UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres was “wrong” and should retract his comments about Hamas’s assault if it implied any justification for the slaughter of Israelis, a UK minister has said.

Mr Guterres sparked a diplomatic storm after he told a United Nations Security Council meeting in New York that it was important to recognise that “the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum” and had occurred after the Palestinian people had been “subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation”.

In comments made on Tuesday, the UN chief also expressed concern that “clear violations of international humanitarian law” had been committed by Israel in Gaza during its fightback against Palestinian militants which has led to thousands of casualties.

Israel has conducted air strikes on the 25-mile strip that is home to 2.3 million Palestinians and blockaded food, water, fuel and other essentials, with humanitarian aid only allowed through in recent days.

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick said the UK did not support Mr Guterres’s assessment, telling Sky News: “We don’t believe Israel has broken international law.

“There is a clear right in international law for a nation to defend itself, and that is what Israel is doing.”

He urged for Hamas’s bloody assault on Israel on October 7, in which fighters killed 1,400 people, to be called out as an “appalling act of evil terrorism” that was without justification.

Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain about Mr Guterres’s remarks on Hamas’s incursion, Mr Jenrick said: “No-one, whether deliberately or otherwise, should be implying there is any justification for that.

“In that sense, I think he was wrong. I hope that isn’t what he meant but, if it is, then he should retract that.”

The Conservative minister said it was “not for me to say” whether the UN chief should stand down following a call by Israel’s UN ambassador Gilad Erdan for Mr Guterres to resign.

Mr Jenrick added: “I do think it is important we are all very clear that there is no justification for what happened, there is no context that is relevant.

Antonio Guterres
United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres has sparked a diplomatic storm with his comments on the Israel-Hamas war (Jane Barlow/PA)

“What happened was an appalling act of evil terrorism and everyone should call that out.”

The Home Office minister’s stance appeared to harden during his round of broadcast interviews on Wednesday, moving from initially stating he would not respond directly to Mr Guterres’s stateside comments before suggesting they were “wrong”.

Israel has ramped up air strikes across the Gaza Strip in a retaliation that is reducing residential buildings to rubble and killing dozens at a time, according to witnesses.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said on Tuesday that at least 5,791 Palestinians had been killed since October 7, including at least 704 in the past day.

More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed, according to Israeli officials, mostly civilians who died in the initial Hamas rampage.

About 220 people are believed to have been captured by Hamas during the raids and are being held in Gaza.

Four of those have been released, including 85-year-old Yocheved Lifshitz, who has family in the UK.

Mr Jenrick said the UK Government was “not asking for a ceasefire” in the Israel-Hamas war but suggested the releasing of further hostages could open up peace talks.

“We want to see the hostages out, so the first step that could be taken by Hamas would be to release those innocent men, women and children that they are keeping captive in Gaza,” he told Sky.

“That is the kind of depraved organisation we are dealing with and talk of making peace with them seems fanciful until at least they have made that first step.”

The conflict in the Middle East has been a catalyst for pro-Palestinian protests and pro-Israel vigils in Britain.

Mr Jenrick confirmed that letters have gone out to UK visa-holders whose conduct at rallies is considered to have been contrary to British values, with the Home Office informing them that it is “minded to” revoke their right to reside.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that those contacted would be able to “make representations” before any final decision is made.

The close ally of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suggested visa-holders could be expelled even if their behaviour is deemed not to have breached the law.

“I think there is conduct which is below the criminal standard but which is wrong, would be accepted as wrong by most reasonable people,” he told Times Radio.

He added: “We’ve all seen instances of people glorifying, valorising terrorist activities — we’ve seen people holding deeply antisemitic banners, being interviewed in the media and praising Hamas.

“That is disgusting behaviour. I don’t want to see that on our streets.”

With Westminster continuing to be dominated by the war, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer will hold talks with Muslim MPs in his party as he continues efforts to allay the backlash over his position on Israel and Gaza.

The meeting with Sir Keir and his deputy Angela Rayner is due to take place after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

It comes after the Opposition leader was forced to clarify comments he made during an interview with LBC after Hamas’s atrocity, suggesting that Israel had the “right” to cut off power and water from Gaza.