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Britain’s Defence Secretary Grant Shapps will hold talks in the Middle East on Wednesday as the UK tries to prevent an escalation of the Israel-Gaza conflict and seize an opportunity to push for peace in the region.
Mr Shapps will discuss the crisis with regional leaders on a visit to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, keeping up a flurry of British diplomacy after Middle East trips by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly.
Reporting back to his cabinet, Mr Sunak told ministers he was “struck by the desire for the UK to continue playing a leading role in seeking de-escalation” of the conflict, Downing Street said.
Britain has declined to call for a ceasefire or ask Israel to delay an expected ground offensive in Gaza, amid doubts whether any such pause would be respected by Hamas.
The UK has told Israel’s armed forces to show “professionalism and restraint” in what Mr Cleverly said would be an “important part of preventing this becoming a regional conflict”.
Mr Cleverly said he had received assurances from Israel’s President Isaac Herzog that its military would respect international law, but that Hamas had given no such undertaking.
He accused Hamas of consciously putting civilians in harm’s way to generate fatalities “which they then use as part of their media operations”. Britain has seen evidence of Palestinians being prevented from leaving conflict zones, he said.
Royal Navy vessels will remain in the region to “help avoid the possibility of regional escalation”, Mr Sunak said. It was separately confirmed on Tuesday that at least 12 British nationals have died in the violence, with five missing.
Mr Cleverly said it was “incredibly difficult” to secure the release of hostages because the UK has no direct lines of communication with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group. Qatar has been playing the role of mediator.
The conflict triggered by Hamas’s surprise October 7 attack on Israel has reinvigorated calls for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, with the crisis seen in Britain as an opportunity to revive the peace process.
“Despite the terrible circumstances we are currently experiencing, there is a renewed desire to have a meaningful resolution that means those circumstances that we saw, the terrible images we saw on 7 October, can and will never be repeated,” said Mr Cleverly.
Asked about a possible expansion of the Abraham Accords in which Israel normalised ties with the UAE and Bahrain, Mr Cleverly described them as a “force for good” that “we need to protect, and ideally enhance”.
“Anything which sees greater co-operation between Israel and the Arab world has got to be a step in the right direction when it comes to the creation of that sustainable two-state solution,” he said.
However, he said there was a “realistic belief” that part of Hamas’s goal in attacking Israel was to “derail future normalisation and negotiations”. He said Britain “must not let them win in that endeavour”.
The latest from the Israel-Gaza war – in pictures
Britain has sought to isolate Hamas by emphasising it does not speak for the Palestinian cause and saying there is “no scenario” in which it could maintain its hold on power in a peace agreement.
Downing Street said Mr Sunak and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas jointly “stressed that Hamas do not represent the Palestinian people” when they met in Egypt last week.
Mr Sunak also held talks with the leaders of Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia during his trip to the region. Mr Cleverly and Middle East Minister Lord Tariq Ahmad attended a peace summit in Cairo at the weekend.
Mr Shapps previously visited the UAE and Saudi Arabia in January, when he led the now-defunct Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He took on the defence brief in August.