Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Cawsey.]
These are grave and serious days for the international community.
Of all the difficult issues around the world, the situation in the middle east is of the greatest immediate concern. Many civilians have been killed. The crisis threatens all our hopes for wider peace and security in the region. Many thousands of British nationals and dual nationals have been caught up in the midst of this violence. Understandably, many are worried about their safety and anxious to leave, and I will say a little more about that, if I may, later.
I want to begin, however, by reminding us all of the course of recent events, because that context informs our decisions and approach to a situation that has its underlying roots in the events and decisions of past decades. A year or so ago, a period of at least comparative calm—I understand that it is called “tahdia”—was said to exist in Israel and Palestine. Israel withdrew its forces and settlers from Gaza, and although the calm was punctuated by continuing Qassam rocket attacks on Israel, overall levels of violence were significantly down. The new President of Palestine began to establish himself, and almost six months ago the Palestinian people gave a mandate to the representatives of Hamas. That led to demands and pressure from all sides for Hamas to adopt the Quartet’s three principles: to renounce violence, to recognise Israel, and to make a commitment to the road map.
At the beginning of last month, Prime Minister Olmert visited the United States and the United Kingdom. During our discussions and in his public statements, he made it clear that he would be prepared to work for a negotiated settlement with any genuine Palestinian partner for peace. A month ago, on 22 June in Jordan, President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert met for the first time in over a year. President Abbas had also just scheduled a meeting with Hamas Prime Minister Haniya.
Those were tentative but, I think, important signs of progress. However, Palestinian extremists began again to step up rocket attacks on Israel, and the Israelis to respond with artillery fire. Tragically—as the House will probably remember—a family of seven Palestinians was killed on a beach in Gaza. It was in that situation of substantially heightened tensions that Palestinian militants tunnelled into Israel, killed two soldiers and abducted a third. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that that was a deliberate attempt to destroy those first small signs of a move towards dialogue.
This was the deteriorating and already dangerous background against which Hezbollah chose to cross into Israel, kill eight Israeli soldiers and kidnap two more, deliberately pouring petrol on an already burning bonfire. I find it impossible to see that action as anything other than a calculated attempt by extremist forces massively to destabilise the region further, without the slightest regard for the potential impact of their actions on the people of Lebanon.
I entirely agree with the points that my right hon. Friend has made. There can be no doubt that Hezbollah started the conflict. Does my right hon. Friend not agree, however, that Israel’s response—300 Lebanese civilians dead, 1,000 injured, a third of them children, and half a million people displaced—is utterly disproportionate?
My hon. Friend is aware, I know, that from the outset we have urged on all parties that they should act proportionately, and that they should do everything possible to avoid civilian violence. I regret—as, I know, does my hon. Friend, along with, probably, the whole House—the killing and injuring of, in particular, civilians in Lebanon, in Gaza or in Israel itself. Our main objective must be to establish what can be done to ameliorate the situation.
Will the Foreign Secretary answer the question that she has just been asked? Does she believe that the action taken by the Israeli Government in Lebanon, which, initially, was understandable as a response to terrorism, is proportionate or disproportionate?
I can only repeat what I have already said. From the beginning we have urged restraint on Israel, and we continue to do so. From the beginning we have urged Israel—which, of course, argues that it is trying to degrade Hezbollah’s ability to continue to attack it—not only to show restraint, but to take every care to avoid civilian casualties.
I have no illusions whatever about the Iranian-backed groups that are causing so much damage to Israel at the moment, but will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the strong possibility that the lack of forceful condemnation from the United States and Britain of what Israel is doing in retaliation—the number of casualties, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock); the children who are being bombed, killed and seriously injured—constitutes an encouragement to Israel to continue what it is doing?
No. I say to my hon. Friend, and to those in all parts of the House who I know share some of his concerns, that no one—no one at all—is encouraging a continuation of the conflict, either on the Palestinian side, in Hezbollah, or in Israel. My hon. Friend may have noticed that the G8 statement called on all parties to try to create the conditions for a ceasefire. The European Union Foreign Ministers’ statement last Monday also called for a cessation of violence.
I can assure my hon. Friend that no one is encouraging a continuation of violence. What everyone is trying to do in their different ways—and people will disagree with some of the ways that are being chosen, whoever is doing it and whatever they are doing—is make an appallingly dangerous situation less dangerous.
That really will not do as an explanation. Everyone understands that the United States has sent an implicit signal to Israel that she has a period in which to try to deal with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Israel’s strategy in trying to do that is as we see it on our television screens, and as witnessed by the people of Lebanon.
I do not accept that, although I understand the argument. I hear and I read and I am familiar—from before I became Foreign Secretary—with the fact that people impute all sorts of actions and motives to the Government of the United States, as they do, indeed, to our Government, whether in partnership or complicity with the US or on our own. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that, on the basis of many conversations, I know that everyone wishes to see the violence diminished and ceased. All kinds of ideas are floating around—I shall refer to one or two of them later—and all sorts of initiatives are being taken to find a way out of the situation for the parties engaged in it. However, one of simplest imaginable ideas—it has no complications and the detail does not have to be worked through—is for those who kidnapped the soldiers to release them.
Everything that my right hon. Friend says makes sense and I would not dissent from her analysis of the origins of the conflict, but is it not just a tiny bit shameful that, although we rightly condemn Hezbollah for what it has done, we can find nothing stronger than the word “regret” to describe the slaughter, misery and mayhem unleashed by Israel on a fragile country such as Lebanon?
I hope that my hon. Friend will have noticed—I think that he will, because he is a fair-minded as well as highly intelligent man—that although I have stringently condemned Hezbollah for wantonly and without the smallest fig leaf of an excuse choosing to make an already bad situation infinitely worse, I have tried to be relatively proportionate in what I have said about all other players.
I have already given way four or five times and many Members want to speak. I propose to make further progress with my speech before giving way again; otherwise, I am mindful that the entire debate will run out of time even before I—let alone anyone else—have finished speaking.
I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)—I know that he will accept my assurance, however much he disagrees with what I am doing or saying—that I am striving in every way I can to act effectively to bring about the position that he desires. I will continue to act in the way that I believe is most likely to be effective, which is not always the way that people would wish me to act.
As the whole House knows, Hezbollah does not act alone. Behind it and, I am afraid, lending it support and direction are Syria and Iran. Syria finances Hezbollah and facilitates the transfer of weapons, including thousands of missiles that appear to be supplied by Iran. Against that difficult and dangerous background, the focus of the international community must surely be on what action can be taken to bring about a durable ceasefire. First and foremost, while attempts are made to create the conditions for a ceasefire, the international community must strive to ease the suffering of civilian populations caught up in the fighting.
Recognising that Hezbollah arose out of the consequences of the invasion of Lebanon by the Israelis in 1982, is not my right hon. Friend concerned about what might arise this time, especially if we dilly-dally over a ceasefire and are slow to provide the conditions for Lebanon to get back on its feet?
I can assure my hon. Friend that everyone is aware of the many and varied disasters that could follow from these events. There are all sorts of potential outcomes, hardly any of them good. I repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South a few moments ago—that the Government are trying to do everything that they can to improve the situation.
I am not giving way for the moment, as I have already said that I want to make some progress.
The European Union could play a particularly important role in humanitarian action, and I urged that on my colleagues at the General Affairs Council on Monday. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has agreed to provide £2 million in immediate humanitarian assistance to Lebanon. His Department is also arranging for two humanitarian advisers and one reconstruction adviser to be sent to the region as soon as access becomes possible. The EU has also pledged €10 million in humanitarian assistance.
Secondly, we must continue to step up our diplomatic efforts. The UN Secretary- General’s special envoy to the region, Vijay Nambiar, will report back to the UN Security Council today. In addition, the EU’s high representative, Javier Solana, has visited the region twice and we hope that he will continue those efforts. Meanwhile, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been in repeated contact with Prime Minister Siniora and with Prime Minister Olmert, and both my right hon. Friend and I have been in contact with many others in the region and across the globe.
When the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy reports to the UN later today, will the British Government support a call for an immediate ceasefire? People in this country see what is happening on their television screens and they want to see our Government taking a lead in the international community and doing everything that they can to stop the violence on all sides now, immediately and with no qualifications.
I can assure my hon. Friend not only that we are taking a lead, but that we are doing everything we can to try to bring an end to the violence. With regard to our response to the special envoy’s report, my hon. Friend will have to forgive me if I wait to hear it before I respond.
The Prime Minister, in his statement on the G8 summit, refused to say whether we would recall our ambassador from Damascus for discussions. Given the consensus that the Foreign Secretary clearly has with the Prime Minister that the Syrians are implicated with Hezbollah, why cannot we take that simple step?
We could do that, and I understand and respect the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. However, I go back to my acid test, and I do not think that it would help. At present, we would rather have our ambassador in Damascus, able to convey our point of view.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hezbollah should be condemned for placing its munitions in densely populated areas, and does she agree that that is the main reason for the high level of civilian casualties as Israel tries to defend its population?
Many of us recall the admirably balanced statement made by the Minister for the Middle East on Monday when he said 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.”
He also said:
“We certainly expect Israel to abide by international law and we are totally opposed to collective punishment.”—[Official Report, 17 June 2006; Vol. 449, c. 28-32.]
Is that still the Government’s position, and, if so, will the Foreign Secretary say so out loud, otherwise, the great fear is that disproportionate action by Israel will invite exactly the same sort of response in future years by terrorists who wish to promote instability in the region?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, because he did extremely well on Monday. Of course, the views and concerns he expressed remain the view of the Government. I will go further and say to the hon. Gentleman what I have said in several forums, including to representatives of the Government of Israel, that it seems that, apart from in very few quarters, there is a really widespread recognition and acceptance that these particular events—and their scale, with regard to Lebanon especially—were precipitated by a wanton act of destruction by Hezbollah. It is a very unusual position for Israel to be in for almost everybody to say that there was no excuse for Hezbollah’s action and it made an already bad situation worse. That offers the Government and the people of Israel a window of opportunity to make their case about the nature and scale of the attack and the undermining that they are facing. In the many conversations that I have had with representatives of that Government, I have made the point that Israel could close that window of opportunity, which would be a pity.
If colleagues will forgive me, I had better progress a little further.
We should also take forward the G8 proposal for the United Nations Secretary-General to develop a plan to implement in full Security Council resolution 1559. The core of any such plan would be to enable the Lebanese Government and their armed forces to establish their authority throughout the country, in particular in the south. Such a plan is likely to require a different sort of international military presence from the present UN force, UNIFIL, to give direct support to the Lebanese army and to help with the disarming of militias, including Hezbollah.
