Foreign AffairsSpeeches

Rishi Sunak – 2023 Statement on Israel and Gaza

The statement made by Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, in the House of Commons on 16 October 2023.

The attacks in Israel last weekend shocked the world. Over 1,400 people murdered one by one; over 3,500 wounded; almost 200 taken hostage; the elderly, men, women, children and babes in arms murdered, mutilated, burned alive. We should call it by its name: it was a pogrom. The families of some of the missing are in the Public Gallery today. We call for the immediate release of all hostages, and I say to them, “We stand with you. We stand with Israel.”

The murdered and the missing come from over 30 countries, including the United Kingdom. The terrible nature of these attacks means it is proving difficult to identify many of the deceased, but, with a heavy heart, I can inform the House that at least six British citizens were killed. A further 10 are missing, some of whom are feared to be among the dead.

We are working with Israel to establish the facts as quickly as possible, and we are supporting the families who are suffering unimaginable pain. We are also helping British citizens who want to leave Israel. We have organised eight flights so far, bringing out more than 500 people, with more flights leaving today. We are working with neighbouring countries on land evacuations for our citizens in Gaza and the west bank. I have spoken specifically to President Sisi about supporting civilians to leave Gaza by the Rafah border crossing, which remains closed at present, and we have a Border Force team in Egypt working with our embassy to help citizens when they are able to cross.

I will come back to the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza in a moment, but I want first to address the British Jewish community directly: as I said at Finchley United synagogue last week, and at the Jewish school I visited this morning, we stand with you now and always. This atrocity was an existential strike at the very idea of Israel as a safe homeland for the Jewish people. I understand why it has shaken you to your core. I am sickened that antisemitic incidents have increased since the attack. We are doing everything we can to protect you. We are providing an additional £3 million for the Community Security Trust to protect schools, synagogues and other Jewish community buildings, and we are working with the police to ensure that hate crime and the glorification of terror are met with the full force of the law. I know that the whole House will support that and join me in saying unequivocally that we stand with the Jewish community.

I also recognise that this is a moment of great anguish for British Muslim communities, who are also appalled by the actions of Hamas but are fearful of the response. We must listen to those concerns with the same attentiveness. Hamas are using innocent Palestinian people as human shields, with the tragic loss of more than 2,600 Palestinian lives, including many children. We mourn the loss of every innocent life, of the civilians of every faith and every nationality who have been killed, so let us say it plainly: we stand with British Muslim communities, too.

Israel was founded not just as a homeland for the Jewish people, but as a guarantor of their security, to ensure that what happened in the holocaust could never happen again. Through its strength and resilience, Israel gradually achieved some of that longed-for security, despite the strategic threats on its borders, including Hezbollah in the north with Iran at its back. Israel normalised relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain through the Abraham accords, and moved towards normalising ties with Saudi Arabia—steps that were considered unthinkable not long ago.

One reason this attack is so shocking is that it is a fundamental challenge to any idea of co-existence, which is an essential precursor to peace and stability in the region. The question is: how should we respond? I believe that we must support absolutely Israel’s right to defend itself, to go after Hamas and take back the hostages, to deter further incursions, and to strengthen its security for the long term. That must be done in line with international humanitarian law, while recognising that Israel faces a vicious enemy who embed themselves behind civilians.

As a friend, we will continue to call on Israel to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians. I repeat President Biden’s words: as democracies, we are

“stronger and more secure when we act according to the rule of law.”

Humanity, law, decency, respect for human life—that is what sets us apart from the mindless violence of the terrorist.

There are three specific areas in which the United Kingdom is helping to shape events. First, we are working to prevent escalation and further threats against Israel. On Friday, RAF surveillance aircraft began patrols to track threats to regional security; I have deployed a Royal Navy task group to the eastern Mediterranean, including RFA Lyme Bay and RFA Argus, three Merlin helicopters and a company of Royal Marines, ready both to interdict arms and to support the humanitarian response; and we are bolstering our forces in Cyprus and across the region. Let me be clear: we are not engaging in fighting or in an offensive in Gaza, but we are increasing our presence to prevent broader regional instability at this dangerous moment.

Secondly, I am proud that we are a long-standing and significant provider of humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people. I can announce today that we are increasing our aid by a third, with an additional £10 million of support. An acute humanitarian crisis is unfolding, to which we must respond. We must support the Palestinian people, because they are victims of Hamas too. Like our allies, we believe that

“Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people, or their legitimate aspirations to live with equal measures of security, freedom, justice, opportunity and dignity.”

Hamas simply do not stand for the future that Palestinians want, and they seek to put the Palestinian people in harm’s way. We must ensure that humanitarian support urgently reaches civilians in Gaza. That requires Egypt and Israel to allow in the aid that is so badly needed.

We also need to keep the situation in the west bank at the forefront of our minds at this moment of heightened sensitivity. Earlier today, I spoke to Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, to express our support for his efforts to provide stability.

Thirdly, we will use all the tools of British diplomacy to sustain the prospects of peace and stability in the region. Ultimately, that requires security for Israelis and Palestinians and a two-state solution, so we are increasing our regional engagement. I have spoken to Prime Minister Netanyahu twice in the last week, along with the US, France, Germany, Italy and others. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was the first to visit Israel after the attacks. I met His Majesty the King of Jordan yesterday—a long-time voice of reason and moderation. I have spoken today with the leaders of Turkey and, previously, Egypt, and I will speak to others in the coming days. Our partners in the region have asked us to play a role in preventing further escalation, and that is what we will do. However hard it is, we need to ask the tough questions about how we can revive the long-term prospects for a two-state solution, for normalisation and for regional stability, not least because that is precisely what Hamas have been trying to kill.

In conclusion, unequivocally backing Israel’s right to defend itself, stepping forward with humanitarian support, working to protect civilians from harm, and straining every sinew to keep the flame of peace and stability alive—that is our objective. It is the right approach for the region, and it is the right approach for Britain. I commend this statement to the House.