Britain's secretary of state for international development, Douglas Alexander, visited the Gaza Strip this week, thereby becoming the first British minister to visit Gaza since Hamas seized control of it in 2007.

Alexander, 41, went to Gaza to see the effects of Operation Cast Lead "with his own eyes." He met with a father whose children were killed, saw the ruined houses, spoke with businessmen whose factories were destroyed and was "horrified" by the scale of suffering of Gaza residents.

Then, en route to Israel via the Erez Checkpoint, he witnessed a Palestinian rocket attack, and thus saw "the ever-present threat to Israel's population by those who continue to defy the common sense, international law and the interests of both peoples."

Two weeks ago, an American delegation headed by Sen. John Kerry was shocked to discover that Israel's embargo on Gaza includes products such as pasta, lentils and tomato paste. A member of the delegation asked when was the last time a lentil bomb went off?

Alexander complained that this policy makes it harder for him and his colleagues to contend with Israel's critics in Britain. "They remind us that Israel is preventing UNRWA from bringing paper into Gaza," he said in an interview with Haaretz at the end of his trip here. "Is it really possible to build missiles out of paper? They also ask us why Israel bothers distinguishing between rice [which is defined as humanitarian aid] and pasta [which has been banned from the Strip]. This type of charge does not make it easier for those of us who seek to defeat fundamentalism and extremism and who are working in all sincerity for a secure Israel."

Alexander is willing to accept Israel's view that it had no choice but to launch its Gaza operation. "I condemned the missile attacks prior to December 27 - which unfortunately still continue today - in the clearest possible manner," he said.

But he does not rule out various European initiatives to try Israeli politicians and army officers for alleged war crimes in Gaza: There have been serious allegations made against these people, he said, "and it would be right to investigate these allegations."

Alexander prefers to focus on humanitarian aid. In Gaza, he announced a 30 million pound sterling aid package for the Strip, and urged Israel to make it easier for aid to enter Gaza. Despite a recent meeting between British parliamentarians and Hamas representatives in Beirut, Alexander insisted that Britain is committed to boycotting Hamas unless it meets the Quartet's conditions.

He declined to speculate about the next Israeli government, but stressed that any formula for peace must be based on two crucial elements: a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian state.