So our goals are twofold: the earliest possible end to hostilities, including the release of the kidnapped soldiers in Gaza and Lebanon, and a process that will enable the Lebanese Government and their armed forces to take full control of the country, with international monitors. Long-term stability will be possible only if Syria and Iran end their interference in Lebanese internal affairs in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1680.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State; she is giving a measured response in her speech. What offer of hope can she give today to the thousands of British people and their families—and those for whom we are responsible—who are caught up in the war zone and would like to leave immediately? They need a message of hope and reassurance that they will be looked after, even though that is a very big task.
Everyone wants to see a cessation of violence as soon as possible. Many of the other routes that one could urge—the international community is urging them, and exploring and trying to develop them, and looking at the detail—will take time. It will be complicated and difficult to work them out and to pursue them. Releasing kidnapped soldiers is not difficult at all, and takes no time at all.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that there is public concern. Many people do not understand that we have a weak Lebanese Government that everyone is trying to support, but at the same time it seems that Israel has gone over the top and is destroying that Government. Therefore, what is happening could be counterproductive, no matter how many resolutions we have.
My hon. Friend is entirely right that one of the concerns that is felt throughout the international community—in Israel, too, I believe—is that no one wishes the Lebanese Government to be undermined, and everyone recognises the importance of the continuation of a democratic Government in Lebanon, not least in the interests of Israel itself. The Government share the concern that my hon. Friend expresses; it is one of the anxieties in our mind.
If we are asking the Lebanese Government to implement UN Security Council resolution 1559 and we expect them to do things that the UN Security Council has asked, should we not make equivalent demands on the Government of Israel, who have ignored Security Council resolutions for years? If we are trying to have a balanced approach to this problem, it is false to equate the actions of an organisation such as Hezbollah with those of a state; one expects completely different standards of behaviour from a state that is a member of the United Nations.
I can only say to my hon. Friend that when I looked at the part of my speech that refers to United Nations resolutions, I knew that someone would get up and mention 20 others that various sides are in breach of. Of course I understand the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed; it is a point of view that I have heard expressed often in this House. However, I say to him, with the greatest respect, that one of the reasons I stated at the outset of my speech that I proposed to try to curtail my remarks to the immediate context of the events we are discussing is that I am aware—I do not say this as any kind of criticism—of how deep-seated is the history of all such events. I know that many angers and anxieties have been expressed, and that various resolutions have and have not been observed. We could go on for weeks considering these issues, but at the moment, there is one of the worst and most dangerous crises in the middle east that we have seen for a very long time. That is why I am trying to concentrate on what might be done to ease that specific facet of what I totally accept is a complex and difficult problem.
I am sorry but I must move on.
The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) asked about British families and of course, many thousands of British nationals and their families have been directly affected by the violence in Lebanon. Embassy and consular staff have been working flat out to organise the evacuation of those British nationals who want to leave Lebanon—that, of course, is not all of them—as quickly and as safely as possible. A Foreign Office rapid deployment team flew out to Beirut last Saturday, and another is in Cyprus helping to support British nationals arriving there. There are 73 additional staff on the ground in Cyprus and in Beirut, and that number will rise to 109 by Thursday. The majority of the staff are from the Foreign Office, but they also include immigration officers, members of the Red Cross and medical personnel.
To give some hope to the thousands of families who are worried, I point out that the Foreign Office has been fantastic in providing information to a constituent of mine—I am pleased to say that he boarded a ship this morning—and his family. The accuracy of that information, which was provided in the most difficult circumstances, was of the highest level. This House should put on the record our thanks to the staff on the ground and to the Ministry of Defence for the work that they have done, which has given real hope to families such as those whom the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) mentioned, who are understandably very concerned about their loved ones.
As my hon. Friend and the whole House will know, we normally hear only from those who feel that public servants have failed them—that is perfectly understandable; I do not point this out as a criticism—so I am genuinely extremely grateful to him for that intervention. I know that what he says is true, and that his comments will be much appreciated by those who have volunteered to engage in this work.
If I may, I shall make a little progress first.
Sixty-three of the most vulnerable British nationals were evacuated on Monday 17 July and a further 175 people were evacuated by HMS Gloucester on Tuesday. Yesterday, a further 863 people left on HMS York and HMS Gloucester, but today we hope to evacuate even larger numbers. HMS Bulwark, which was expected to dock in Beirut this morning, can take up to 2,000 people, and we have other ships standing by. Our teams in Cyprus have arranged for those who wish to continue back to the United Kingdom to fly home, and where necessary we have chartered special aircraft to do that. We are co-ordinating closely across government to support those who arrive back in the United Kingdom.
We are also aware that approximately 100 British nationals and British dual nationals are still in south Lebanon. We are in touch with some of them and are trying to contact others, but at the moment it is too dangerous to travel south to try to get them out. A United Nations ferry has been allowed into Tyre and has picked up many foreign nationals; we are urgently seeking to confirm how many of them are British nationals. Ten British nationals left Sidon yesterday in a bus convoy and should be evacuated to Cyprus today. We are working with our EU partners to get all EU nationals who want to leave out of south Lebanon as quickly and safely as possible.
I am most grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way. She will have seen in the recent Intelligence and Security Committee report that one of its priorities is Iranian-backed terrorism. She will have also seen yesterday’s comment by Hezbollah that it is preparing to unleash its forces in America and Europe. What is the Foreign Secretary’s view of Iranian-backed terrorism inside this country?
As the hon. Gentleman says, there are indeed concerns about the scale and nature of terrorism in this country, and about whether some of that is inspired or funded in any way by forces in and around Iran. He will know that that issue has also been a concern for our operations in, for example, Iraq. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that our security services and police are doing everything possible to monitor such flows of information and to ensure that we keep British people as safe as we reasonably can.
I remind my right hon. Friend that other people want to go in the other direction. Earlier today, we met a senior Lebanese Member of Parliament who is very active with the Lebanese-British Friendship Society but who cannot return home because the conflict means that there is no airport for him to fly into. His perception is that Israel has been given a free hand to destroy Lebanon. I consider that to be a very serious accusation indeed, and he also described the very bad humanitarian situation that has developed already. Why cannot this House—today and with no preconditions—call for a ceasefire on all sides?
I am very sorry to learn about the concerns that my right hon. Friend has expressed, and entirely take her point that some people are trapped in this country rather than in Lebanon. I take very seriously what she says about the concern expressed by the gentleman to whom she referred, and I completely understand why he should make the observations that she has reported, given his perspective on the situation and what he is seeing and hearing in this country. I can only repeat what I said earlier—that the Government have no wish or desire for the events in Lebanon to continue for a second longer than is necessary, but that the people with the simplest levers in their hands are those who hold the kidnapped soldiers.
Has there been any discussion with the Israeli authorities about what they can do to give proper guarantees that British nationals, and members of the international community more generally, will not come under Israeli fire during this very difficult withdrawal period?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to how we are trying to ensure people’s safety, but there are all sorts of different problems. One is how safety is affected when the bombs and bullets are flying, but there are other, more mundane difficulties. For example, the vessels that we are sending are the right ones for the job—and it has been a source of great reassurance for many to be told that the Royal Navy was on its way to collect them—but by their very nature they are high-sided vessels. That is just one of the considerations that we must take into account, but I assure him that the concerns that he raises have for many days been part of the dialogue.
I apologise, but I shall not give way. I have been on my feet for half an hour already and am very mindful that many colleagues wish to speak in the debate.
The evacuation is a massive operation. To remove thousands of civilians by sea from a country that is under naval blockade and subject to aerial bombardment is a difficult and complex task. As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) just indicated, the safety of British nationals has been our paramount concern throughout.
It has never been simply a question of asking people to turn up at the docks and wait for a ship. Indeed, it would obviously be irresponsible to move large numbers of people around Beirut if, by so doing so, we put them in greater danger. That is why we have conducted this evacuation in phases, each carefully planned and co-ordinated with countries in the region and with our international partners. The whole House will join me in paying tribute again to staff from my Department, to the armed forces and to all the others who are working so hard to make the operation run smoothly.
I know that the House is likely to concentrate in the debate on the immediate crisis, but I ought to take this opportunity to report on a further difficult issue that engages the Government—Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology.
On 8 May in New York, the E3 plus 3 decided to prepare a full and comprehensive set of proposals that would support Iran’s declared desire for modern civil nuclear power, while also addressing international concerns. We all believed that, in its own interests and those of the wider international community, Iran should heed the repeated calls from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors for a suspension of activities related to uranium enrichment and reprocessing, and come to the negotiating table to find a diplomatic solution.
That extended package of proposals was finalised in Vienna on 1 June and presented by the EU high representative, Javier Solana, in Tehran a few days later. He conveyed the agreed view of the E3 plus 3 that we would endeavour speedily to address any queries or concerns and hoped for an early response.
That was over six weeks ago. Iranian Government members have repeatedly told the news media that there are ambiguities in the proposals or that they raise questions that will need to be answered. A large number of attempts were made to arrange meetings at which any questions and ambiguities could be addressed, but those proposed meetings were rejected, including the cancelling of a proposed meeting on 5 July at the last minute and, apparently, for no good reason.
Finally, a meeting was arranged for 11 July. The Iranian negotiator, Ali Larijani, met Javier Solana and E3 and Russian officials. However, he raised no issues of substance and said that he was unable either to give a response to our proposals or even to indicate when Iran may be able to do so.
The E3 plus 3 concluded that we had no option but to return to the Security Council to resume the work on a Security Council resolution, which was suspended two and a half months ago. Our proposals remain on the table and we continue to encourage the Iranians to take the positive path on offer. Should Iran decide to do so and to take the steps required by the IAEA board, we would be prepared to suspend activity in the Security Council.
One of the reasons that Hezbollah is much more potent and that Iran represents a significant threat is that the Chinese Government have been consistently assisting the guidance of their missiles, including the one that hit the Israeli cruiser last week. Iran has appointed an ambassador to the UK in the past two weeks. Has the Foreign Secretary called him, since his arrival, or indeed the Chinese ambassador, to her office to press on them the fact that third-party support for the nuclear programme and Hezbollah is not acceptable?
