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Middle East

Volume 449: debated on Monday 17 July 2006

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on developments in the middle east. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on British activity and policy.

The United Kingdom is gravely concerned by the escalating crisis in Lebanon. Not only does it pose a serious threat to the relationship between the Israeli and Lebanese Governments, but it threatens the wider security of the region and is causing huge harm to the civilian populations, with casualties mounting on both sides. We offer our condolences to the Governments of Lebanon and Israel for the losses that they have suffered and to the families of all those affected.

The United Kingdom is committed to helping resolve the crisis. The Prime Minister has spoken to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the Foreign Secretary has spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni. We appreciate the pressures that both Governments are under at this very difficult time, but both have a responsibility to help to end the crisis. Our priority must be to create conditions to allow a ceasefire and to explore quickly how the international community might facilitate a peaceful, diplomatic resolution guaranteed, perhaps, by the deployment of an international force into the area.

Ultimately, the only way to achieve a sustainable solution to the situation in both Gaza and Lebanon is to address the root causes. That means getting back to a state where negotiations can resume on the basis of the Quartet road map. With that objective in mind, the Prime Minister is discussing the crisis with his G8 counterparts at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg. The European Union high representative, Javier Solana, and a UN team representing Secretary-General Kofi Annan have been in Beirut today. We fully support their efforts to broker an end to the conflict and we are also offering both teams logistical assistance on the ground. We are urging all involved parties to do all they can to address the crisis and to prevent the situation from worsening.

We reiterate our call for the urgent release of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers and for an end to attacks on Israeli towns and cities. We urge all those countries with influence over Hezbollah to play their part. We are very concerned about the role of Syria and Iran. Through their support for Hezbollah, they are encouraging extremism, threatening the stability of the region, and putting peace in the middle east further out of reach.

Israel has every right to act in self-defence, but we and the international community have urged it to act in proportionate and measured ways—to conform to international law, to avoid civilian death and suffering and to refrain from acts that destabilise the Lebanese Government. Disproportionate action only escalates an already dangerous situation.

The crisis also underscores the need for the full and sustainable implementation of Security Council resolution 1559, including the importance of the Government of Lebanon exercising their full authority throughout Lebanese territory. That means being able to control the area between Beirut and the Israeli border, which is cursed by militias, such as Hezbollah, whose political masters reside in Damascus and Tehran.

Our most pressing concern in this crisis is the welfare and safety of the thousands of British nationals in Lebanon. We are working day and night with our EU and other international partners towards a properly organised and above all safe arrangement to help British nationals and others for whom we have consular responsibility and who want to leave Lebanon.

We are working closely with the Ministry of Defence on how to help those British nationals who want to leave to do so safely and the House should not underestimate the scale of the task or the numbers involved. The Royal Navy destroyers, York and Gloucester, are now offshore and other vessels, including HMS Illustrious and HMS Bulwark, are heading towards the eastern Mediterranean. A rapid deployment team from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has arrived in Beirut to assist British nationals together with a military reconnaissance team, which will carry out detailed planning for a possible evacuation.

We judge that departure by sea is the safest and most practical option for British nationals wishing to leave. We are already using British helicopters to transport some of the more vulnerable British nationals to Cyprus. For example, this morning we were able to use UK helicopters, which brought in the rapid deployment team and EU High Representative Solana, to help about 40 of the most vulnerable British nationals to leave.

For the moment, we are advising British nationals in Lebanon to stay put, to exercise caution, to keep in touch with the embassy and to heed local advice. British nationals in Lebanon have been informed that they should listen to the BBC and other English language broadcasts. Our embassy in Beirut is advising British nationals in Lebanon who want to leave to get ready for departure at short notice, including by having travel documents in order.

We also have deep concerns about the situation in Gaza. The escalation in violence since the 25 June attack at the Kerem Shalom crossing has caused great suffering on both sides and mounting casualties. We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of Corporal Shalit. We also condemn the continued rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli towns. We have called on the Palestinian Authority to prevent all terrorist attacks, including these rocket attacks, and to work for the release of Corporal Shalit, and we welcome the work President Abbas is doing to achieve that.

