‘We back your right to go after Hamas – we want you to win’ Sunak tells Israel

‘We want you to win’: PM tells Israeli leaders they have ‘right and duty’ to respond with military action

Kate Devlin,Bel Trew,Adam Forrest
Thursday 19 October 2023 21:11 BST
Sunak says Israel has ‘right and duty’ to respond to Hamas violence

Rishi Sunak has said Israel has both a “right and duty” to “go after” Hamas to restore its security at the start of a two-day visit to the region.

The prime minister called the terrorist group “pure evil” and, at a joint press conference, told Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “we… want you to win”.

In rhetoric recalling Winston Churchill, Mr Sunak added that he was “proud to stand here with you in Israel’s darkest hour as your friend”.

He also met with two families whose loved ones have been held hostage by Hamas following the attacks on 7 October, which saw more than 1,400 killed.

In a bid to prevent the conflict from spreading across the region, Mr Sunak flew to Saudi Arabia where he and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman agreed to “coordinate action” in a bid to avoid further escalation.

Mr Sunak also encouraged the crown prince to use his country’s leadership in the region, where it is a key player, to support stability, both in the coming days and in the long term.

It came as:

  • Netanyahu said he was preparing the country for “a long war” against “worst monsters on the planet”
  • UK and US advised their citizens to leave Lebanon now as tensions rise between Hezbollah and Israel
  • Eight Britons killed and seven missing in Hamas attacks as total number of hostages reaches 203
  • Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant tells troops on Gaza border that they could see the enclave “from inside soon”
  • Hundreds of lorries with vital supplies still waiting to enter Gaza after President Biden secured aid agreement
  • The Archbishop of Canterbury arrived in Jerusalem to “show solidarity” to those impacted by the conflict

While in the Middle East, the prime minister is expected to work on efforts to try to secure the release of the hostages and prevent the conflict from spreading across the region.

There is increasing concern that it will, starting with Lebanon. The UK, the US and Germany have issued travel warnings urging their citizens to immediately leave the country.

Israel also said it had bolstered its northern defences and was “ready to respond to any attack” from its northern neighbours. Major Marcus Sheff, a spokesperson for the Israeli military, told The Independent: “I think Lebanon needs to ask whether it wants to risk its future for the Hamas terror organisation.” He added: "We will deal with Hezbollah as necessary. The [Israeli military] is ready, ready to respond to any attack.”

Jordan has called for an immediate ceasefire and warned a continued bombardment of Gaza will only see the conflict ripple past their borders.

On Thursday Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant told infantry troops gathered at the border that they “will soon see Gaza from the inside”, suggesting a ground invasion could be approaching.

There has been growing regional fury at the worsening humanitarian crisis for the two million people in Gaza, who are running out of food, water, fuel and power under a crippling Israeli siege.

The US brokered a deal where 20 trucks of aid would be allowed in via Egypt. But rights groups say this is only a “scratch on the surface” of what’s needed.

While in Israel, Mr Sunak offered support for military action in response to the Hamas attack, which saw more than 1,400 killed, during talks with Mr Netanyahu and president Isaac Herzog.

Appearing alongside Mr Netanyahu, he said Israel has the right to “go after Hamas”, take back hostages and “strengthen your security for the long term”.

He also told Mr Herzog that Britain stood in solidarity with “your right to defend yourself”, adding: “You have not just a right to do that, I think you have a duty to do that, to restore that security to your country.”

But as he walked a diplomatic tightrope, Mr Sunak again stressed that Israel’s response should be in line with international law at the same time as offering strong backing for action.

He also pushed Israeli leaders for progress in allowing aid into Gaza, amid warnings of a humanitarian disaster.

Rishi Sunak meets with Israeli president Isaac Herzog
Rishi Sunak meets with Israeli president Isaac Herzog (EPA)

Mr Netanyahu said Hamas were “the new Nazis” and “the worst monsters on the planet”, telling the British PM: “You fought the Nazis 80 years resolutely and the entire world supported your action.”

Mr Herzog said he was “extremely grateful” to Mr Sunak for visiting during Israel’s “darkest hour” and said the country was determined to turn it into their “finest hour” – using the language of Churchill’s most famous wartime address.

In Israel Mr Sunak also met with two families whose loved ones have been held hostage by Hamas following the attacks on 7 October.

In a post on X, the PM was pictured hugging one mother: “To have a child taken from you is a parent’s worst nightmare,” he said – repeating his determination to see hostages released.

Mr Sunak also called Hamas “pure evil” and said he had been chilled by videos showing those killed and kidnapped. The PM said: “They are horrific. They chill you – they have certainly done that to me – and everyone can see that [Hamas] represent pure evil.”

But Mr Sunak’s language was condemned by Oxfam, who said it was “wrong” that he had not called for a ceasefire and added “nobody wins when the scale of human suffering, devastation and pain is so vast and relentless”.

Sunak tells Netanyahu he supports military action to ‘restore security’
Sunak tells Netanyahu he supports military action to ‘restore security’ (EPA)

His visit to Israel comes after US president Joe Biden helped secure a deal which saw the first aid getting over the Egyptian border. Mr Biden also backed Israel by saying that the “other team” were behind the explosion at the Al-Ahli hospital.

Mr Biden said his claim that the explosion was “the result of an errant rocket fired by a terrorist group” was based on “data” from the US defense department. Mr Sunak said on Thursday that it was important not to “jump to conclusions” and that UK intelligence agencies were still “reviewing the facts available”.

Before his meeting with Mr Sunak, Mr Herzog attacked the BBC for its refusal to call Hamas a terrorist group – accusing them of a “distortion of the facts”. Asked about the Israeli president’s remarks on the BBC, No 10 said the broadcaster should reflect “very carefully” and learn lessons from the initial coverage of the hospital blast.

The PM’s arrival in Israel came as his security minister Tom Tugendhat said that the destruction of the terrorist organisation Hamas would be “a blessing”.

Calling Hamas “barbarous murderers”, the Tory minister offered backing for Israel’s planned military action in Gaza: “The destruction of Hamas would be a blessing not just for the Israeli people but for the Palestinian people ... I would love to see a world without Hamas in it.”

Mr Tugendhat said Hamas had “stolen” aid from civilians and “used the Palestinian people as their slaves to build tunnel complexes”. He also accused Iran of “pouring money” into Hamas “to kill Jews”.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly, who is also in the region on a three-day trip which will see him visit Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, said he would “push for calm and stability, facilitate humanitarian access into Gaza and work together to secure the release of hostages”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury also arrived in Jerusalem on Thursday afternoon, saying it was a “crucial time” to show solidarity and care to those impacted by the war, and is set to meet other Christian leaders in the region.

During his visit, Lambeth Palace said Justin Welby will renew an appeal for the release of hostages held by Hamas, as well as offering sympathy and condolences for Israeli victims since the conflict broke out.

Meanwhile, the Foreign Office has since updated its travel guidance to Lebanon, which shares a border with Israel, advising against all travel to the country and encouraging British nationals currently there to “leave now while commercial options remain available”.

In a speech at Mansion House on Wednesday night, King Charles III praised the tolerance of people in the UK as he urged the world to be more understanding of difference amid such “heart-breaking loss of life” in Israel and Gaza.

But Robin Simcox, the commissioner for countering extremism, said the rise of antisemitism was a sign that Britain was “very sick indeed” and should be a “wake-up call”.

In an article for The Times, he suggested the “normalisation” of anti-Israel extremism and antisemitism was because of a “failed policy mix of mass migration and multiculturalism”.

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