First, I am not sure whether the Iranian ambassador has arrived yet—[Interruption.] If he has, I have not been aware of that. We have continued discussions with the Chinese Government. I know that there are things that we do that China will be concerned about and vice versa, but, at the present time, there is a great deal of united concern in the Security Council about the position with regard to Iranian work on nuclear activity. There is a great wish to work together to resolve some of these difficulties, as we did last week in reaching a united conclusion about events in North Korea. That has to be, at this moment in time, the focus of our activity and relationship.
I am sorry, but I must finish.
The current crisis in the middle east and the ongoing negotiations with Iran provide the international community with huge and pressing security challenges, but, of course, we face other such challenges in that region and across the globe. The Government remain committed to working with our partners across the broad agenda of international concerns.
In Afghanistan, we are helping the Afghan Government to extend the rule of law across their country. In Iraq, we are giving our full support to the people and to their elected Government as they struggle to build a better future in the face of terrible violence. In Darfur, we are leading calls for the deployment of a UN force and we are supporting the African Union force. On Tuesday, we confirmed that we would provide the African Union with a further £20 million. As I mentioned earlier, the Security Council has taken firm and unanimous action on North Korea in response to its testing of long-range missiles.
Today, an active and engaged foreign policy does not just mean dealing with so-called global security. It also means dealing with the global insecurity that can exacerbate international tensions and stresses, so we are pushing hard for an ambitious outcome to the Doha development round. We welcomed the renewed commitment by the EU, the US and the G20 at the recent G8 summit to overcome the remaining obstacles to agreement and, crucially, to show more flexibility. There is more at stake than the economic well-being of developed and developing countries. There is the fate of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable and the credibility of the multilateral system as a whole.
I am also determined that the Foreign Office will be at the forefront of a step change in the international diplomacy on climate change. Global warming is one of the greatest threats that we face as an international community, and progress on it is needed with immediacy and urgency. Again, there was some progress at the G8, including recognition of the need for a clear goal to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations. The Gleneagles dialogue meeting in Mexico will be the next step in taking that forward.
I began today by saying that these are grave and difficult times for the international community. I doubt that a single person in the House would disagree with that, however much there may be disagreement on other issues. In the current crisis in the middle east, it is not just the fate of those countries most directly involved and their peoples that is at issue. Rather, what is at stake is any prospect for a lasting peace in the region and with it the wider security of the international community as a whole. What stands out with utter clarity is that any or all of these different issues and events can be addressed, let alone resolved, only if we seek the maximum amount of common ground and co-operation from the international community as a whole. That is what the Government have sought to do and will continue to do.
I am grateful for the Foreign Secretary’s speech and to the Leader of the House for arranging today’s debate, albeit a shorter one than would have been ideal. I put it to the Foreign Secretary that there may be a strong case for a further report to the House next Tuesday after Foreign Office questions and before the House adjourns. The House should take as much time as possible to discuss a matter of central concern to us all before the summer recess—the tragic situation of Lebanon, the heavy and daily loss of life in Israel and Lebanon and the ominous portents for the middle east of the outbreak of fighting of which she has spoken.
I want to pull off the perhaps impossible trick of ranging a little more widely than the Foreign Secretary did, while keeping my remarks briefer, as she generously turned her speech into a debate by taking so many interventions. I start, as she did, with the immediate situation. The immediate origins of today’s crisis are clear. She has been clear about where the responsibility lies, and we agree with her about that. One of the first concerns of all of us in the House, as reflected in many interventions, has been the safety of British citizens caught up in the conflict. I join in congratulating our embassy, consular staff and members of the armed forces who have been working around the clock to evacuate those people. We trust that that will continue to gain momentum and that British citizens will be removed from harm’s way.
There have been some criticisms of the transmission and quality of the information provided by our embassy in Beirut. If there have been any deficiencies, I hope that the Foreign Office has taken steps to rectify them and to learn any appropriate lessons for the future, including whether other nations were able to act more quickly by chartering passenger ships immediately. There may be lessons to be learned.
I hope that the Minister who winds up the debate will be able to say how many British citizens are trapped in areas that have been put out of reach, and what discussions are taking place with the Israeli Government about ensuring their safety. While our first concern is of course British citizens, we must not forget the plight of hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people trapped between the incapacity of their Government to tackle the terrorist threat in their midst and the resolve of Israel to attack. It is fair to assume that imminently there will be a serious humanitarian crisis in parts of Lebanon. The Lebanese ambassador told me earlier of potentially half a million displaced people and a serious law and order problem when many of them arrive in Beirut, added to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the occupied territories in the aftermath of the election of Hamas.
As Lebanon has only recently begun to emerge from nearly 30 years of the devastation of civil war and to remove a little of the instability that lurks behind its recent transition to democracy, that situation represents the most desperate tragedy for the people of Lebanon. One of the most dangerous outcomes of the crisis would be civil war breaking out again and a democratically accepted Government in Lebanon collapsing. If that happens, Israel could be left with an even worse situation than the one that it currently faces—a possibility that surely underlines the need to take urgent international action now.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that DFID and other donors face a difficult challenge as they see their investment in the reconstruction of Lebanon, which at last gave hope to its communities, destroyed in a matter of weeks? Does he think that the Government can persuade donors once again to commit that kind of money, knowing that a repetition of the situation will continue to be possible?
The situation is difficult and dispiriting. People will look once again to the generosity of the British and other taxpayers and donors. I believe that that generosity will continue in the future but the situation is immensely dispiriting, which brings me to the immediate issue of what can be done without delay to bring an end to the current bloodshed.
The right of Israel to defend itself, like any country, is clear. Its desire severely to damage the ability of Hezbollah to attack the Israeli civilian population is understandable. As the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday, calling for an unconditional ceasefire from Israel is futile, because there is unlikely to be a ceasefire unless the kidnapped soldiers are returned, rocket attacks on Haifa cease and some hope is provided that the international community will help Lebanon to have a stable future. However, it is not clear that it is in the interests of Israel, let alone of anyone else, to delay for one moment the effort to bring about a ceasefire under those or any other conditions.
In response to the question put by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), I think that we can say that elements of the Israeli response are disproportionate, including the attacks on Lebanese army units, the loss of civilian life and essential infrastructure, and the enormous damage to the capacity of the Lebanese Government. A disproportionate Israeli response will damage the Israeli cause in the long term, even if it was partly brought about, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said, by the callous stationing of military units in civilian areas.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Lebanese Government’s case would be immensely strengthened if they publicly disowned the activities of Hezbollah and requested the international community to take the action necessary to contain Hezbollah that they evidently cannot undertake themselves?
My hon. Friend points to part of the immense difficulty for the Lebanese Government, because there are of course Hezbollah members of that Government. There is no doubt that the Government of Lebanon would like the implementation of UN resolution 1559. They believed that they had started a political process that could lead to that, but it did not happen in sufficient time to spare us from the conflict, which was launched deliberately, as the Foreign Secretary said, by Hezbollah.
The right hon. Gentleman makes the essential case that as an act of policy Lebanon must be strengthened in terms of the functioning of the state, so that we can expect the Lebanese to do the things that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) has just suggested—but that will take time. Is not it in Israel’s interests to make sure that the Lebanon that emerges from the current situation has the capacity to rebuild itself? Continued bombardment will destroy that capacity.
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman anticipates my next point and underlines the urgency of the case from the point of view of the international community. It is by no means clear that continued bombardment of Hezbollah areas will result in military success for Israel. The idea that it is somehow in the interests of Israel or of a longer-term solution for the fighting to go on for several more weeks may prove to be woefully misguided. The removal of Hezbollah from southern Lebanon and the implementation of UN resolution 1559 will require a political process of some kind, which requires a successful Lebanese Government who can work with the Israeli Government.
Let me make a little more progress, or my speech will become as long as the Foreign Secretary’s, understandably, became.
I do not underestimate the immense difficulties for anyone trying to bring about an agreed ceasefire in a conflict where one party is a terrorist organisation whose primary links are to countries such as Iran and Syria, which are already at loggerheads with most of the international community. However, it was dispiriting that the G8 summit at St. Petersburg, despite the reference to the UN Secretary-General of which the Foreign Secretary spoke, produced so little unity and such an apparent shortage of the will to take immediate action. The Prime Minister’s famous “Yo” conversation with President Bush meant that the headlines were once again about those two leaders being too close together, when the real story was surely that the G8 leaders as a body were not remotely close enough to each other. The evident failure of the leaders of countries with a huge influence in the middle east region, including France and Russia, to overcome their differences even to the extent of being able to take some co-ordinated initiative was the most enduring impression of the G8 summit.
Did my right hon. Friend by any chance listen to the remarks of Javier Solana on “Newsnight” yesterday, which quite clearly indicated concern about the position? Will my right hon. Friend indicate by what authority Javier Solana would speak on behalf of the European Union as a whole when the Government on the one hand and my right hon. Friend on the other see that there is a need to have a clear path to producing a solution to this problem, which will not come as a result of the intervention of people such as him?
My hon. Friend will forgive me—even though I may have some sympathy with what he says, we are not going to resolve that issue in today’s debate. That is not the debate’s role. Our priority is the immediate crisis in the middle east, in which EU representatives and others may have a constructive role to play.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the G8 and the fact that nothing very strong had been said. Is not one of the real problems the US attitude? If any other state had been doing the sort of thing that Israel has been doing and smashing to pieces the infrastructure of one of its neighbours, we would have heard much stronger words from the G8, the US, the UK Government and the UN.
I do not want to apportion blame about the G8. I am making a general point. The United States has enormous influence over Israel, but France has enormous influence in the Arab world and Russia has enormous influence when it comes to Iran. There is a general argument to be made about the ability, willingness and capacity of the leaders of those countries to work together on something such as this. The finger cannot be pointed just at the United States.
Greater co-ordinated action, not just in the UN, is now needed. I hope that the Government can tell us more about the apparent plans of the US Secretary of State to travel to the middle east, about whether there is any possibility of the Prime Minister travelling there, as he clearly offered to go in his conversation with President Bush, and about whether the announced visit of the French Prime Minister to Lebanon is in any way co-ordinated with British and American diplomatic efforts.
It is also important to hear much more about the proposal floated by the Government for an international force to act as a buffer in southern Lebanon. We should have an open mind about such a proposal, but not forget the immense difficulties faced by such a force in the 1980s, which resulted in heavy loss of life and mounting resentment against the west. To avoid the limitations of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, such a force would have to have a robust mandate, operate on a large scale, and be well equipped and made up of good quality troops. Given that the British Army is stretched to the limit, and American forces could not fulfil a peacekeeping role in this context, it is not clear where those forces are to come from. I hope that, when the Minister winds up, he will be able to say more about the discussions taking place with our allies, particularly France, and about whether these proposals are being worked up in detail and whether it is understood that, to be useful, such a force would have to be involved in actually disarming Hezbollah—obviously a difficult undertaking.