Let me repeat that, although we recognise Israel’s right to defend itself and to secure the release of Corporal Shalit, we insist that its actions should be proportionate and in accordance with international law, as we, the G8, and the EU have made clear. We continue to have serious concerns regarding the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Israeli military actions have targeted key roads and bridges and damaged the Palestinian civilian infrastructure. We continue to urge Israel to take action to allow the full provision of basic services to the Palestinian people. We welcome the agreement to open the Rafah crossing on 18 July and hope that all those stuck on the Egyptian side of the crossing will be able to enter Gaza. Such cases should be resolved as quickly as possible through negotiations. The EU mission at Rafah has played a key role in bringing the sides together and continues to perform an important function under difficult circumstances. We have also made some humanitarian support available to those who have been stuck at the border.

We continue to have concerns about the detention of members of the Palestinian Government and legislature on 29 June. Those detained should be accorded their full legal rights and either be charged or released. We fully support Egyptian efforts to mediate between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the militias currently holding Corporal Shalit, and we have offered our assistance. Egypt plays a key role in the peace process, and we will continue to work with it. We have also pressed Syria to use its influence on Hamas. I can assure the House that the United Kingdom will continue to work to resolve this crisis.

We need an urgent end to the current crisis, although we know, of course, that real peace can come only through a lasting settlement. As the Prime Minister made clear in St. Petersburg, our priority must be to create the conditions for an early resumption of negotiations. The events that we have witnessed around Israel’s borders over the past few days have reaffirmed the great urgency of constructing a lasting settlement and the perils of assuming that there is somehow a military solution to this historic conflict. Negotiation is the only viable way to move the peace process forward.

Our goal remains a negotiated two-state solution achieved through the road map. We must all find a way to work through the current crisis to get back on to that track.

I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. We join him in offering condolences to the Governments of Lebanon and Israel, and to President Abbas, for the losses that they have suffered, and to the families of those affected.

We are all extremely concerned by these events. The crisis has entered into a new and gravely dangerous phase. What appeared to be a local and contained Israeli-Palestinian confrontation risks becoming a regional conflict. As the Minister said, our first concern is for the welfare and safety of British nationals in Lebanon and Israel. We welcome his statement that the Government are acting to protect British citizens in the area. What number of British citizens and those with dual nationality reside in Lebanon, how many of them applied for evacuation and how many people do the Government envisage having to move to safety?

We welcome the news that two Royal Navy vessels are now off the coast of Lebanon and that two others have been despatched. Can the Minister confirm when the order was originally given for the ships to leave for the Mediterranean?

According to the Foreign Office document, “Information for British nationals in Lebanon”, dated yesterday, it is not currently safe for people to try to leave Lebanon. What representations have been made to the Government of Israel to ensure that the lives of British citizens will not be in danger during an evacuation programme? What advice have the Government given to UK citizens in Israel—stay put, or leave?

I understand that the UN Secretary-General’s mission is in the region and due to brief the Security Council on Thursday. What support have the Government offered to that mission beyond the logistical support that the Minister mentioned? What are its aims and what action do the Government anticipate from the Security Council?

The G8 statement calls for the “creation of the conditions” that could lead to a cessation of violence. Those include the release of the Israeli hostages, the end of rocket attacks on Israel, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and the release of Palestinian parliamentarians. Is it realistic to expect that those conditions can be fulfilled in the absence of a ceasefire and in the context of a rapidly escalating conflict?

What role does the Minister see for diplomacy, particularly with countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to put pressure on Hezbollah and to mediate in the release of the captured Israeli soldiers in Lebanon and in Gaza?

The Prime Minister and the UN Secretary-General have called for an international force to be deployed into southern Lebanon to halt the bloodshed. What discussions have the Government had with the Lebanese Government regarding those proposals? When does the Minister envisage that force being deployed—before or after hostilities have ceased? Would this plan involve a commitment of British troops?

The welfare of innocent civilians caught in the fighting is of great concern to everybody. What representations have the Government made to the Israeli Government about the need to avoid civilian causalities and the destruction of infrastructure in the operations in Gaza and in Lebanon? There are reports of Iran and Syria providing Hezbollah with weaponry that is being used to attack Israel, as the Minister mentioned. What representations have been made to those two countries to test their willingness to bring pressure to bear on Hezbollah?

We note the Government’s concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The G8 has called for an “immediate expansion” of the temporary international mechanism for the delivery of aid to the Palestinians. Will the Minister explain what is envisaged here? What impact is the situation in Gaza expected to have on the delivery of aid and what support is being given urgently to address the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip and to speed up the delivery of food and medicine?

