and opening up the Middle East to further terrorism.

Mr Straw, who is privately unhappy at the UK-US support for the Israeli action, issued a statement after meeting community leaders in his constituency of Blackburn.

He echoed the words of Middle East minister Kim Howells that the current tough Israeli action was "disproportionate".

Mr Straw said Mr Howells was right to tell the Israelis: "If you want to go for Hezbeollah, go for Hezbollah, don't go for the whole Lebanese nation."

And in a highly significant passage, Mr Straw's statement added: "Disproportionate action only escalates an already dangerous situation. One of many serious concerns I have is that the continuation of such tactics by the Israelis could further destabilise the already fragile Lebanese nation."

Mr Straw defended the right of the Israelis to defend themselves from terrorist attack. And he expressed sympathy for the Israeli victims of the conflict, but also for the "ten times as many" Lebanese civilians killed or injured.

Neither Mr Blair nor Mr Straw's successor as Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, has been willing to use such strong language.

It is understood Mr Straw did not clear his comments with the Prime Minister, but Mr Blair was aware of what he was planning to say.

Israeli warplanes pounded 130 targets in Lebanon overnight, including a Hezbollah base in the Bekaa Valley.

And today Israel struck three buildings in a village near the market town of Nabatiyeh in southern Lebanon, killing three people and wounding nine, including four children.

Britain and America have been criticised for failing to join calls for an immediate end to Israeli attacks on Lebanon - with both insisting any peace must be "sustainable".

But sources said the Prime Minister was now ready to urge the US President to back a ceasefire "as a matter of urgency".

Mr Blair is said to be concerned that pro-western Arab governments are "getting squeezed", giving a boost to militants. Reports claimed the Prime Minister's private view was that Mr Bush is "prevaricating" and allowing the conflict to run on too long.

But Mr Bush has shown no sign of changing course and instead appeared to threaten Iran. He said: "Hezbollah attacked Israel. I know Hezbollah is connected to Iran. Now is the time for the world to confront this danger."

Meanwhile, Israeli media reported that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - who has been talking about the crisis with European foreign policy chief Javier Solana at a forum in Malaysia - will fly to Israel tomorrow night for a meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday.

Today's meeting in Washington between Blair and Bush, planned before the latest Middle East bloodshed erupted, will now be dominated by the conflict .

But Mr Blair was not expected to raise the Americans' use of Prestwick Airport as a staging post for flights taking bombs to Israel without proper authorisation.

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett has already protested about the flights, but the Americans have played down the issue.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell today said the Americans should be banned from using Prestwick and other UK airports to supply arms to Israel.

There were reports today that America has lodged two more requests to use Prestwick for the transfer of more missiles.