We all hope that the meeting of the UN Security Council will help to produce a strong impetus for a co-ordinated approach from the world’s leading powers—particularly one involving Russia and France, for the reasons that I have just given. We all fully realise that the Government cannot bring about such co-ordination on their own, but the efforts of the British Government in calling for it should be vigorous and clear. So far, the failure to produce an international initiative is ominously reminiscent of the early stages of the Balkan crisis of the 1990s. One of the reasons why this is so worrying is that the crisis in Lebanon is likely to make the other problems of the middle east harder to deal with. Those problems, taken together, are becoming by far the single greatest foreign policy challenge for us and our allies.
It should be a sobering thought for all of us who deal with foreign affairs—in government or opposition—that instability in the middle east could become seriously worse in the coming years. Whoever wins the next election in this country or the United States could easily face a nuclear-armed Iran, continued violence in Afghanistan, a still unstable Iraq, a stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and major instability in one or more of our major Arab allies all at the same time. All those conflicts have the potential to feed into, or to be hijacked by, forms of international terrorism.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point about the need for international action. Does he agree that British interests are under direct attack? British citizens are having to be evacuated, British forces are being diverted and British aid money is being destroyed and bombarded. Does he share my concern that the British Government do not seem to be able to speak clearly about British interests without reference to an American lead that requires them to conform entirely, rather than defend our interests as well?
The British Government have to work closely with our allies, including our American allies. There should be a distinctive British approach to the middle east and, despite the limitations of a short debate, I shall mention that briefly in a few moments.
I was making the point that such a combination of factors presents one of the most alarming outlooks for world peace that we have seen in decades. Even though this week’s urgent news is from Lebanon, it is thus vital to keep in mind the many other components of the darkening scene in the middle east and to develop a clear strategy for the coming years. As the Foreign Secretary did, I want to touch on a few of those other matters.
On Israeli-Palestinian relations, there is an urgent need to find a route back to a genuine and equitable peace process on the basis of a two-state solution. That clearly requires the new Palestinian Authority to meet the international community’s demands to renounce violence, to recognise Israel and to accept previous agreements. It also requires Israel to preserve the Palestinian institutions and infrastructure that will form the basis of a Palestinian state. The security barrier that was erected by Israel, which many of us have visited, has, for the moment, brought greater security for Israelis, but it is now clearer than ever that long-term peace and security for Israel can come only through agreement with its neighbours. When the Minister for the Middle East winds up the debate, will he indicate whether the Government can tell us anything more about any progress at all on such matters? Can anything more be done to ensure that the necessary flow of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people actually takes place?
In parallel, we have the continuing stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme, about which the Foreign Secretary spoke. We certainly welcome the decision to return the issue to the Security Council. Britain has quite rightly been at the forefront of efforts to generate and maintain consensus over Iran. We hope that the united front that the permanent members of the Security Council have shown to date will be maintained now that we are approaching a critical juncture in our dealings with Iran. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether we can be confident of the robust support of all members of the Security Council at this stage. Have Russia and China indicated at all their willingness to support a resolution that would pave the way for meaningful sanctions, if necessary, should Iranian intransigence continue?
At the same time, we face a very difficult situation in Iraq, with the UN assessing the number of civilian deaths as 6,000 in May and June alone. The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), has conceded that the threat level in Basra has increased, and the Prime Minister recently stated that Iranian armaments have caused the deaths of British soldiers. It would be a disaster to do anything now that would make the job of the democratically elected Iraqi Government more difficult. The one encouraging factor is that they have been able to take control of larger areas of their own country, but are Ministers satisfied that there are sufficient patrols along the Iran-Iraq border and that the security situation in southern Iraq will not deteriorate further? As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) asked the Foreign Secretary, if we believe that Iran is sponsoring terrorist attacks on our troops, what action is to be taken? There is no indication that the Iranian ambassador has been called in. What the Prime Minister says publicly and the Foreign Office does in relation to ambassadors should be consistent, so we hope that it will be in the coming weeks.
Simultaneously, in Afghanistan—if I may briefly mention that subject—the Government have admitted that British troops in Helmand have met stiffer resistance than was anticipated. More troops have been sent, as we know, but given the serious possibility that further troops will be required for the Afghanistan mission to succeed, would it not be a good idea for the Government now to make the case to our NATO allies that the consequences of failure in Afghanistan would be catastrophic, and that a much larger contribution may be required from the rest of NATO?
Yesterday, in a Parliamentary answer to the shadow Defence Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the Secretary of State for Defence said:
“Neither the Taliban, nor the range of illegally armed groups, currently pose a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan.”—[Official Report, 18 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 342W.]
It would be interesting to know whether that assessment, which seems rather complacent, is shared by Foreign Office Ministers. Although an enormous amount of good work has been done in Afghanistan, the overall picture after five years is still of a country with weak institutions, widespread corruption and a deteriorating security environment. It is of paramount importance to give renewed vigour and co-ordination to the international reconstruction effort. We have advocated the appointment of an international co-ordinator of such efforts with a powerful mandate. The Government have said that that is a constructive suggestion, but I am not aware that anything has been done about it, even though, given the persistent reports of poor co-ordination, waste and corruption, the matter would seem to be of the highest urgency.
All those issues have common threads, which I shall draw together. Time and again, the same countries deliberately work against our efforts to secure peace in the middle east. The same grievances of western bias and unfair policies are voiced by parties in the different conflicts. All those grievances require a firm, clear and hard-headed approach from the British Government, but the fact that there are so many interlocking conflicts underscores the need for all of us in this country to develop a clear and coherent foreign policy towards the middle east, and to pursue it consistently over many years. Our genuine influence in the middle east is at a low ebb, and no Foreign Secretary can be satisfied with that. That is a great challenge for an incoming Foreign Secretary, so I hope that the right hon. Lady will take it up.
Such a strategy for the middle east must include serious economic and security initiatives, accompanied by a serious effort to raise and sustain the level of our contacts throughout the region. A glance at our relations with the Gulf states illustrates the point and the need for the strategy. Countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates could play key roles in our dealings with Iran and in the future of Iraq. They are our natural allies, yet in nine years of highly active foreign policy the Prime Minister has not visited those countries. There may be much more that we could do to help them with their regional security framework, and there is almost certainly more that we could do to boost trade and economic ties. There is a great deal more that we could do to foster links between Parliaments and educational institutions, to promote cultural links and to encourage civil society and co-operation on terrorism, religious radicalism, climate change and nuclear proliferation.
Today, I received a written answer from the Foreign Secretary saying that if any security initiative in the Gulf is to be successful, leadership must come from within the region. That may be true, but much more could be done to stimulate such an initiative. Maintaining contacts in the region should be one of the highest priorities for the Foreign Office. The Prime Minister’s personal envoy to the middle east should not be his fundraiser, however well intentioned he may be; I put it to the Foreign Secretary—this is intended to be helpful—that the Prime Minister’s personal envoy to the middle east should be the Foreign Secretary, relentlessly backed up by our ambassadors. Other instances of what could be done include elevating NATO’s Mediterranean dialogue, which includes Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, to the level of genuine partnership in the broader region of the middle east. That could contribute to regional security, stability and so on—I could go on, but many other hon. Members wish to speak.
Those measures and probably many more are required if the United Kingdom is to make diplomacy in the middle east a strong priority. We need to ensure that the machinery of government in our country is properly equipped and designed to deliver such a co-ordinated approach. Three weeks ago in the House of Lords, the noble Lord Owen, a former Foreign Secretary, delivered a speech that ought to be read by all hon. Members, in which he argued that the changes introduced by the Prime Minister to the way in which the Cabinet is involved in and informed about foreign and defence policy has contributed to a series of miscalculations. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), who served in the Cabinet, is nodding at that.
Lord Owen pointed out that the introduction of Cabinet secretariats inside No. 10 no longer serving the entire Cabinet led to other senior Ministers being denied access to the full flow of information coming back from Army commanders or from the Foreign Secretary to the Prime Minister, leading to issues not being evaluated and decisions not taken in a properly balanced way. Given the lack of planning for reconstruction in Iraq and the evolution of policies so far in relation to Afghanistan, such issues need to be addressed. Our armed forces have never let us down and it not acceptable if the operation of Government might do so.
I believe that to drive reinvigorated and long-term policy of British engagement in the middle east is a major challenge for the Foreign Secretary, but it is one that she ought to take up, for we know full well that even when the immediate crisis has passed, the forces that precipitated that crisis will create many more and are becoming stronger all the time.
Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a 10-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches, which applies from now on.
On behalf of those of us who follow foreign affairs closely, I begin by saying that the dedication and commitment of the British people who are helping to get our citizens out of Lebanon has rightly been praised in the debate. When the crisis is over, I hope that the Foreign Affairs Committee will look at the issue in the same way as we reviewed what was done after the tsunami and after hurricane Katrina in the United States. The work that is done by many, many people in the crisis teams and in the region is often taken for granted, but they work long hours and incredibly hard, and we should recognise the role that they are playing.
Much has been said by the Foreign Secretary about the origins of the present crisis and I shall not dwell on that. I shall focus on how we can move forward and out of the crisis. The situation is potentially extremely dangerous. One reason is that Syria and Iran are using Hezbollah as a proxy for their own political positions. Syria and Iran have the ability to tell Hezbollah to stop what it is doing. They have the ability to cut off its supply of weaponry and stop its funding and training camps. The question is what Syria and Iran will do.
On the other side, we have seen the reaction by the Israeli Government, who are a new Government with a Prime Minister who has been in office only a short time and who does not have a military background, and a new Defence Minister who is a trade union leader, whose own town was attacked by rockets from Gaza for a considerable time and who feels, as I suspect the new Prime Minister does, that this is a test for him. The situation is extremely dangerous.
I have had many conversations in the past few days with diplomats of a number of countries in the region. It is clear to me that there is a perception that neither Hezbollah nor the Israeli Government wish to end the crisis immediately. Hezbollah wishes to pursue it because it is part of its realignment of its strength in Lebanon and in the interests of Syria and Iran, and the Israeli Government have a policy and believe at this moment that they may be able to eliminate Hezbollah as a threat to Israel. Both positions are extremely dangerous.
