Rushi Sunak has piled pressure on Israel over the need for a “sustainable ceasefire” in Gaza, saying that “too many lives have been lost” in the bombardment of the territory.
It came as Mr Sunak’s former defence secretary Ben Wallace warned that Israel’s indiscriminate “killing rage” in Gaza risks fuelling the conflict “for another 50 years” and radicalising young Muslims across the world.
Mr Wallace said Israel could lose moral and legal authority over its war on Hamas, which was in response to an attack inside Israel that killed 1,200 people and saw 240 others taken hostage.
Asked about Mr Wallace’s comments during a trip to Scotland, Mr Sunak said: “Israel obviously has a right to defend itself against what was an appalling terrorist attack perpetrated by Hamas, but it must do that in accordance with humanitarian law.”
He added: “It’s clear that too many civilian lives have been lost and nobody wants to see this conflict go on a day longer than it has to.
“And that’s why we’ve been consistent – and I made this point in Parliament last week – in calling for a sustainable ceasefire, whereby hostages are released, rockets stopped being fired into Israel by Hamas and we continue to get more aid in.”
Downing Street said a “sustainable ceasefire” is one “that can last, that means that Hamas no longer has a place in Israel, that rockets have stopped firing, that the hostages are returned”.
The prime minister also called for increased access for much-needed humanitarian aid for the besieged enclave.
The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza has said that more than 19,000 people have been killed in Israeli airstrikes and ground operations. A blockade has also been imposed, with the UN and aid agencies saying nowhere near enough of critical items like food, water, fuel and medical supplies are getting into the Strip. Around 85 per cent of the territory’s population of 2.3 million have been forced to flee their homes, with Israel calling on them to move southwards.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) should do more to ensure its campaign is targeted on Hamas leaders and operatives.
“But of course, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that Hamas deliberately puts Palestinian civilians at risk by embedding themselves in the civilian population and, of course, seizing dozens of hostages which they could release at any point.”
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing mounting international concern over the scale of civilian casualties in Gaza.
French foreign minister Catherine Colonna called for an “immediate truce” aimed at releasing more hostages, getting larger amounts of aid into Gaza and moving towards “the beginning of a political solution”.
And Britain’s foreign secretary, David Cameron, joined forces with his German counterpart to call for a “sustainable” ceasefire over the weekend. Lord Cameron is expected to visit the region imminently to urge Israel to be more targeted in its approach to the conflict.
The US, Israel’s staunchest ally, has also expressed its concern over Israel’s conduct in Gaza in recent weeks. Top Biden administration officials – including President Joe Biden himself – have been attempting to nudge their Israeli counterparts towards a strategy that is far less reliant on aerial attacks and more based on precise, intelligence-driven ground operations. However, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin declined to say if the US believes there are conditions around the timing of such a shift while speaking alongside Israeli defence minister Yoav Galant in Tel Aviv on Monday.
Instead, the retired US Army general – an Iraq war veteran – called US support for Israel “unshakeable” and stressed that the Israelis are in charge of their own operations while maintaining that the US does not view any such shift, whenever it might occur, as a ceasefire.
He said: “In any military operation, any large-scale military operation will have phases to its campaign. And as you go from one phase to the next you know, your stance shifts a little bit, your activity shifts a little bit, because you’re, you begin to focus on different things and what those things are,” adding that those shifts will “be defined by the Israelis”.
“As you transition from one phase to another … that doesn’t signal an end to the operation,” Mr Austin continued. “I will let the Israelis define their campaign and the phases of the campaign for themselves. But in any operation like this … there will be phases and, and the most difficult part is as you shift from one phase to the next, making sure that that you have everything accounted for and you get it right so … that requires detailed planning and very thoughtful planning.”
But American officials remain engaged in efforts to arrange what they describe as another “humanitarian pause” in fighting to allow for the release of more hostages by Hamas.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, national security council spokesperson John Kirby said the US continues to “work really hard to try to get another deal in place, which could of course be accompanied by another humanitarian pause and hopefully some additional humanitarian assistance”.
But Mr Kirby was at pains to point out that he could not say if talks are at a point “where another deal is imminent”.
“We are working literally every day on this on the ground and back here in Washington … the negotiators that are in question here have had some conversations in the last couple of days. We hope that that becomes a fruitful discussion,” he said. “I can’t promise you a certain date where we could get another one in place, just that we’re continuing to work really, really hard”.
Mr Wallace, the former UK defence secretary, was far more forthright in his piece for the Daily Telegraph, writing: “Going after Hamas is legitimate; obliterating vast swathes of Gaza is not.
“Using proportionate force is legal but collective punishment and forced movement of civilians is not.
“We are entering a dangerous period now where Israel’s original legal authority of self-defence is being undermined by its own actions. It is making the mistake of losing its moral authority alongside its legal one.”
He said he was not “calling for a ceasefire with Hamas”, but instead stating that Israel “needs to stop this crude and indiscriminate method of attack”.
Mr Wallace was backed by parliament’s foreign affairs committee chairman Alicia Kearns, who said Israel has “gone beyond self-defence”. “I think unfortunately it has. International humanitarian law in my view has been broken,” Ms Kearns told the BBC.
She said: “Hamas is an ideology which recruits into its membership. Bombs don’t obliterate an ideology and neither can a stable state be constructed from oblivion.”
Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran has spoken about her growing fears for her relatives, who are among a group of Christians who have sought shelter in a church compound in Gaza City.
The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem over the weekend said two Christian women in the Holy Family Church had been killed by Israeli sniper fire “in cold blood” and seven others were wounded, in an incident condemned by church leaders.
The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, said it was a “seemingly deliberate and callous killing by IDF soldiers of innocent civilians”.
Israel’s military has denied targeting civilians.
Ms Moran has warned that her family in Gaza have no electricity, no water or food and described them as “basically besieged”.
“I just don’t want them to die. Honestly, that’s where I’m at. We are a week before Christmas. This is a church,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.
“I want to see them survive to Christmas. And I’m, at this moment in time, not at all sure that’s going to happen.”
Emily Foster is a globe-trotting journalist based in the UK. Her articles offer readers a global perspective on international events, exploring complex geopolitical issues and providing a nuanced view of the world’s most pressing challenges.