It is imperative that we find a route to the resumption of dialogue between all sides. In particular, it is crucial that the dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli political officials resume as soon as possible and that there be a return to negotiations on the basis of a two-state solution, as the Minister said.

In Lebanon, it is imperative that resolution 1559 be enforced, above all in respect of the disbanding and disarmament of all militias, including Hezbollah. What steps will be taken to achieve that and to reinforce the authority of the Lebanese Government in the south of the country? I understand that, later this week, the Government intend to proscribe the military wing of Hezbollah. Will the Minister confirm that that will take place and whether the Government have considered proscribing the political arm of Hezbollah as well?

The middle east is an issue of the utmost importance to international peace and security. The current crisis is likely to have an impact well beyond Lebanon and Gaza. We ought to be very careful that the conflict raging in the middle east does not adversely affect our joint diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue and our military presence in Iraq, particularly in the south where Iranian influence remains considerable.

In the last two or three months, we have had a series of debates in Westminster Hall about various aspects of the middle east: Iran’s nuclear programme, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, global terrorism and Israel. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House pressed the Government to hold a debate on the middle east in Government time to explain Government policy on the middle east across the board. I urge the Government to reflect on that and to take urgent action.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments; his questions are extremely relevant and germane to the current crisis. At the start of the crisis, 3,500 British families were registered in Lebanon and we have subsequently registered an additional 2,000 individuals, bringing the overall total to approximately 12,000 British nationals. There are also approximately 10,000 dual nationals. We have agreements with Commonwealth states, which means that we have some responsibilities there, too. When we take those numbers into account, the figures become very large. I have heard the situation described graphically in the sense that, if we had to evacuate the numbers that I have just mentioned, it would be the biggest evacuation since Dunkirk.

Directly to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, the welfare and safety of those British nationals is our prime consideration. Four more ships are being dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean and we have made it clear that, in the meantime and as we have been doing up to now, we are putting plans in place to ensure that we get those people away as safely as possible. We have to arrange meeting places and provide transport to take people to the port safely and we have to ensure that the port itself is secured. I know that the Ministry of Defence and its professionals on the ground are carrying out those tasks right now.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the UN mission. At the moment, it is an exploratory mission. I know that the people involved wanted to get in and see the situation for themselves. We have helped them to get there and will no doubt help them to get away, too. The hon. Gentleman is right that we will negotiate closely with the mission about all manner of support that we may be able to offer to help take that work forward.

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states in helping to mediate in this crisis. We are meeting them on a daily basis, and we are certainly seeking their help; they have great experience of situations such as the current one, and we need their help now. We are meeting the Lebanese Government on a daily basis. Our ambassador, James Watt, has been working very hard on that front, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spoken to the Prime Minister of Lebanon.

As for any force that might go in, I want to say very clearly that we do not envisage any British soldiers or other service personnel being part of that. This situation affects the whole world. Everyone is ready to become vocal about securing a middle east peace settlement and there are many nations that must put their armed forces where their rhetoric has been until now.

We have urged Iran and Syria time and again not to supply arms to Hezbollah, or to any other militia in the area. We are very disturbed that the rejectionist groups in Palestine and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon are being armed—with very sophisticated weapons—by Governments and agencies from outside the area. We have been pressing both Iran and Syria on the seriousness of that, and we will continue to do so. It is an issue that affects them as much as it affects any other country in the area, and that development is a very dangerous ploy.

I understand that, later this week, the Secretary of State for International Development will give a detailed update on the delivery of aid to Gaza, and also perhaps a greater explanation of the temporary international mechanism to try to ensure that basic humanitarian aid is given to Gaza.

We are helping the Lebanese Government to explain how it might be possible for them to extend their remit down to the border, should we get a resolution to this conflict. The United Nations security resolution is in place and the peacekeeping force—whatever title it has—will help to do that. The hon. Gentleman is right that that is central. I am sure that he will also be glad to know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House informs me that we proscribed the military wing of Hezbollah in 2000.

People across the world continue to be sickened and appalled by events in the middle east. We echo the Minister’s condolences and share his concerns about the plight of United Kingdom citizens and others. Amidst all the complexities of the region, the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers must continue to be condemned as the trigger of the crisis. They must be returned unharmed and nobody should deny Israel its right of self-defence. However, the military response is disproportionate and amounts to collective punishment of the people in Lebanon and the occupied territory, in contravention of the Geneva conventions and in breach of international law.