As has been said, one cannot eliminate a terrorist organisation that is living in a community by air attacks or military action. There must be a combination of military, political, diplomatic and economic action, and it is time that we started thinking about the other ways to reduce Hezbollah’s influence among the Shi’a communities of southern Lebanon.
Several Members, including the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), referred to Hezbollah’s global threat. Hezbollah has carried out terrorist actions not only in the middle east but elsewhere. Years ago, it attacked a Jewish cultural centre in Argentina. The Gulf states have been mentioned. There is deep concern in the Emirates and elsewhere in the Gulf about the potential threat that it poses to many other countries in the region.
Before this crisis blew up, the Foreign Affairs Committee published a report on 2 July in which we highlighted, among other things, an international role played by the Iranians that is not helpful in several respects. We talked about their links to terrorist organisations and the way in which they could do more damage if the crisis over their nuclear programme deteriorates further. We are on the cusp of a very serious international situation that requires cool heads and diplomacy. It also requires our Government, the European Union Governments and the G8 Governments to work with Governments in the Arab world. At this moment, the Governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are working desperately hard for diplomatic solutions. It is interesting that the statements made by Arab Governments in the region were very critical of Hezbollah and what it has done.
In agreeing with what my hon. Friend says, does he think that it would be positive for the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to have a far greater role in trying to influence Syria and Iran, and Hezbollah and Hamas, to achieve a settlement so that we can put Israel back where it belongs and allow a peaceful settlement in the whole area?
That would be very helpful, but, sadly, as we have seen in Iraq, there are elements internationally within the Muslim world that are trying to create a conflict between the two sides.
While we are all focusing on this immediate crisis, other things are happening in the world. At this very moment, the Union of Islamic Courts militia in Somalia is marching towards Baidoa, which is the base of the transitional Government in Somalia. The UIC militia is backed, militarily and in other ways, by Eritrea. The transitional Government are backed by Ethopia. The BBC World Service reported at lunchtime that Ethiopian troops have moved into Somali territory around that area. There are potential dangers there. Although the UIC is an unusually broad organisation, it contains elements, including the speaker of the Shura Council, who are on the international list of terrorist organisations and have links with al-Qaeda.
Somalia is on the other side of Saudi Arabia from the area that we are discussing. Nevertheless, there are several conflicts in the region, with Muslim-on-Muslim violence, Shi’a against Sunni violence, as in Iraq, and, on top of that, the ongoing, long-standing struggle of the Palestinian people for their own state while Israelis feel that there is a threat to their very existence through organisations such as Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. We need cool heads and active engagement by the international community.
That brings me to my final point. It seems that the United States Administration have at last decided to send the US Secretary of State to the region. It is at least a week too late, but if it happens this weekend, I hope that some influence, with the weight of the only global superpower, can be brought to bear on trying to solve and defuse this crisis. Last December, Condoleezza Rice played a positive role in the opening of the Rafah crossing. The Select Committee visited the region and Rafah. We saw the Italian-led carabinieri mission, with Romanian and Danish people policing the border between Rafah and Gaza that is so vital for the Palestinian people and their economy. Condoleezza Rice did a good job at that time. She has the ability and the political clout to play a big role now.
I hope that the United States will not do what it did at the beginning of the Bush Administration. It should become actively engaged because we need not only a solution to the crisis in Lebanon, which is a humanitarian and political disaster, but a middle east solution, whereby we get back to the road map, with the two-state solution that so many of us want.
My hon. Friend has spoken strongly about the capacity of the United States to make a difference. Does he believe that the message, which appears to have been heard internationally from the United States, that Israel can act with impunity, is one element that creates some of the risks?
I am not sure that the Israeli Government would be restrained by people saying that they would not act with impunity. I do not believe that the American position is that Israel can act in any way that it wishes. I have seen the declaration from the G8, and the United States has signed up to several things that call for restraint. One could say that there are signals, but we all know that the US Administration contain different voices. The statement that the US ambassador, John Bolton, made to the United Nations was unhelpful. However, Condoleezza Rice will now visit the region.
The House must maintain close scrutiny of the position. I welcome the debate this afternoon and I concur with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) about the need for an extended period of questions or a statement on Tuesday. I hope that Parliament will be recalled if the situation deteriorates so that the House can discuss it in the next few weeks.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), with whom I worked closely when we both served on the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. He, along with the Select Committee, is doing excellent work. I join him and others in welcoming this afternoon’s debate and especially the Foreign Secretary’s commitment.
There are honestly and strongly held differences of opinion in the House about the reasons for the conflict and the nature of our response to it. Given everything else that the Foreign Secretary has on her plate, her willingness to meet a group of hon. Members the other day to discuss the matter and to be here this afternoon is welcome. I am sure that the House is grateful to her for that.
Our television screens, newspapers and websites are full of the sickening images of carnage and destruction from the middle east, on a scale we hoped never to see again. We are now beginning to hear some of the personal accounts of the violence, destruction and fear in the region from the first of those mercifully evacuated in the past couple of days.
Our immediate attention is understandably focused on the safety of British citizens and their families who are seeking to leave and those who judge that they need to stay. We all welcome the speedy evacuation of those British nationals so far and applaud the efforts of the Royal Navy, the rest of the armed forces and especially the diplomatic services for their tireless efforts in truly shocking and difficult conditions. We also welcome the information about the continued efforts to provide additional resources to them as they go about their difficult and dangerous work.
Like others, I acknowledge that the situation is changing fast. I, too, hope that other means will be used to keep the House and the country informed about what happens in the days ahead.
The tragic mess that British citizens and others wish to leave behind is getting worse by the day. Although our immediate focus is on the events in Lebanon, we must not forget what is happening in Gaza. I shall revert to that briefly later. The origins of the unfolding disaster in Lebanon are clear. The unprovoked attack by Hezbollah on Israeli territory and the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers was the trigger, and should rightly be condemned. The return of those soldiers is essential to the prospects for peace.
Israel has a moral and legal right to live in peace within recognised and secure borders, and a right to act in self-defence. Let us not forget that at least 29 Israelis, including 15 civilians, have been killed by rockets fired by Hezbollah into Israel, and that thousands now live in terror. But, as the shadow Foreign Secretary highlighted, the Lebanese Prime Minister has estimated that as many as 300 people have now been killed in his country, and about 500,000 have been displaced by the violence. They too live in terror.
The scale and aggression of the Israeli military action is clearly disproportionate. It amounts to collective punishment and is therefore illegal under international law. Whatever the Israelis’ objectives, their actions are destroying a country only recently rebuilt after decades of war. As others have said, they are undermining the fragile political state of Lebanon, and all but guaranteeing the radicalisation of swathes of people in the middle east and around the world. We need an urgent ceasefire and collective world action to prevent this crisis from spiralling into other parts of the region.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in attributing blame, it is right that he should blame Hezbollah for the way in which it is acting from Lebanese territory to destroy the citizens of another country, against United Nations resolutions? Will he not castigate the Lebanese Government for permitting that to happen, despite promises to the contrary?
I am disappointed by the hon. Lady’s question, because I thought that I had dealt robustly with the first of her points. On her second point, of course the Lebanese Government have responsibilities under United Nations Security Council resolution 1559. However, the Foreign Secretary has highlighted plenty of other United Nations resolutions that oblige the Israeli Government to take certain actions. Given the fragility of Lebanon, we are kidding ourselves if we think that every last requirement of resolution 1559 can be delivered without the due and proper political process that will now end up on the scrap heap unless we take concerted international action to help Lebanon to get back to where it was.
The hon. Gentleman was talking about securing a ceasefire, and I can see that the Israeli Government might be persuaded to cease fire. But how are we to persuade Hezbollah to do so?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point. If I may, I will ask him to pay attention to some of the points that I shall make later. Clearly, this depends not only on Hezbollah listening to the international community’s demands for a ceasefire but on others in the region, such as Syria and Iran, putting pressure on Hezbollah.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I want to make some progress, as many other hon. Members rightly wish to contribute to the debate.
Lest we forget, there is another bleak and desperate situation in Gaza. Today and on many other occasions, there will be long and angry debates about the origins of this part of the crisis. But in the short term, let us understand that Israel had a right to respond to the kidnapping of its soldier. It is estimated that, since 28 June, the Palestinians have fired more than 150 home-made rockets towards Israel. For their part, the Israelis have fired more than 600 artillery shells into Gaza, and the Israeli air force has conducted 168 aerial bombings on the territory. People there are also living in terror.
One Israeli defence force soldier has been killed and 12 Israelis have been injured; 100 Palestinians, including 30 children have been killed, with 300 Palestinians injured. The bombing of Gaza’s central power station has deprived some 750,000 Palestinians of electricity, with terrible consequences for essential sewage and water systems. Other vital infrastructure has been destroyed, causing thousands to flee their homes. UN programmes such as schools and clinics have been damaged or destroyed. It is estimated that as many as 80 per cent. of Palestinian households are living below the poverty line. Beyond that, Israel has abducted members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, including eight Ministers as well as other officials. Those and other detentions violate due process, are unlawful and should end.
In sum, the scale of the Israeli actions in Gaza are again disproportionate and amount to collective punishment. The world must respond, and so far the international reaction has been utterly baffling and depressing. Let us be clear about one issue in that respect: whatever the roles of outside Governments such as those of Iran and Syria in fuelling the conflicts, they must end. We cannot risk the broadening of this conflict across the region, and we must not allow a proxy war in the middle east. Those countries outside the region who have influence over those Governments must make that absolutely plain.
We must be absolutely clear that the first priority of the whole international community is to call for a ceasefire and to create the conditions in which it can be sustained. I do not understand the reluctance of the Government to describe Israel’s actions in clear terms as disproportionate. What is impossible to fathom, however, is our nuanced attitude to a ceasefire. Our relationship with America is fundamental in that regard. Whether real or not, even the perception that the United States Government are willing to give a green light to Israeli military action for a few more days is deeply damaging. Of course, if it is for real, it is utterly deplorable. For us to go along with that would be a disgrace.
Does my hon. Friend think that the Minister should address a phrase used by the Foreign Secretary, who essentially said that she did not wish to see the events in Lebanon and Gaza continue longer than is necessary. The term “necessary” should be explained, so that we understand what approval she is giving through its use.
The Foreign Secretary has made her position abundantly clear.
