British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Thursday landed in Tel Aviv to “express solidarity with the Israeli people” as non-stop Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip destroyed residential buildings and killed more than 3,400 Palestinians.
“I want you to know that the United Kingdom and I stand with you,” Sunak said as his country has firmly stood behind Israel in the wake of the Hamas attack on Israeli soil that killed more than 1,400 people. Hamas also took at least 199 people captive.
The trip comes as the mounting death toll has triggered protests across the Middle East, with fears the Israel-Palestine conflict may escalate into a wider regional war.
Sunak’s office told the Reuters news agency he would be “sharing his condolences” for the loss of life in both Israel and Gaza, warning against further escalation.
His visit will see him perform a delicate balancing act, with any missteps likely to inflame tensions. Here’s a look at Britain’s involvement in the region.
What is Britain’s position on the conflict?
Britain has so far lent staunch support to Israel, with Sunak calling the Hamas attack “a pogrom”.
“This atrocity was an existential strike at the very idea of Israel as a safe homeland of the Jewish people,” Sunak told the House of Commons on Monday.
He urged Israel to “go after Hamas, take back the hostages, deter further incursions, and strengthen its security for the long term”.
“This must be done in line with international humanitarian law, but also recognising that they face a vicious enemy that embeds itself behind civilians,” he said.
Britain’s decision to abstain from yesterday’s UN Security Council vote on a resolution calling for Israel to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza largely passed below the radar. The resolution was blocked by the United States on the basis that it did not explicitly mention Israel’s right to self-defence.
Having declined to take a position on Wednesday, Sunak is nevertheless expected to push for the humanitarian corridor through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
With Sunak’s Conservative Party currently slumping in the polls, the Labour Party is eyeing a victory in general elections widely expected to be held next year.
Labour leader Keir Starmer has so far struck a similar tone to Sunak on the Israel-Gaza conflict, but faces mutiny within his own party after comments last week that suggested he supported Israel’s “right” to cut off power and water supplies to Gaza’s 2.3 million people.
Rights groups say the Israeli siege of Gaza amounts to collective punishment and a war crime.
What is Britain’s history in Palestine?
Ask most Palestinians what lies at the root of their plight and they’ll likely blame Arthur Balfour.
It was back in 1917, while serving as Britain’s foreign secretary, that Balfour pledged to create a “national home” for Jewish people in Palestine in the Balfour Declaration.
Britain had been in charge of Palestine – home to a Jewish minority and an Arab majority – since defeating the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
After the Balfour Declaration, Jewish people fleeing persecution in Europe started arriving in greater numbers, particularly during the Nazi Holocaust in World War II.
Britain withdrew in 1948, when Jewish leaders announced the creation of the State of Israel and Jewish militias went on a rampage against Palestinians forcing them to flee.
About 750,000 Palestinians were displaced in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, some ending up in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and the rest squeezed into the remaining territory in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Palestinians call the forced displacement “Nakba” or catastrophe. In 1967, Israel captured the remaining Palestinian territories – a step not recognised by the international community.
What is Britain’s relationship with Israel?
Britain has a strong relationship with Israel, but the two allies don’t always agree on some foreign policy issues.
In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited London for talks with Sunak, with Iran topping the agenda. While Britain has imposed sanctions on Israel’s biggest foe, it has not gone as far as Netanyahu would like, stopping short of designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a “terrorist” organisation.
Sunak also used the talks to express his concern over Netanyahu’s controversial judicial overhaul.
There have been some rocky moments in the past. Britain slapped an arms embargo on Israel following the latter’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
With the relationship under strain, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin approved a weapons deal with Argentina in 1982, which was fighting Britain in the Falklands War.
What to expect of Sunak’s visit to Israel?
Sunak’s visit has been billed as a diplomatic push to de-escalate the situation.
“The Prime Minister and President Herzog stressed the imperative need to avoid further escalation of violence in the region. They agreed to continue working together to that end,” a statement from the British Prime Minister’s office after Sunak met Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
He is widely expected to follow the line taken yesterday by US President Joe Biden, who has thus far taken a leading role in brokering peace in the region between Israel and its neighbours.
London tends to march in lockstep with Washington on foreign and defence policy, particularly when it comes to Ukraine’s right to self-defence in the face of Russia’s invasion of its territory.
Landing at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, Sunak told local reporters: “Above all, I’m here to express my solidarity with the Israeli people. You have suffered an unspeakable, horrific act of terrorism and I want you to know that the United Kingdom and I stand with you.”
Earlier, he had said the Gaza hospital blast that caused mass Palestinian casualties 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, he said, would be at “the forefront of this effort”.
Alongside Sunak’s visit, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who visited Israel last week, will travel to Egypt, Turkey and Qatar over the next three days to discuss a peaceful resolution to the conflict.