Sunak to visit Israel with call to avoid escalation of crisis

Sunak to visit Israel with call to avoid escalation of crisis

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Rishi Sunak will arrive in Israel on Thursday for talks with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders in the region, urging them to avoid “a further dangerous escalation” of the conflict.

The UK prime minister, who will spend two days in the Middle East, will meet Netanyahu and Israeli president Isaac Herzog before travelling to other unspecified regional capitals.

Downing Street said that during the visit Sunak would share his condolences “for the terrible loss of life in Israel and Gaza in the last two weeks as a result of Hamas’ brutal terrorist attacks”.

But Number 10 also warned against Hamas’ attacks becoming “a catalyst” for further violence and instability. Sunak has promised more humanitarian aid for Gaza.

The British prime minister on Wednesday declined to endorse US president Joe Biden’s assertion that Israel was not responsible for the deadly explosion at the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday evening.

Biden said that “the other team” was to blame but Sunak told MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday that Britain was working “independently and with our allies to find out what has happened”.

Sunak’s spokesman, asked whether Biden was wrong to attribute blame, said: “No. He is giving his view.” The spokesman added: “At this point, we are not attributing.”

The British premier, speaking before flying to Israel, said: “Every civilian death is a tragedy and too many lives have been lost following Hamas’ horrific act of terror.

“The attack on Al Ahli hospital should be a watershed moment for leaders in the region and across the world to come together to avoid the further dangerous escalation of the conflict. I will ensure the UK is at the forefront of this effort.”

Sunak has been full-throated in his support of Israel since the Hamas attacks on Israel. Last Saturday he issued a statement which notably did not refer to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

However Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour party, both expressed a balanced approach to the crisis in the Commons on Wednesday, condemning Hamas and defending Israel’s right to defend itself, while insisting that international humanitarian law had to be respected.

Downing Street declined to say which other regional leaders Sunak would meet, citing security reasons. However British officials are also conscious of the risk of Sunak appearing to be “snubbed” if pre-announced visits were cancelled at the last minute.

Biden was on Wednesday given the cold shoulder by the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, who cancelled planned meetings in the wake of the hospital blast.

British foreign secretary James Cleverly on Wednesday left for a three-day trip to the Middle East to meet leaders in Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, the government announced.

Grant Shapps, defence secretary, has been in Washington discussing military responses to the crisis. The UK has sent two Royal Navy ships and other military assets to the eastern Mediterranean in the wake of the Hamas attack.

Downing Street confirmed on Wednesday that seven British nationals had been killed during the conflict, with a further nine missing.

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