Unfortunately, the divisions in the international community have been rather too obvious. Some of them are tactical, and many are longer term and as deep-seated as the unresolved peace process itself. Regardless of those divisions, surely there is now an imperative to overcome them and recognise the simple truth that, without a ceasefire there can be no prospect for peace on whatever terms. If that can be achieved, an appropriate UN force ought to have the support of all of us. Surely that must now be the priority for the Security Council. If the Quartet as an institution is to maintain any credibility, all its partners must be engaged as one, including the European Union. European Union countries have long-standing commitments to the region, as the level of aid from the EU and trade with Israel and the Palestinians demonstrates. We should make it clear that Israel has obligations under the EU association agreement, which it must fulfil. A middle east further destabilised by this conflict, or worse, will surely undermine the very security and freedom from threat that Israelis properly crave. As part of the broader process, we need to persuade Israel of that.
The broader peace process appears further away than ever, with the road map shredded and looking hard to repair, but we will have to make every effort in that regard. Ludicrous as the timetable in the original document now appears, it remains the main starting point. We will have to return to the need for Hamas to recognise the key principles—accepting Israel’s right to exist, adherence to the principle of non-violence, compliance with previous peace treaties and commitment to the road map. As the shadow Foreign Secretary pointed out earlier, we need to highlight the fact that the construction of the barrier in Israel is a manifest violation of international law, as confirmed by the International Court of Justice. There must be a halt to ongoing settlement expansion on occupied territory, and illegal outposts need to be dismantled. There are many other legitimate, long-standing issues, which, I hope, can be addressed as soon as possible. I hope that Israel, as well as others, will observe all United Nations resolutions in full.
There are issues to be considered beyond the immediate crisis. As others have said, the situation in Iraq can clearly only be complicated by what is going on. Others have also mentioned the delicate situation in relation to the Iranian nuclear plans.
The Leader of the House said yesterday that the debate would be widely drawn, but there is a clear reason for it. Obviously many Members want to speak about what is happening in the middle east, but, in keeping with the spirit of what the Leader of the House said about revisiting the allocation of time for foreign affairs debates, may I ask for a debate to be scheduled soon after our return in October? Our eyes may be diverted at present, although we must pray that that is temporary; but the turning of our attention to Iraq and Iran is long overdue. As the Foreign Secretary’s final remarks about Doha and Darfur made clear, there is much else to debate.
While we debate, people continue to die or flee for their lives in the middle east. There must be a ceasefire: that is urgent. The soldiers must be returned, and a new peace must be kept. In all that, the international community has been making different efforts but remains divided. Those divisions must end if there is to be hope for the swift establishment of peace.
I think we would all agree that all human beings should deplore the killing, injuries and destruction of infrastructure in Gaza, Lebanon and Israel. Leaders on all sides should note the warning from Louise Arbour, the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, who has a distinguished record as a judge in Canada and as an international prosecutor. She warned yesterday that the scale of the killing in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories could involve war crimes. Hers is an authoritative voice, not to be swept aside. She made it clear that the obligation to protect civilians during hostilities was laid down in international criminal law, and concluded:
“The scale of the killings in the region and their predictability could engage the personal criminal responsibility of those involved, particularly those in a position of command and control.”
That would of course include the leadership of Hezbollah, but it would also include the Government of Israel.
I had the honour of working with Louise Arbour when she was an international prosecutor, trying to ensure that there was no impunity for those who had caused the genocide in Rwanda. She is a very considerable woman, and her analyses should be taken very seriously. I would love to think that leaders on all sides would be held accountable by the international community in the way that she suggests, and that if they were, the use of excessive force would be restrained; but we know from the record of the international community that that will not happen.
Israel has been in breach of UN resolutions for many years. It has also breached international law in building settlements in the Palestinian territories, in building the wall—not on the 1967 boundary, but taking in a large amount of Palestinian land—in carrying out targeted killings, in kidnapping Palestinians including members of the Government and holding them without trial, and in killing large numbers of Palestinian civilians. We should deplore the killing of any civilian—indeed, the killing of any person—but the number of Palestinian deaths is much greater than the number of Israeli deaths, and the number of Lebanese deaths is much greater than the number of Israeli deaths.
The way in which we talk suggests that we are saying that an Arab life is not as important as an Israeli life. That is profoundly wrong, but it is the balance of the discourse far too often, and it is the cause of the rage of the Arab and Muslim world. I also have no doubt that the massive killing of innocent Lebanese civilians and the destruction of infrastructure is so disproportionate that it too is a war crime, as was implied by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore).
What is the position of our Government? Does it follow the analysis of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights? It does not; it follows what is called for by the United States in always backing up Israeli Government policy. The US denounces Hezbollah and Hamas and supports Israel’s right to defend itself in this way, and it blames Iran and Syria for Hezbollah’s actions, thus spreading the fear of a widening military action and encouraging the use of irregular forces throughout this very dangerous region.
In my view, our Government’s policy is so unbalanced and so disrespectful of international law and of the equal human rights of all people in the region that it inflames the situation, inciting large numbers of angry young Arabs and Muslims to the conclusion that there is no political route to justice. We know from history that where that view prevails, there is an increase in support for the use of violence by irregular forces. In my view, UK policy is not just unbalanced and morally wrong, but totally counter-productive and likely to increase the problem of terrorism, even though it is supposed to be a central feature of our foreign policy to try to constrain that threat.
There is, however, one point that the Prime Minister keeps making with which I agree. As soon as a ceasefire can be agreed to end the violence in Lebanon—it should be called for unequivocally and immediately, and Israel should not be allowed all this time to continue; it has obviously been licensed by the US Administration—it is essential to turn attention to the core problem that destabilises the middle east, which is the unbearable suffering, oppression and impoverishment of the Palestinian people.
The answer to that problem is a two-state solution based on 1967 boundaries, with east Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. That proposal—accepted by the Palestine Liberation Organisation at Oslo and outlined in the road map, to which the Prime Minister constantly refers—is a solution favoured by the majority of Israeli and Palestinian people. Let us be clear about that; it is undoubtedly the way forward. It is perfectly clear from all the evidence and all the facts on the ground that Israel does not accept the right of the Palestinian people to a state based on the 1967 boundaries with east Jerusalem as its capital. The road map and the chance of a two-state solution is evaporating before our very eyes. The Prime Minister constantly refers to the road map, but does nothing to bolster it.
Israel’s wall—not based on the 1967 boundaries, but taking in large swathes of Palestinian land—has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice, but nothing has been done about it. Israel’s massive settlements in the occupied territories are illegal in international law. If we also take into account the network of roads, the constant destruction of Palestinian houses, the domination of water resources and the containment of Palestinians, preventing them from travelling across their territory or trading with the outside world, it is quite clear that the terrible impoverishment and constant humiliation of the Palestinian people has been systematically put in place so that Israel can impose a unilateral settlement, as former Prime Minister Sharon and now Prime Minister Olmert acknowledge. Israel wants the maximum territory with the minimum of Palestinian people within it.
My right hon. Friend holds Israel solely to blame for the failure to reach a solution on the setting up of a Palestinian state. Does she agree with the views of Saeb Erekat and former President Clinton, who laid the blame fairly and squarely at Yasser Arafat’s stall for rejecting a proposal that would have led to a Palestinian state, living at peace with Israel?
No, I do not, and I very much regret the fact that my hon. Friend is so absolutely unbalanced in her attitude to these matters. I do not believe either that her comments are helpful to the people of Israel, whom she seeks to defend and protect.
Israel’s dilemma—and this is the view of many serious scholars and commentators, but it is not said often in the House—is that it wants the maximum territory, way beyond the 1967 boundaries, as is clear from all its actions, with the minimum of Palestinians. It has now become clear that the issue is to be resolved by confining the Palestinians to a series of Bantustans, exactly as the apartheid regime in South Africa attempted to do. The plan is for a second ugly, legally and morally wrong, apartheid settlement. It is clear that President Bush has given the green light and it follows, of course, that our Prime Minister—whatever he says about the evaporating road map—will follow wherever President Bush goes and whatever the error of the US Administration’s ways. I am afraid that that will ensure continuing violence, destabilisation of the middle east and recruitment of ever-growing numbers to the use of violence for decades to come. The irony of that is that it is likely to lead in the end, no matter how long it takes, to the demise of the Jewish state as, just as with apartheid, more and more people support the call for the establishment of a secular Palestinian state—because that is the logical answer if we cannot have two states—where Jews, Arabs, Christians and all others can live together as equal citizens. We are, I am afraid, heading for further violence and catastrophe, and I am sad to say that our Government are following President Bush’s errors and pouring petrol on the flames.
It is difficult to speak in a debate like this without feeling a sense of sadness and despair. Here we are, talking about Israelis, Palestinians and Lebanese dying. I came to this House just after the Yom Kippur war in 1974 and we were talking about exactly the same thing then. It is difficult sometimes not to despair that the problem is intractable. I have never believed that and I hope that the House does not make the same mistake.
I thought that the speeches by the Front Benchers were comprehensive and well balanced. The one by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary was also more realistic, in that he accepted that some of what is happening is disproportionate. It is important that we are realistic in how we address this problem.
I speak on this subject as a friend of Israel of very long standing and a friend of Palestine. When people say to me that I cannot be both, I say that if one believes in the two-state solution, one has to be both. We have to be able to say that we are not standing on the sidelines shouting abuse at one side or the other, as we so often do in this House, but that we want to be part of the solution and that, therefore, we are going to take an even-handed approach.
I will discuss why I believe Israel’s reaction to terrorism is justified, but when I consider the conflict and what is happening today I am also reminded that in all the conflicts in history military action has never resolved them. Military action has often helped to contain them, but in the end they have been resolved only by dialogue and negotiation. When we talk about the short term, it is no substitute in the middle east for returning to the negotiation without which there will be no immediate answer.
I believe that the two-state solution is a workable outcome. I listened to what was said at Camp David and I read what was said at Taba. I have heard what has been said since then in response to the road map and the indications suggest it is possible to achieve a solution on the two-state basis. But that will happen only if there is mutual confidence on both sides of the argument—a belief in Israel that they can live secure from terror and attack within their own boundaries and a belief among the Palestinians that theirs will not be an oppressed and vassal state, but a real and viable state that can live properly alongside Israel. Without such confidence, the two-state solution will simply not come about.