We are now far adrift of the road map. As hundreds die and thousands flee the conflict, will there now be a sustained high-level mission of all the parties to the Quartet to broker the necessary ceasefires and to plot the necessary short-term route to peace? Will the Minister clarify whether the United Kingdom has committed armed forces to the proposed UN mission, what any terms of engagement might be and where they would come from?

What provision is being made for the growing humanitarian crises arising from the Israeli incursions? Have we not now moved beyond the need for a temporary international mechanism to a requirement for urgent humanitarian aid? On the worrying plight of UK citizens, can we be assured that, as additional needs are identified, sufficient military and consular resources will be made available to those on the ground?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s initial comments. We are certainly ensuring that there our ambassador in Beirut has everything that he requires to facilitate the possible evacuation of what could be tens of thousands of people. I spoke to him a few minutes before I came to the Chamber and he is satisfied that he has all the resources that he requires. He is also working closely with the commander of our forces that have been sent there by the Ministry of Defence.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the need for proportionality, and I tried to cover that point in my statement. The Quartet will be expected to intensify its efforts and, as members of the EU, we will of course press very hard for that to happen. We believe that the Quartet is the most potent group to take the peace process forward, and we will continue to press for that. I repeat, in case the hon. Gentleman did not hear me say it when I made my statement, that there will be no British troops as part of the UN peace-keeping mission.

Order. May I remind Back Benchers that there should be only one supplementary question to the Minister?

I welcome this balanced statement. My hon. Friend referred to the importance of reopening the Rafah crossing. The American Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, played a key role in bringing about the Rafah agreement last December. Is there any sign that the US Administration are prepared to become more actively involved in finding a solution to the present crises?

Yes, the United States Administration are as worried about their nationals in the area as we are about ours. I understand that they are hoping to begin their own evacuation in a few days’ time. We are certainly talking to them and I understand that they are now talking to all the countries involved. I fully expect them, as part of the Quartet, to step up their efforts to find a resolution to the Palestinian problem as well.

Is it necessary for the Minister to sound more equivocal than the Saudi Arabians in holding Hezbollah solely responsible for the present crisis? Is he aware that, in an unprecedented statement, the Saudi Arabians have said:

“The Kingdom views that it is time that these elements”—


“alone bear the full responsibility of these irresponsible acts and shoulder the burden of ending the crisis they have created.”

If the Saudis can say that, why cannot the British Government?

I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not think that I have made a strong enough statement on Hezbollah. We have condemned Hezbollah and its tactics for many years, and will continue to do so. I am glad that the Saudi Government have made what for them is a brave statement on this matter, and I hope that it will represent a lead for many other countries in the Gulf and the middle east in general.

Does the Minister agree that the fundamental reason why people in Gaza and south Lebanon are willing to use violence is that there is no political route to justice? Does he also agree that the road map is collapsing, and that Israel is in breach of it by expanding its borders with settlements surrounding Jerusalem? If we do not take action, there will be unending violence in the middle east, causing great danger and suffering throughout the region and a threat to the world economy.

I do not know exactly what my right hon. Friend means by “take action”. We have played a very full part in trying to draw the sides together. There can only be one way out of this. There cannot be a military solution; there must be a properly negotiated solution. Neither name calling nor apportioning blame to this or that side has ever succeeded in the past, and I doubt that it will do so in the future.

While accepting totally the need for Israel to defend itself against terrorism, I should like to ask the Minister to call upon our Israeli friends to avoid any further attacks on non-Hezbollah Lebanese citizens and non-Hezbollah interests such as the airport. Otherwise, is there not a danger that the impotence of the Lebanese Government to protect their own non-Hezbollah citizens will lead those citizens to look outside Lebanon for protection? That could severely exacerbate the crisis?

In relation to what my hon. Friend said, how far is it likely that Israel can be persuaded that while it has a right to defend itself, which no one disputes—at least in this House and generally among the western democracies—the manner of its response is unacceptable and has caused untold suffering and many deaths including those of children? Is not it also important to recognise that the present conflict is playing into the hands of the extremists on both sides—those who do not want any recognition of Israel, regardless of circumstances, and those in Israel who have no wish whatever to give up post-1967 territory?

