UK Border Force teams are set up in Egypt to “quickly” assist British nationals to escape from Gaza when a crossing is opened, the Prime Minister has revealed.
Rishi Sunak said he is pushing for a pause in the fighting between Israel and Hamas to allow aid to reach Palestinians and also create a “safer environment” for UK citizens to leave the bombarded 25-mile strip.
The Foreign Office is in contact with around 200 UK nationals in Gaza, the Prime Minister said.
The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza is the only border point in the territory that is not controlled by Tel Aviv.
Israel has only in recent days agreed to allow aid into the country through the crossing, having besieged the Hamas-ruled area to prevent essentials such as water, food and fuel from reaching more than two million Palestinians.
The border crossing into north-east Egypt is likely to be the main exit route for those trapped in Gaza but it is currently closed other than for aid deliveries.
Cairo has reportedly blamed Israeli bombings around Rafah for it not being open for foreign nationals to pass through.
Mr Sunak has called for temporary breaks or “specific pauses” in the violence that could allow British nationals and hostages to be freed.
Fewer than five Britons are believed to be among the hostages as officials fear that some of those missing have been killed.
But many more are currently trapped in Gaza as Israel continues to conduct air strikes and raids on the territory in its fightback against Hamas’s assault on October 7 that saw 1,400 people, mainly civilians, killed on Israeli soil.
The Prime Minister, taking questions after a speech in central London about artificial intelligence on Thursday, said the UK Government recognised that for British nationals to leave there “needs to be a safer environment, which of course necessitates specific pauses, which are distinct from a ceasefire”.
He added: “We’re very keen to be able to bring them out and bring them home.
“What I can tell you is we’ve pre-positioned Border Force teams to Egypt.
“So that if there is a possibility for our nationals to cross the Rafah crossing, we’re ready to get them in and bring them back.
“It is not something we can do immediately but when the moment arises, we’ll be ready to take it quickly.”
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden chaired a Cobra meeting on Thursday to discuss the situation in the Middle East and next steps on pushing for the release of Hamas’s captives, with about 220 people thought to be being held.
“It is about ensuring we have cross-governmental ministerial grip on this situation,” he told Sky News ahead of the meeting.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters during a briefing later that ministers were working “night and day” to secure the release of UK hostages.
It comes after the Israeli military said that troops and tanks launched a brief ground raid into northern Gaza overnight into Thursday, saying it was in order to “prepare the battlefield” ahead of a widely expected ground invasion.
Thousands of Palestinians have already died in retaliatory strikes by Israel and an even greater loss of life could come if it launches a full invasion aimed at crushing Hamas, the militant group which has ruled Gaza since 2007 and survived four previous wars with Israel.
The UK Government, which has continued to back Israel’s right to defend itself as long as it toes the line of international law, is continuing to resist calls for a ceasefire.
More than 80 MPs have urged the Government to call for a cessation of violence.
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters a ceasefire would “only benefit Hamas”.
The No 10 official said he would not “speculate” about whether ministers would support a ceasefire if Israel succeeded in rescuing hostages from Gaza.
Mr Dowden would not be drawn on how long Britain envisages any pause in the fighting, which is also backed by Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party, would need to last for.
Mr Sunak’s deputy said he was “heartbroken” by the mounting casualties in Gaza but said Israel could not “eliminate” Hamas “without there being some civilian impact”.
“The way to stop further losses of innocent civilian lives is to remove the terrorist threat and to move to a position where we can restore stability and peace to this region,” he told Sky News.