I turn to the present situation. I have no doubt about Israel’s right to pursue terrorists who carry out acts of violence against it, whether from Gaza or by Hezbollah from Lebanon. In the current context there can be no doubt that the action of Hezbollah, which is an exclusively external terrorist organisation, was responsible for the beginning of this crisis and continues to light its fires. But Israel does not only have the right to pursue terrorists in order to protect its people. If a two-state solution is to be reached, Israelis must be confident that they will not find hostile states on their borders firing at will into Israel. Unless the Israeli Government of Ehud Olmert can show that withdrawal from the territories from which withdrawal must be made does not mean greater vulnerability, and that the terrorist challenge can be met, the two-state solution will be stillborn.
I do not question the action that Israel is taking against Hamas and Hezbollah. I do not gainsay Israel’s right to take proportionate action. But I am concerned and dismayed by what appears, to me at least, to be disproportionate action in Lebanon. Given modern intelligence and military technology, it must be possible to pursue terrorists on a surgical basis, knowing where the terrorist problem is and then rooting it out. We had to do that in our time in our own terrorist context; we did not blast communities on the basis that there might be terrorists there. It is absolutely essential that we say to our friends in Israel, who, after all, have one of the most sophisticated intelligence services in the world, that they, of all people, should be able to deal with this terrorist problem without creating a wider problem for those around them.
Nor, in my view, is destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure acceptable. Not only Lebanon but Israel and the rest of the world need a stable Lebanon in the future. A ruined, impotent and bankrupt Lebanon is not only a cause of despair to the people of Lebanon themselves; it becomes a danger to the region, and beyond. If what is happening now creates a failed state of Lebanon, it will be antagonistic to Israel and distrustful of its wider friends, who did not help it in its time of need. It will be a breeding ground for future anti-Israeli sentiment and for anti-American resentment, and it will, of necessity, be the ground from which the next generation of terrorists will be born.
That is why the onslaught on Lebanon must now cease. I am happy to see precision attacks on the terrorists continue and I wish them well, because the right exists to root out that terrorism. But I have to say that I doubt whether an international stability force is a workable suggestion. Stability forces in conflict zones do not have a great record throughout history and we, on our side, should be very careful about claiming to support such a force when our own forces are so stretched between Iraq and Afghanistan that it is highly unlikely that we could even take part in it ourselves. We must therefore concentrate on those areas where we can at least be constructive.
I want the level of violence to be decreased. I hope that we can persuade the Government of Israel that the time has come to scale down—
I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to the fact that since 12 July, 1,600 missiles have rained down on northern Israel—100 have done so in the past 24 hours alone—and that 1 million Israeli citizens are threatened. In addition to the UK and the US putting pressure on Israel, as he suggests, what pressure does he think could be put on Syria and Iran?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question, and I am just coming to the question of Syria. At the moment, it would be very difficult to persuade Iran to take a view different from the one that they are currently taking. But I have always believed that, through diplomatic pressure, Syria is open to changing the direction that it has been taking—wrongly, in my view—for so long. We can show the Syrians that there is a better future for them—if they change their ways and go down another path. That is something that the British Government should be doing.
The middle east is a vicious circle, and that circle will not be broken in the flames of war; it can be dismantled only by a return to dialogue and negotiation. We should help to facilitate that, using the vast number of contacts that we have in Israel, Palestine and the rest of that region to get the dialogue going again. Building bridges is what we should all be about now—not destroying bridges, as we have seen happening over the past few days.
I totally agree with my right hon. Friend, and I say to him that we ourselves had experience of this in these lands. We can pursue the terrorists individually, accurately and surgically, rather than with the blunt weapons that are being used in the middle east region. That is what we should be doing, to make sure that the terrorists do not succeed in disrupting the negotiations and dialogue that my right hon. Friend and I believe are necessary.
Before I sit down—
I shall give way once more.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Does he accept that the one issue that we still need to resolve is the outstanding dispute between Lebanon and Israel over the Shabba farms? Until we resolve that, relations will not improve to the extent that we want.
Right across the region, there are an enormous number of detailed problems that have to be resolved. They can be resolved only by negotiation, and not by military action, and that is why I am so intent on trying to get back to a position—however long it takes—where we can begin using words rather than bullets to achieve our purpose.
I want to mention briefly two other areas of crisis that affect us and which deserve to be raised today, given that we are not going to be here in this House for three months. The first is Iraq. For the past six months, I have been calling for our troops to be brought home. I know that it will not make me especially popular in the House, but I do so again today. I am full of admiration for what they have achieved, in the most difficult circumstances, over the past three years, but the situation is deteriorating and I am no longer sure what we can achieve by staying on.
I shall not give way, as I would not get extra time for doing so.
When I say that our troops should return from Iraq, I am told that we would leave chaos behind us. That is a real fear, but I am worried that the deterioration of the situation means that the same case might be made in a year’s time, or three years’ time. The present difficulties now demand that we rethink our role in Iraq, and I hope that our troops will be brought home.
I take a totally different view, however, about the equally difficult circumstances that obtain in Afghanistan. If we were to leave that country, we would leave not only chaos but the virtual certainty that a Taliban state would be restored. Such a state—once again and as its fundamentalist philosophy dictates—would allow itself to become a base for international Islamist terrorism. As we know, that would pose a direct threat to Britain, Europe, the US and all western nations.
I am concerned that we face very difficult circumstances in Afghanistan because our mission there is not clear enough and because the resources provided to it are not yet sufficient. I hope that the Government will consider very carefully over the summer what is needed to make sure that our mission there succeeds.
Our role in international affairs must not be based on romantic dreams of curing the world, nor on an unquestioning acceptance of US policy, but on realism and on what is in the British national interest. From what I have heard today, I cannot be certain that that is necessarily the Government’s position. I hope that, over the summer, they will make sure that it is their position by the autumn.
Order. As a significant number of hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye in this debate, in accordance with the order of the House of 26 October 2004 on shorter speeches, it has been decided that, between 5 o’clock and 5.30 pm, a time limit of three minutes will apply. I remind the House that, in the period of shorter speeches, no added time is allowed for interventions.
Let us set aside the morality of the situation—the wanton slaughter of hundreds of innocent Lebanese and the destruction of their infrastructure, the havoc caused by the Israeli army in Gaza and the kidnapping of half of the Palestinian Government, the murder of innocent Israelis and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. Let us accept as a given that Hezbollah and Hamas are terrorist organisations, and that the Israeli Government are dominated by right-wing thugs—unfortunately now augmented by the former peacenik leader of the Labour party who is in charge of the attacks on Lebanon.
Let us look instead at the undeniable facts. This is Israel’s fourth invasion of Lebanon, and none of the three previous invasions has been successful. The 1978 invasion was called Operation Peace in Galilee: is Galilee at peace today? The commander, Rafael Eitan, described the Litani Operation by saying, “We come, we kill, we go.” It did not achieve its objective. In 1982 I was with Israeli troops after they had invaded Lebanon. It was the first time that I had ever seen Israeli soldiers who were scared of the enemy—and I have been with Israeli soldiers from 1967 onwards. That war caused Sharon’s resignation and Begin’s resignation. It did not work, and this war will not work either. Already, Israeli troops are taking serious casualties on the ground and their commanders are warning that they cannot go on in this way.
Israel’s invasion of Lebanon is not simply immoral; it is futile. At the same time, Israel is facing an existential threat. A once-proud nation of pioneers and warriors who proclaimed that Jews would never again be confined in ghettos is now building an illegal wall behind which its people are cowering in a Jewish Israeli-made do-it-yourself ghetto. That is what is happening to Israel now.
Within a measurable period, Palestinians will outnumber Israelis. Unless there is a two-state solution, with two countries—one for the Palestinians—the Palestinians will be penned into Bantustans directly adjacent to affluent illegal Jewish settlements. As in South Africa, this will become unviable for the Israeli state and the whole future of Israel as a viable state will be thrown into doubt. The only way of saving Israel—do not let us talk about the Palestinian interests, although I have championed them for many years—is a two-state solution.
Hezbollah and Hamas set out to cause chaos. That is what they are about, and they are achieving it. The Israeli Government and the United States Government are obliging Hamas and Hezbollah in the way they are approaching the situation. They are playing with fire. If Syria and Iran are drawn into the conflict, global repercussions will burgeon out of control, with an incalculable economic impact for the whole of the western developed world far worse than the oil shock of 1973, which, among other things, brought down the Heath Government.
Remember what happened to Jimmy Carter. He was brought down by Iran as President of the United States. Remember, too, that western meddling in the middle east ends again and again in tears. We are just commemorating the 50th anniversary of the illegal invasion of Suez by Britain and France in collusion with Israel.
There is a story of a scorpion approaching a frog on the banks of the River Jordan. The scorpion says to the frog, “Will you give me a ride on your back across the river?” The frog says, “Don’t be foolish, you will sting me and I will die.” The scorpion says to the frog, “Don’t you be foolish. If I sting you I will drown. That goes against all kinds of sense.” So the frog says to the scorpion, “Get on my back.” Half way across the river the scorpion stings the frog. The frog says, “What have you done? Now I will die and you will drown.” The scorpion says, “This is the middle east.” What we are seeing is futility on all sides in this conflict.
Those of us like me who have championed the state of Israel from before its foundation are filled with tears and shame at what an Israeli Government are doing to the Jewish people of Israel.
I have championed a Palestinian state since my first meetings with Yasser Arafat in Tunis. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) that Arafat made a profound error in rejecting the Barak offer at Camp David, but there is no point in repining. There is no point in saying that things should have been done differently. When I first visited Syria, I had a meeting with the vice-president in which he spent 40 minutes talking about the iniquities of the Zionists since the Balfour declaration. When he had finished, I said, “Yes, let’s take all that for granted, but that was then. What about today and what about tomorrow?”
Our British Government have a role to play in trying to drill sense into the Israeli Government and in trying to explain to the Palestinian people that their best interests are not those championed by Hamas. But let us be clear: America invaded Iraq—so we are told—to bring democracy to the middle east, to get genuine elections. The Palestinians held a genuine election, so are we saying that the only acceptable genuine elections in the middle east are those whose result is acceptable to George W. Bush? If so, there will be few successful acceptable democratic elections in the middle east.
I am more pessimistic about this situation than I have been in more than 40 years of involvement in the middle east. I do not believe that it helps the Israelis to give them a free hand. The duty of my right hon. Friends in the British Government, whom I have constantly supported and will continue to support, is to make it clear to the Israelis and to the Palestinians that compromise is essential. That is what I told Arafat when I first met him and I said it to him again and again.