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but it is difficult to see with whom Israel is supposed to negotiate. The conflict has not arisen as a consequence of one nation invading another. It is a consequence of Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation, with its militias in the south, Fatah with its militias, and Hamas with its militias, killing and kidnapping the soldiers of a sovereign state. In those circumstances, it is difficult to negotiate and impossible to set the rules of engagement. Where I agree with my hon. Friend is that we must impress on the Israelis the international rules of conflict. When civilians are killed and the terrible phrase “collateral damage” is used to describe what is seen as a legitimate attack, the impression given across the middle east and the world is not a good one. I am sure that the Israelis must have got that message, but we will continue to give it.

While totally condemning the terrorist activities of Hamas and Hezbollah, it is important that Israel’s response should not only be proportionate but be seen to be proportionate. In so far as it is disproportionate, it leads people outside to use the phrase,

“A plague o’ both your houses!”

and it looks like the same kind of terrorism to which it is meant to respond. Will the Government assure the House that they are putting all pressure on the United States, which, after all, is the key to a solution, to be insistent that Israel act proportionately, in her interests as well as those of the whole world?

Yes. Again, that is wise advice. On every occasion, we have tried to impress on the Americans that, whatever we do, we must not fuel the attraction of terrorists in that area, because all too often, that attraction exists. In meetings in Bradford last Wednesday, I kept hearing the phrase, “our martyrs”. It is extraordinarily worrying if young, university-educated people in this country refer to those murderers who strap explosives around themselves and blow innocent people to pieces in a café in Haifa or any other city in Israel as martyrs.

Will my hon. Friend recognise that while the killing by rockets and other means of innocent Israeli civilians, and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, are vile terrorist crimes to be condemned, the Israeli military action against Lebanon, the killing of its citizens and the disruption of its fragile democracy are grave breaches of international law? Will he accept that unless a way is found to take a grip on this crisis, it could escalate into a global military, economic and political crisis?

We certainly understand the gravity of the situation, as does Kofi Annan and the G8, which has made it clear that a cessation of violence is essential and must be brought about sooner rather than later. My right hon. Friend is right—if weapons and fighters arrive from other areas, and the conflict is seen as some kind of holy jihad, we have problems. Bringing the conflict to a conclusion is the imperative. I have tried to make clear in answers to questions from other right hon. and hon. Members that all the actions that the Israeli state takes should be proportionate.

May I associate my party with the Minister’s earlier words of condolence? I condemn the kidnap of the Israeli soldiers and support calls for their immediate return. I also condemn what many believe to be disproportionate retaliation by the state of Israel. I welcome the deployment of the Royal Navy to the area to facilitate any evacuation, but what will happen to husbands, wives or children of United Kingdom citizens who are not themselves British passport-holders?

We have consular responsibility for dual nationals who wish to leave and whose lives are in danger. We will of course attempt to evacuate everyone who wants to be evacuated in those circumstances. The situation is difficult, because there are a number of agreements between us and other Commonwealth states under which we must look after many of their citizens too. The figures may become very high, but the hon. Gentleman can be absolutely assured that the Royal Navy has the professional expertise and skills to evacuate large numbers of people. We hope that it does not happen—we hope that people will get through the crisis and, most important of all, that we will be able to bring some peace to southern Lebanon that will obviate the need for a mass evacuation—but if it has to happen, we will be prepared.

While we would all condemn the kidnapping of both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian Ministers, the response of the Israeli Government has not been disproportionate; it has been an outrage. Can my hon. Friend assure us that when our Prime Minister talks to the Americans, his interlocutors understand that—as was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman)—the world faces a crisis of enormous import? The whole world could be dragged into something so tragic that we would regret every moment at which we had not taken action. Are the American Government bringing pressure to bear on the Israeli Government to end the violence?

I have tried to make clear that we recognise the gravity of the situation, and that we have tried to impress on all sides the need for proportionality and a cessation of violence. My hon. Friend knows the history better than most Members. He is aware of the feeling of Israelis, as well as Palestinians, about their own safety, the integrity of their borders and—I say this in no uncertain terms—the vital need for a two-state solution. If we take our eye off that ball, I am afraid we will enter into decades of conflict.

Given that these events were deliberately initiated by Hezbollah through the not entirely trivial actions of attacking and killing Israeli soldiers, kidnapping Israeli soldiers and raining missiles down on Israeli towns and cities, and given that Hezbollah is supported by Syria and Iran, will the Minister bring every possible form of pressure—and consequences, if necessary—to bear on Iran and Syria to end their support for terrorism and their support for the rejection of any possible just peace in the middle east?

