Rishi Sunak has raised with Benjamin Netanyahu Israel’s need to minimise the impact on civilians as it prepares to launch an expected ground invasion of Gaza in the aftermath of Hamas’s deadly attack.
The prime minister repeated his belief that Israel had “every right to defend itself and its people to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again”.
But he said he had had a conversation with the Israeli premier in which he raised “the need to minimise the impact on civilians as best we can”.
Speaking on a visit to a Jewish school in north London, Mr Sunak said he had also raised the humanitarian situation in Gaza – where so far 2,700 Palestinians have been killed and 9,700 people wounded in retaliatory airstrikes by Israel.
The prime minister’s visit precedes a statement he will give in parliament later today in which he is expected to give a fuller condemnation of Hamas.
The UN has warned that hospitals across Gaza are expected to run out of fuel within 24 hours.
Israel, which controls almost all crossings into Gaza, has ramped up already strict blockades until hostages are released, while hundreds of tonnes of aid from several countries have been held up in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula for days pending a deal for its safe delivery to Gaza.
Israel launched its airstrikes in the aftermath of the surprise attack by Hamas on Saturday which killed 1,400 people and left 3,500 wounded.
According to the Israeli military, at least 199 people are being held hostage in Gaza.
The UK’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly indicated that around 10 British people were among them.
Mr Sunak said Israel’s operations must centre on Hamas, telling reporters: “Israel has been very clear that Hamas is the entity that’s responsible for this and what they want to do is ensure that their people are safe and that this doesn’t happen again, and that the focus of the attention of self-defence is on Hamas.
“And I think that’s right, nobody wants to see regional escalation. And certainly the Israeli prime minister does not, when I’ve spoken to him.”
He added: “Israel has given people advance notice of what’s happening, given them the opportunity to leave and it’s Hamas who is now telling people to stay behind, it’s Hamas that is embedding itself inside civilian populations and that is just an example of the barbarity with which they operate.
“They are not doing the right thing by the Palestinian people by those actions, and they should be held accountable for that.”
Mr Sunak’s statement to the Commons is expected to set out how the UK is supporting Israel and aiding British nationals caught in the fighting while also detailing ministers’ response to the humanitarian situation inside Gaza, which sparked a number of demonstrations across the UK at the weekend.
Will this conflict exacerbate divisions here in the UK?
On a visit to a Jewish school in north London this morning, the prime minister reiterated the government’s unwavering support for the Jewish community.
But with a backdrop of a rise in antisemitic incidents and images emerging of demonstrators wearing a picture of a paraglider (akin to those who killed festival goers in Israel as part of the Hamas attacks), concerns about tensions escalating here in the UK won’t be calmed easily.
Asked if he was worried the conflict in the Middle East was driving division here at home in the UK, Sunak explained that antisemitism would be met with the full force of the law.
He explained that the police are currently reviewing footage of scenes he described as unacceptable and that they will make further arrests as and where they can.
And following a roundtable last week with police chiefs and Home Secretary Suella Braverman, the prime minister wants to be seen to be tough on crime as the leader of a party that claims to be focused on law and order; especially at a time where the country’s prisons are full and prisoners are potentially being let out early or spared jail time to make room for those who have committed more serious crimes.
But interestingly not all of the British public appear, for now, to be seeing eye to eye with the prime minister when it comes to where their sympathies lie.
According to recent polling from YouGov, 21% said they supported Israel whereas 15% supported the Palestinian side.
However, what is most striking is that 45% said they didn’t know which side their sympathies lay with, demonstrating the lack of clear cut public support in either direction.
The prime minister said he was “determined to ensure that our Jewish community is able to feel safe on our streets” following the protests.
“There is no place in our society for antisemitism and we will do everything we can to stamp it out,” he said.
“Whenever it happens, it will be met with the full force of the law.”
He added that “several arrests” were made after protests at the weekend, confirming that police are “reviewing footage of some of the things that many people will have seen that are just simply not acceptable”.
“Where they can, they will be able to make further arrests,” he added.
Last week, the prime minister announced £3m in funding to protect schools, synagogues, and other Jewish community buildings in light of the increase in antisemitic incidents and offences since the Israel-Hamas war started.
The Metropolitan Police’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner Laurence Taylor said in the period of 30 September to 13 October last year, there were 14 antisemitic incidents and 12 antisemitic offences, which had risen to 105 antisemitic incidents and 75 antisemitic offences for the same period this year.
The money announced by the government will enable the Community Security Trust to place additional guards in schools it supports throughout each school’s operating hours. They will also be able to place additional security staff at outside synagogues on Friday nights and Saturday mornings.