he UK Defence Secretary has insisted Israel has the right to “go after” Hamas following an Israeli order for the evacuation of northern Gaza.
Grant Shapps said Israel should act within international law, and while he appeared to stop short of explicitly endorsing the evacuation order and related tactics, he said it is right for Israel to give advanced warning of military action so people “can move”.
He also said “it seems very likely” that there are British hostages in Gaza.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke to his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, and has called on Israel to “protect ordinary Palestinians” as it hunts down Hamas militants.
The UK has sent Royal Navy vessels and Royal Air Force surveillance planes to the area.
According to the United Nations, Israel’s military has told some one million Palestinians living in Gaza to evacuate the north ahead of an expected ground invasion, with the international body warning that so many people fleeing en masse would be calamitous.
Tel Aviv said on Thursday its complete siege of Gaza would remain in place until some 150 hostages are freed.
Hamas, the group responsible for the attack on Israel at the weekend which has already claimed at least 2,400 lives, has said Israel’s heavy bombardment of the Gaza Strip has killed 13 hostages, including foreigners, held by the group.
Mr Shapps told ITV’s Good Morning Britain he would treat Hamas’s claim with “caution” but “deep concern”.
Israel is letting people know in advance and we very much support that advanced notice being given
Speaking to GB News earlier about the UK’s assistance including Navy ships being sent to the region, Mr Shapps said: “We’re sending not just ships but also aircraft to really monitor the situation, provide surveillance, provide the potential for humanitarian aid, but also to act as a deterrent in the wider region.”
He also told Sky News the aircraft would also be able to provide “intelligence gathering”.
Asked on BBC Breakfast about Israel’s tactics, including cutting off electricity and the reported evacuation, Mr Shapps said: “The question is, what is Israel to do?
“Leave these Hamas terrorists to come in and slaughter people again? Or deal with them once and for all?
“And the fact that Israel gives notice… is in stark contrast (to Hamas).
“I think Israel finds itself in a very difficult situation, and to be clear: Israel needs to act within international law just like any other nation… But Israel will also obviously need to deal with these Hamas terrorists.”
He added: “Israel is giving due warning, but they are going after those terrorists, and we absolutely respect Israel’s right to do that.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme about the reported evacuation order, Mr Shapps said: “I think it’s very important that Israel does provide information about its intentions, because as you rightly say… it is the case that we want to enable Hamas to be removed from the scene, but to do so in a manner that does not affect Palestinian populations as far as is possible.
“The difficulty is that Hamas hide themselves within that population deliberately… using the population as human shields. So Israel is letting people know in advance and we very much support that advanced notice being given.”
Mr Shapps was repeatedly asked to explicitly say if the UK supports the evacuation order.
He said “we’ve never been in these times”, and drew a hypothetical comparison to how the Government would react if an attack of equivalent scale happened in the UK.
The Defence Secretary said: “You would expect Britain, and in this case you would expect Israel, to have the right to defend itself. Now, if those terrorists then hide themselves within populations, it is right to give that population notice so that they can move.”
Put to him that his words suggest the UK supports the action, Mr Shapps said: “The UK Government supports Israel’s right both to defend itself and that Israel is providing advanced warning of military action in order for people to move themselves out of the way, and I think it’s absolutely right that happens.
“We don’t know the detail of the Israeli plan,” he added, stressing again the need to comply with international law.