My hon. Friend has been very clear in his condemnation of Hezbollah’s actions, and I doubt that he would find any Member on either side of the House who did not also condemn those actions without qualification. However, there is a good deal of concern about the fact that some of the language used is far from equitable. To attack power stations, to kill more than 100 civilians and to talk about taking Lebanon back 20 years is not merely disproportionate: it is immoral, it is illegal and it is unacceptable.

Will my hon. Friend unequivocally support the call from the Prime Minister of Lebanon for an immediate ceasefire on both sides? If he wants Lebanon to adhere to United Nations Security Council resolution 1559, will he also seek Israel’s adherence to resolution 242?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the language must be equitable and constructive, and I do not see any value in destroying power stations, bridges and so on. In the interim there is the possibility for the Lebanese Government to be helped to extend their remit to the Israeli border. That has to be an immediate priority. On the question of the implementation of some of the security resolutions, we have to be realistic and aim immediately to try to end this conflict and to bring about a peace in which negotiations properly can take place and people can feel safe again. On that I agree with him entirely.

Does the Minister agree that firing more than 1,000 missiles into Israel over the past four weeks is tantamount to a declaration of war with Israel and that any Prime Minister of any country would defend his people in those circumstances?

I doubt if anyone could argue with that. Shortly before I came into this Chamber, I heard that a missile fired by Hezbollah apparently has hit an apartment block and that it has collapsed. We do not know what the casualties are, but it is a serious escalation of the situation.

Can the Minister tell me how negotiations with our European colleagues will be taken forward? Some newspapers have reported today that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wished the European states to be represented by Javier Solana. That will be difficult as there is no agreement between the Germans, the French and the British on how to proceed, is there?

We are co-ordinating our activities closely with our EU partners on all matters at the moment, from trying to make some diplomatic breakthrough to making sure that all our citizens are evacuated safely if they wish to be taken from Lebanon. We have received a lot of co-operation on that front and we in turn will offer what co-operation we can to other EU states.

Is there any evidence at all that the Governments of Syria, Iran and Israel are listening to the calm and moderate language used this afternoon by the Minister? Have their ambassadors been summoned to the Foreign Office, so that he can explain these things to them?

We have not summoned them formally or informally to the Foreign Office since the crisis began. I fear we have been too busy to do that, but it is a very good point and I will take it back to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Palestinian and Israeli women members of the International Women’s Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace met last Thursday and issued a statement rejecting the use of force and urgently requesting that the Quartet intervene to stop the fighting. They also pointed out that civilians are the ones paying the price daily for the cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation. Given that women in the middle east have for many years kept discussions going across political divides, does my hon. Friend agree that, as IWC members state, this appears to be the last chance for sanity and a return to the political process?

I am very glad to hear that the movement is taking a strong and positive role. Every voice, as my hon. Friend puts it, for sanity and peace should make itself heard right now.

Given how important it is to get people round the table before many more thousands are killed and murdered, is there not a danger that with an EU initiative, a Quartet initiative and a UN initiative, those initiatives individually will lack clarity and authority? Is not there a case, given all the interests of different powers in the middle east, for the UN to have all our support and to be the main force for trying to get people round the table, backed by whatever force the world can muster?

Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It should be conducted through the UN. The three-person UN delegation that we helped to get into Beirut has a pretty good idea now of what the situation is like on the ground there. I know that Kofi Annan is involved in trying to negotiate some way through this, if only to bring a temporary cessation of violence. We will give him all the support we can, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to stress that any initiative must be properly co-ordinated, and that we must have some coherence to our approach.

No one in this House in any way supports kidnapping or the firing of rockets into Israel, but does my hon. Friend accept that collective punishment is clearly against international law and has been regularly and routinely used by Israel over the years? It is being used again now in Lebanon, with the bombing of infrastructure and targeted assassinations from the air that inevitably cause civilian casualties, as the Israelis know when they do it. Those are not the actions of a responsible Government. In comparing the actions of Hezbollah and Israel, let us remember that Israel is a Government and a state, not an organisation like Hezbollah. One expects any state that claims to be a democracy and is a member of the UN to abide by international law.

