Israel-Hamas war: Border Force teams set up in Egypt to help citizens - if they can leave Gaza

Border Force teams are "prepared and ready" to evacuate British citizens trapped in Gaza.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Thursday border officials are pre-positioned in Egypt so that if the Rafah border crossing opens, "we're ready to get them in and bring them back".

Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, told Sky News on Friday morning this still needs to be negotiated but the border force teams were there "in preparation".

She said: "We've been in intense discussions with partners in the region, but we want the Border Force to be there to be prepared and ready if and when we can get the hostages out.

"So it's preparation so that we can be there, so we've got everything available if we can get them out.

"But right now we still need to agree that and it still needs to be facilitated."

'Calling for a pause'

Asked if she was optimistic the Rafah Crossing could open, she said: "We're still in the same position, we're calling for a pause to allow for humanitarian aid in and we're calling for the safe passage for British national passport holders to get out."

Mr Sunak said he was 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.

"It is not something we can do immediately but when the moment arises, we'll be ready to take it quickly," he said during an event in central London about artificial intelligence.

The Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza is the only border point in the territory not controlled by Israel.

Israel has only in recent days agreed to allow aid into Gaza 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 the aid deliveries - with Cairo reportedly blaming Israeli bombings around the area for it not being open for foreign nationals to pass through.

Backing ceasefire could 'cross a line'

The government is calling for "humanitarian pauses" in the fighting but has stopped short of backing a ceasefire.

Asked about the difference, Ms Keegan said this morning that "we don't want to cross that line" of telling Israel it has "anything but the right to defend itself".

Labour has backed this position despite dozens of its MPs calling for a ceasefire.

Shadow environment secretary Steve Reed has said he understands and empathises with Labour colleagues who disagree with the party's stance.

However he told Sky News that if the attack Israel suffered had happened in the UK, "our state would have sought to defend ourselves to protect our citizens by dismantling the capability of a terrorist organisation that carried it out, that applies to Israel too, they have the right under international law to do that."

Israel is conducting air strikes and raids on Gaza in its fightback against Hamas's assault on October 7 that saw at least 1,400 people, mainly civilians, killed on Israeli soil and hundreds of people taken hostage.

Fewer than five Britons are believed to be among the hostages as officials fear that some of those missing have been killed.

However many more, including the parents-in-law of Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf, are trapped in the territory.

Welfare benefits 'without delay'

As well as stationing border force officials in Egypt, the government has also announced that British citizens fleeing the conflict will be exempt from residency tests and able to get easier access to benefits and other services after arriving in the UK.

Those fleeing the war in the wider region of Lebanon and the West Bank will also be able to claim universal credit, as well as disability and child benefits, "without delay", and access social housing and housing assistance if needed.

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The government said it would also ensure that money paid under the victims of overseas terrorism compensation scheme would not be counted when working out entitlement to income-related benefits.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride said: "We've been working quickly to ensure British nationals arriving from Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Lebanon can receive the support and security they need during a time of unspeakable turmoil.

"As the UK continues to step up its response to the fast-moving circumstances in the region, the regulations which come into force today will speed up access to benefits, ensuring those eligible can access the help they need."

The government said that where arrivals do not have immediate accommodation available, local authorities may provide emergency overnight accommodation before supporting people into more secure accommodation.

Those who meet the exemption will be supported more quickly but it will not impact who local housing authorities should prioritise for social housing, the government said.