rime Minister Rishi Sunak has said Israel has “every right to defend itself” from Hamas attacks but stressed that civilian safety must be “paramount in our minds”.
Mr Sunak also said the UK was doing “everything we can to ensure the security of British citizens” after the Defence Secretary said it seemed “very likely” that there are British hostages in Gaza.
Speaking to the media after talks with allies in Sweden, Mr Sunak highlighted how he had urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a conversation late on Thursday that caution was needed to “protect civilians” during its operation against Hamas militants that massacred hundreds of Israelis on Saturday.
Palestinians have begun a mass exodus from northern Gaza after Israel’s military told them to evacuate ahead of an expected ground invasion.
With around a million people in the affected area, the United Nations has warned that so many people fleeing en masse would be calamitous.
But the Foreign Office urged Britons in Gaza to “follow Israel’s directive, if they are able to, but recognise this will be be challenging for some people”.
The Prime Minister told broadcasters at the Joint Expeditionary Force summit in Gotland, Sweden: “Of course we should always — and we are always — having concerns of civilians paramount in our minds.
“It is something I’ve discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu myself and underlined with what the secretary of state from the United States (Antony Blinken) and the president (Joe Biden) have said, that of course Israel should take every possible precaution to protect civilians as they exercise their rightful ability to defend themselves against attacks like this.”
Mr Blinken, during a visit to Israel this week, said it “matters” how Israel chooses to defend itself and pressed for civilians not to be harmed.
US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin, during a press conference in Tel Aviv on Friday, said: “Terrorists like Hamas deliberately target civilians — but democracies don’t.
“This is a time for resolve, and not revenge.”
The war has claimed at least 2,800 lives on both sides since Hamas launched an incursion on October 7, with Israel placing the 25-mile Gaza Strip under siege and subjecting it to a torrent of retaliatory air strikes.
Hamas said Israel’s heavy bombardment killed 13 hostages, including foreigners, held by the group.
We are increasing our military teams across the region and making sure that we are doing everything we can to ensure the security of British citizens
Defence Secretary Grant Shapps told ITV’s Good Morning Britain he would treat Hamas’s claim with “caution” but “deep concern”.
Three Britons are confirmed to have lost their lives during the weekend’s assault on Israel but reports have suggested at least 17 could be among the casualties.
The Prime Minister said: “We are working very closely with the Israeli authorities and in contact with families to provide all the possible support that we can.
“We are increasing our military teams across the region and making sure that we are doing everything we can to ensure the security of British citizens.”
He said the Royal Navy ships he has sent to the eastern Mediterranean — part of a package of military support for Israel announced before his trip to Sweden — would be able to provide humanitarian assistance to those caught up in the conflict.
Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels Lyme Bay and Argus have been deployed to the region, along with Royal Air Force surveillance aircraft and a company of Royal Marines.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has not ruled out Britain sending further assistance, saying London will provide “absolutely everything they need” in efforts to come to Israel’s “defence in their hour of need”.
During his round of broadcast interviews, Cabinet minister Mr Shapps refused to criticise the siege on Gaza which is blocking water, food, medicines and electricity from reaching one of the most populated areas in the world.
Tel Aviv has said its complete barricade of Gaza would remain in place until some 150 hostages are freed, with Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant vowing to “topple” Hamas and “wipe out” the group’s military capabilities.
Mr Shapps said Israel’s practise of giving notice ahead of its missile strikes was “in stark contrast” to Hamas.
He told BBC Breakfast: “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.
“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 later, he said Hamas fighters were “hiding themselves within” the Palestinian population in Gaza and using them “as human shields”.
Mr Shapps was repeatedly asked to explicitly say if the UK supports the evacuation order that the UN says Tel Aviv has issued.
Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, said it was “extremely worrying” that Mr Shapps was “seemingly unwilling to urge allies in Israel to reconsider this ultimatum”.
He said: “The horrific mass killing of Israeli civilians by Hamas does not absolve the Israeli authorities of their obligations to respect international humanitarian law and to properly protect civilians in their military actions, and all UK politicians should be absolutely clear on this vital principle.”
The fallout from flare-up of violence in the Middle East has been felt in Britain, with a four-fold rise in antisemitic incidents, according to the Community Security Trust, and a tripling of anti-Muslim cases being recorded by the group Tell Mama UK.
Mr Sunak has condemned the “disgusting rise” in antisemitism in recent days and said intimidating behaviour and inciting violence or hatred will be met “with the full force of the law”.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said the Government is working closely with a “small number” of Jewish schools, which have temporarily shut due to safety fears, to ensure they can re-open.