We certainly expect Israel to abide by international law and we are totally opposed to collective punishment. My hon. Friend is right in recalling the history of relationships between Israel and its neighbours since the second world war. There is a great difference now. Hezbollah recognises no international law and targets civilians directly. Hamas’s terrorist elements murder civilians directly. That is the way in which terrorists operate. It is difficult, as we have found in this country to our great pain, to understand how such an enemy operates, and it is still more difficult to erect defences against such attacks. That is not to excuse collective punishment, as my hon. Friend puts it, but we must also try to understand that there are some very unscrupulous organisations around that operate across frontiers, owe allegiance to no one and are prepared to use any murderous techniques they care to invent to achieve their ends. That is a very difficult enemy with which to negotiate.

With the crisis pushing oil prices to $80 a barrel—and potentially to more than $100, if Iran is more directly involved—and causing great stress to the world economy and to the poorest countries in particular, can the Minister tell me whether the British Government are taking any action to secure the release of strategic stocks to stabilise the situation?

No, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that at the moment. I know that he is a great expert on the oil industry and I will try to find out for him. I will probably have to whisper the answer to him privately, because if such information reached the market we would see a rapid shift in the price of oil.

My hon. Friend has mentioned several times the need to return to the road map once this current crisis is over. In that context, may I draw his attention to the fact that among everything else the Israeli Government are continuing to construct the illegal wall on Palestinian territory and are annexing yet more land in the west bank around Hebron? Will he also make representations to the Israeli Government that they must stop creating facts on the ground, because that will mean that the two-state solution will be dead in the water, to the detriment of Israel and the Palestinians?

My hon. Friend is right. There can be no justification for constructing the barrier that has been built on Palestinian land. Nor can the Israeli Government annex Palestinian land and claim some sort of spurious legality for it. We have raised that point with the Israelis time and again, and we will continue to raise it with them. I have been there and seen it for myself and it is causing enormous hardship for many people, Palestinians and other dwellers in, for example, Jerusalem. If Israel is to come out of this situation with any credibility, it is vital that it is seen to be fair and to abide by international law in the construction of the barrier, and to stop the annexation of Palestinian land.

It was incredibly touching on a visit to Beirut in April to see how much progress has been made in rebuilding the state after the ejection of the Syrians. Does the Minister accept that the Beirut Government face exactly the same problems in trying to disarm Hezbollah as the Government whom we support in Baghdad have with militias there? For Israel to trash the state of Lebanon will do nothing at all for Israel’s long-term security. The target needs to be Hezbollah, not civilians or Lebanese infrastructure.

I agree broadly with the hon. Gentleman. We were all hopeful that moves towards real democracy and the move out from Lebanon of the Syrians—at least, the Syrian Army—boded very well. There was a good opportunity there for a lasting peace and for a strong Lebanese Government, which is precisely what was needed. The destruction of infrastructure and deaths of civilians will do nothing to strengthen that opportunity for the future, and we should say so very clearly.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw parallels with sectarian militias in Baghdad and other places; any democratic Government face a terrible dilemma over how far they can go to try to rope militias in, and for the Lebanese Government that will be a huge task. I hope that they will be helped by an international peacekeeping force with the teeth to do something about Hezbollah.

Following on directly from those comments, I draw the Minister’s attention to a parliamentary answer that he gave in March, in which he mentioned the British Government’s support for Lebanese political, economic and security reform, which I welcome. Is not the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon a major destabilising force? As the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said, it is the principal reason for the escalation in violence during the last 10 days or so. Further to the Minister’s statement, what work will he do to ensure that the Lebanese Government and others undermine, weaken and ostracise Hezbollah within Lebanon?

My hon. Friend is quite right: Hezbollah is the major destabilising influence. He will know that there were many hopes that Hezbollah would recognise that it would have a good deal of democratic support if it converted itself into a strictly democratic, legal party. It has had MPs elected and has at least one Minister in the Government, and one would have hoped that would be enough for it. It was not enough, and Hezbollah simply could not ditch the habits of a lifetime of forming militias, killing people and targeting innocent civilians. That means, of course, that it has a hand in destabilising Lebanon as well as relationships between Lebanon and Israel. We all have to work to counteract that influence, because it is pernicious.

The Minister’s statement has been extremely balanced, as have his answers, for which I am very grateful. Does he agree that the calls on Israel to show restraint are recognised by Israel, which has shown enormous restraint over many months of having rockets fired into its territory? Three Israeli soldiers are still being held hostage: what is Israel meant to do about those soldiers? Is it meant to negotiate? If it does, will not that simply encourage more hostage-taking?

