Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain on Thursday began a two-day visit to Israel and the region to demonstrate British backing for the Israeli government, call for de-escalation of the conflict and press for humanitarian aid to be allowed into Gaza.
Mr. Sunak was expected to meet the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, during the trip, which follows a visit by President Biden on Wednesday. The British prime minister aims to build on the commitment that the U.S. said it had secured from Israel’s government to allow food, water and medicine into the Gaza Strip through Egypt.
In response to the brutal attacks and hostage-taking on Oct. 7 by members of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, Israel has bombarded the impoverished enclave with airstrikes, sealed off the territory to imports of vital supplies, and told 1.1 million people in northern Gaza to evacuate south, as Israeli forces prepare for a ground invasion. Gaza’s more than two million people are rapidly running out of water, food, fuel, electricity and medicine, hundreds of thousands are displaced, and many have no shelter.
“I am in Israel, a nation in grief,” Mr. Sunak said in a post on X, formerly Twitter. “I grieve with you and stand with you against the evil that is terrorism. Today, and always.” He ended the post with a Hebrew word that translates as “solidarity.”
During a meeting with President Isaac Herzog of Israel on Thursday, Mr. Sunak “expressed his personal condolences for the horrific loss of life in Israel as a result of Hamas’ terrorism,” and “reiterated that the U.K. stands in solidarity with Israel and firmly believes in the country’s right to self-defense in line with international law,” according to a statement released by 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s office.
The two leaders “agreed on the importance of getting urgent humanitarian support to ordinary Palestinians in Gaza who are also suffering,” said the statement, which added that Mr. Sunak “expressed his sincere hope that further progress could be made on delivering crucial food, water and medicine.”
Britain, a member of the U.N. Security Council, has been clear in its support for Israel, saying that it has the right to defend itself against what Mr. Sunak described as “Hamas’ horrific act of terror.” But, like other Western leaders, he is anxious to do what he can to de-escalate the crisis in the region.
In a statement released as he traveled to Tel Aviv, Mr. Sunak said that a blast at the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday, which left hundreds dead according to the Palestinian authorities, “should be a watershed moment for leaders in the region and across the world to come together to avoid further dangerous escalation of conflict.”
Britain would be at the forefront of this effort, Mr. Sunak added.
Hamas blamed an Israeli airstrike for the explosion at the hospital without citing evidence — a claim that was widely accepted across the Middle East. But American officials said evidence from a variety of sources pointed to a failed rocket launch aimed at Israel from within Gaza as the cause of the explosion. That was the conclusion Israeli officials began presenting on Tuesday night.
British government officials have not said who they think caused the blast at the hospital in Gaza but on Wednesday, Mr. Sunak told British lawmakers that the country’s intelligence services were making their own independent assessment of the evidence.
Mr. Sunak plans to fly later on Thursday to Saudi Arabia where he is to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Downing Street said on Thursday.
The visit coincides with a separate trip to the region by the British foreign secretary, James Cleverly, whose planned itinerary includes visits to Egypt, Turkey and Qatar.
The British government said on Wednesday that at least seven of its citizens were killed in the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 and that a further nine were still missing, some of whom are thought to be held hostage. On Thursday Mr. Sunak met with the family of two British citizens who are believed to be in Gaza as hostages.
Some British citizens have also been caught up in the crisis in Gaza and the government is hoping that they will be allowed to leave via the Rafah border crossing into Egypt. Scotland’s first minister, Humza Yousaf, has said that his in-laws were among the foreign nationals trapped in Gaza after they went to Gaza to visit family.