UK Border Force teams have been deployed in Egypt to “rapidly” help British nationals flee Gaza when a crossing opens, the Prime Minister has revealed.
Rishi Sunak said he was pushing for a halt in fighting between Israel and Hamas to allow aid to the Palestinians and also create a “safer environment” for UK citizens to leave the 25-mile bombed strip.
The Foreign Office is in contact with around 200 British nationals in Gaza, the Prime Minister said.
The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza is the only border point in the territory not controlled by Tel Aviv.
Israel only in recent days agreed to allow aid into the country through the crossing, having besieged the Hamas-run area to prevent essentials such as water, food and fuel from reaching more than two million Palestinians.
The border crossing in northeastern Egypt is likely to be the main exit route for those trapped in Gaza, but is currently closed except for aid deliveries.
Cairo reportedly blamed Israeli shelling around Rafah because it was not open for foreign nationals to cross.
Mr Sunak called for temporary breaks or “concrete pauses” in 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 some of those missing have been killed.
But many more are today trapped in Gaza as Israel continues to carry out airstrikes and ground raids in its counter-offensive against the October 7 attack by Hamas that killed 1,400 people, mostly civilians, on Israeli soil.
The prime minister, taking questions after a speech in central London on artificial intelligence on Thursday, said the UK government recognizes that for British nationals to leave there “there needs to be a safer environment, which of course requires specific pauses, which are different from a ceasefire”.
He added: “We are very keen to be able to take them out and bring them home.
“What I can tell you is that we have pre-deployed Border Force teams in Egypt.
“So, if there is a possibility for our nationals to cross the Rafah crossing, we are ready to bring them and bring them back.
“It's not something we can do right away, but when the time comes, we'll be ready to do it quickly.”
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden chaired a Cobra meeting on Thursday to discuss the situation in the Middle East and next steps to press for the release of Hamas prisoners, with around 220 people believed to be held.
“We are going to make sure we have cross-government ministerial control over 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 the British hostages.
It comes after the Israeli military said troops and tanks had launched a brief ground incursion into northern Gaza on Thursday night, saying it was to “prepare the battlefield” ahead of a widely expected ground invasion.
Thousands of Palestinians have already been killed in retaliation by Israel, and there could be an even greater loss of life if it launches a full-scale invasion aimed at crushing Hamas, the militant group that has ruled Gaza since 2007 and survived four previous wars with Israel .
The UK government, which has continued to support Israel's right to defend itself as long as it toes the line of international law, continues to resist calls for a ceasefire.
More than 80 MPs called on the government to call for an end to the violence.
However, the prime minister's official spokesman told reporters that the ceasefire “would only benefit Hamas.”
The No 10 official said he would not “speculate” on whether ministers would support a ceasefire if Israel succeeded in rescuing hostages from Gaza.
Mr Dowden would not elaborate on how long Britain envisions any pause in the fighting, which is also backed by Sir Keir Starmer's Labor Party, lasting.
Mr Sunak's deputy said he was “devastated” by the mounting casualties in Gaza, but said Israel could not “exterminate” Hamas “without civilian repercussions”.
“The way to stop further loss of innocent civilians is to eliminate the terrorist threat and move to a position where we can restore stability and peace to this region,” he told Sky News.