That is a real dilemma, and we know about that dilemma from our experience in Iraq. What do a Government do? Do they start to play the game of hostage-taking and prisoner swaps and so on? There may be a mutually agreed solution down that path, but I cannot see it myself right now, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that we have to urge restraint on all sides. It is difficult to urge restraint, however, on an organisation which, at its heart, has the aim of the destruction of a country. It is not easy to do.

There have been reports over the weekend that longer-range missiles used by Hezbollah have been supplied either by Syria or Iran. Is that the case? If it is, does my hon. Friend recognise that from an Israeli point of view it is one thing to be attacked by a terrorist organisation but to be attacked by two sovereign states in the region could provoke a completely different reaction, which poses grave danger to the whole middle east?

We certainly recognise from our experiences in Basra that countries outside Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine are prepared to lend and give their technology to the destruction of those whom they perceive to be their enemies. I do not want to inflame the situation further, but somebody is giving some very sophisticated missiles to some very unscrupulous people. In the end, that will do no good to Iran and Syria, any more that it will do Lebanon or the Palestinian people any good. We have to do what we can to stop that flow of weapons and try to persuade people that in the end they will kill innocent people and any hopes of peace in the future.

Given that Hezbollah would probably not have been able to proceed in the kidnapping and killing of Israeli soldiers without the green light from Iran, have Ministers considered the possibility that Iran may have given that permission with a view to diverting the world’s attention from the crisis over its own nuclear programme? What guarantees can the Government give the House that they will not allow themselves to be diverted in that way?

We will certainly not be diverted from our examination of the Iranian nuclear programme. We are good members of the International Atomic Energy Agency and support entirely the UN’s approach. We are absolutely determined to do what we can to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, whether in the middle east or anywhere else.

Yesterday evening, I spoke with the mother and grandfather of a young man who is trapped in north Beirut. Their anxiety for his well-being is compounded by the fact that he apparently cannot make contact with our embassy and that they believe that other foreign nationals can be evacuated from Lebanon. Can my hon. Friend spell out the exact status of our embassy? Is it actually open, and are other countries having the same difficulties in evacuating their countrymen?

I can assure my hon. Friend that our embassy is not only open but has been working flat out throughout the crisis. If he wants to approach me afterwards, I will certainly go through the situation in detail. Like many Members, I have experienced a number of crises across the world and I have rarely seen a set of our representatives—our diplomats abroad—work harder than those in the embassy in Beirut. I hope that my hon. Friend realises the scale of the problem; it is absolutely enormous and is taking place when missiles and aircraft are flying around and bombs are going off. Our diplomats are carrying out a very brave act and doing it very well, and I do not think that anybody is further advanced than us in getting our people out, but it will take a lot of organising. The last thing we want to do is to put our people in danger by persuading them to leave places where they are relatively safe. We cannot do that, which is why we have to negotiate carefully to make sure that our ships and buses are safe and that they will not be targeted and blown up—whether by Hezbollah or the Israelis. Our primary task is to make sure that our people are safe and that is what we are focusing on at the moment.

Will the hon. Gentleman impress on his Israeli interlocutors the fact that many of us who are friends of Israel believe that the action being undertaken by the Israeli Government is disproportionate and not compatible with the standards that we expect of a civilised Government? Furthermore, it is not likely to enhance their long-term security and will damage their reputation in the eyes of the world.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to raise this issue. I have tried to make it clear to the House that we expect proportionate action, not disproportionate action. I agree entirely with him: disproportionate action, where it takes place, will do nothing other than cause greater resentment and probably greater opposition to the cause of Israel.

Everyone who has spoken in the House today has quite rightly condemned all the violence in the region and all the killing that is going on. The Minister himself has acknowledged that Israel’s actions in Lebanon are disproportionate and illegal, and are killing a large number of civilians. In view of Israel’s illegal activity, is he prepared to propose any kind of sanction against Israel, such as suspension of the EU trade agreement, which has within it a requirement in relation to human rights law and international law being adhered to? Will he also say the same to the United States? It has it within its power to put real pressure on Israel to cease this illegal activity.

No, this is not the time to start dusting off theories that I have heard over the past 30 years about how we can sort this problem out. We have to try to bring a cessation to the immediate violence and try to make people safe. Let us start negotiations from there.