Letting the Israeli dogs of war loose on Lebanon will solve nothing. It will undermine the existence of the state of Israel, it will kill more and more Israelis and the poor Palestinians at the bottom will continue to suffer. I look to our Government to try to do something to help us out of that mess.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this important debate. I shall take up as little time as I possibly can, because many Members want to speak.
I want to put on record my sincere thanks to the Speaker’s Office and all the House staff for their help and support over the past three weeks; their fairness and dedication is to be commended. I offer special thanks to the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) for his support and friendship since I arrived in the House. I would apologise for the confusion caused by another David Davies entering the House, but we solved it amicably.
It is a great honour and privilege for me to represent the people of Blaenau Gwent at the highest level of politics, but it is also a humbling experience when I think about the hopes and expectations of my constituency for its future. I take this opportunity to pay my respects to my predecessor, Peter Law, a friend and a great political servant to Blaenau Gwent for more than 30 years. He followed the tradition in our area of producing people who were prepared to speak out for fairness and justice for all.
From the days of the Chartist riots, and through books such as “Rape of the Fair Country” and “The Citadel”, it can be seen that the south Wales valleys have played a significant part in the present structure of British politics and the way in which our communities are represented. Blaenau Gwent has proven that we take the people who elect us for granted at our peril. We must respect and care for our communities at all times and ensure that at all levels of government we give value for money. Do we believe that at this moment in time the general public would support a move to use taxpayers’ money to finance political elections?
We must never be afraid to talk and listen to the people we represent and to encourage them to take a full and active part in politics and the democratic representative process. We should not be considering ways to force people to vote. Instead, we should seek to find out why more and more people are becoming disillusioned with the political process. If we are honest with ourselves, we already know the answer. We must strengthen the citizenship agenda for schools to encourage more young people to talk about politics and learn the art of debate. Visits to this House would be an inspiration to them all.
The problems and social needs of my constituency are not unique and have been the same for some years. Employment, health, education and community safety are at the top of the list, as I am sure they are across many areas of the country. We are all here for the same reason: to improve the standard of living and life chances of the people we represent. I have been a shop steward all my working life, giving a voice to those who needed help and support, and that is the role that I will play for the people of Blaenau Gwent. I believe that, as long as I carry out my duty with honesty, integrity, openness and accountability, I will continue to have their support.
The south Wales valleys have played a significant part in the social and economic development of this country from the industrial revolution to the present day, and the people of Blaenau Gwent want to continue to play their part in developing a strong and vibrant economy for future generations. One of the greatest opportunities for my constituency is the development of an integrated tourist industry across Blaenau Gwent and neighbouring areas. I am sure that the significant numbers of visitors who came to our area during the by-election, increasing our tourist trade considerably, would agree that we have an industrial history and a medical history that is second to none, and some of the most beautiful valley countryside in Britain. I hope that all Members would support us in establishing an attraction that would bring visitors from all over the world and provide much-needed employment for our area.
This afternoon’s debate on international affairs should take into account the role that our individual communities can play in this very important issue—primarily through education and the sharing of information. The involvement of our young people is important in considering international affairs. I had planned to make my maiden speech during the debate to establish a commissioner for older people in Wales, because over the past two months I have aged considerably and will probably have need of their help sooner rather than later. The intergenerational working in our communities is vital to any respect agenda. We are never too old or too young to learn from each other. Wales can lead the way with a commissioner for older people, working alongside the already appointed commissioner for young people. The investment in young people in terms of meaningful training and practical skills, as well as academic courses— perhaps with training involving a mixture of ages and of experience—is vital in creating real and lasting job opportunities and increased earning potential. We must ensure that areas of the country that receive European funding, and have a Community First process in place, maximise its potential for the benefit of our people.
The people of Blaenau Gwent have suffered the loss of coal and steel industries in recent years, but, as we have shown over the past two months, we are people who care for our community. We had no party machine, only individuals who wanted their voices heard and I would respectfully request that those who believe that our by-election result was just an insignificant protest should think again and heed the result—do not ignore it.
I will do everything that I can to deliver the hopes, wishes and aspirations of the people in my constituency by following my principles of socialism, trade unionism, co-operation and family and Christian values. To add to the debate this afternoon, there was a phrase used many years ago—jaw-jaw not war-war. From what we have heard today, that is the way forward. Thank you for this opportunity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I thank all hon. Members for their patience.
May I begin by paying tribute to the fine maiden speech made by the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies)? I, too, came to the House via a contentious by-election. It is two years to the week since Peter Mandelson resigned the Hartlepool seat—my life has never been the same since. The hon. Gentleman made a fine and spirited maiden speech and I wish him well during his time in the House. I also wish to pay tribute to the balanced statements that were made to the House by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East on Monday and by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Tuesday, and to the balanced speeches made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) in this debate.
The British Government are gravely concerned, as we all are, about the escalating crisis and the threat that it poses to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, to the wider middle east region and to British citizens in the region. The civilian casualties in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon are absolutely horrific. It is imperative that hostilities and violence from both sides end immediately to avoid the risk of losing further innocent lives.
The origins of the crisis are clear. The G8, following last week’s summit in St. Petersburg, stated:
“The immediate crisis results from efforts by extremist forces to destabilize the region and to frustrate the aspirations of the Palestinian, Israeli and Lebanese people for democracy and peace. In Gaza, elements of Hamas launched rocket attacks against Israeli territory and abducted an Israeli soldier. In Lebanon, Hizbollah, in violation of the Blue Line, attacked Israel from Lebanese territory and killed and captured Israeli soldiers, reversing the positive trends that began with the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, and undermining the democratically elected government of Prime Minister…Siniora…These extremist elements and those that support them cannot be allowed to plunge the Middle East into chaos and provoke a wider conflict. The extremists must immediately halt their attacks.”
That analysis is also shared by Arab nations. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has used extraordinarily frank language to denounce the attacks. Its official news agency, SPA—the Saudi Press Agency—stated last week:
“A distinction must be made between legitimate resistance and uncalculated adventures undertaken by elements inside”—
“and those behind them without recourse to the legal authorities and consulting and coordinating with Arab nations…These elements should bear the responsibility for their irresponsible actions and they alone should end the crisis they have created.”
It said that the terrorist elements
“are exposing Arab nations and their gains to grave dangers without these nations having a say in the matter”.
The analysis and conclusions of the G8 and Saudi Arabia are absolutely correct. Since fighting began a matter of days ago, 1,600 Hezbollah rocket attacks have rained down on northern Israel. Some 29 Israelis have died in the past 10 days, including 15 civilians in rocket attacks. A million Israelis are permanently in bunkers and shelters, unable to work or go about their business. To be frank, it is surprising that the death count in Israel has not been a lot higher.
If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I will come to the question of proportionality shortly.
Hezbollah fires rockets without specific targeting, regardless of whether they might hit civilians. Its aim is to kill as many people as possible. The delivery systems for the rockets are crude and largely inaccurate. I understand that a Hezbollah rocket actually hit Syria on Tuesday night, so ineffectual is the targeting capability.
Many people, including the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), have mentioned the need for proportionality in Israel’s response to the terrorist attacks. I absolutely agree about the need for proportionality, but is Israel meant to wait until Hezbollah improves the guidance systems on the rockets so that the death toll becomes much higher? There is criticism that Israel is wiping out the infrastructure of Lebanon and I will expand on that later on, if I may.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the attack on the Lebanese barracks that resulted in the death of 11 soldiers was disproportionate? Would that not justify the Lebanese Government defending themselves, if they saw fit, by attacking Israel?
I will come to attacks by Lebanon into Israel shortly. We should all recognise that Hezbollah is also trying to wreck Israel’s infrastructure—it is just that the means of achieving that effectively have not yet been reached.
Not all the rockets that have been used are Katyushas, which have been the missiles of choice for Hezbollah in recent years. Katyushas generally have a range of 20 km. If they are fired from southern Lebanon, they are able to hit northern Israeli towns, albeit with somewhat little precision. However, the past few days have seen rockets fired deeper and deeper into Israel. Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, has come under intense fire, and it has suffered some of the worst attacks in the current crisis. On Sunday morning, for example, Syrian-produced Fajr missiles hit Haifa, killing eight maintenance workers at a train depot and injuring 53 others. This week, Israel claims to have destroyed an Iranian-made missile—the Zelzal— which has a range of about 200 km. Those are ominous developments. Terrorist groups, backed by neighbouring states that have pledged to obliterate Israel and wipe it off the face of the earth, appear to be close to having weapons that threaten the security of most of Israel, including Tel Aviv, its major financial centre.
I accept that Israel is bombing Lebanon, and let me make it clear that I want that to stop. However, the House must recognise that it would stop immediately if Hezbollah released the kidnapped soldiers and stopped the rocket attacks. That must be recognised in any discussion about proportionality.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me, but I want to press on, as I know that other hon. Members want to speak.
It has been a fast-moving and dramatic year. There have been genuine prospects for peace in the middle east since the Israeli elections; indeed, I secured an Adjournment debate on that subject a few weeks ago. Despite the election of Hamas, there were encouraging signs that a two-state solution was moving closer. Mahmoud Abbas remained as Palestinian President and attempted to implement a civilising and moderate policy for the Palestinians. At the end of May, for example, he proposed an 18-point peace plan based on positions agreed by Palestinians in Israeli jails. That plan implicitly recognised Israel and supported the establishment of a Palestinian state in territory occupied by Israel in 1967. Abbas was prepared to put that 18-point plan to the Palestinian people in a referendum, and Hamas signed it at the end of May.
Let us be clear that the document is not a miraculous panacea for either side. Although there is implicit recognition of Israel, it is arguably so implicit as to be almost imperceptible. That point was stressed by two of the signatories, Abdel Kheleq Natsche from Hamas, and Bassam al-Sa’adi from Islamic Jihad, who declared:
“We scorn the attempts to attach non-existent content to the document and therefore we emphasise that it does not contain any declaration or hint of recognition of the occupation state and does not contain any call for this”.
In other ways, the document falls short of what the UK and other members of the international community want—an end to terrorism and a commitment to honouring existing international agreements. Although it is far from perfect, in terms of perception it represents a significant and symbolic move towards an acceptance, albeit implicit rather than explicit, of a peaceful two-state solution based on bilateral negotiation and future co-operation.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me, but I want to press on.
In a meeting in the House only last month, the Israeli Prime Minister told hon. Members that he would pursue diplomatic negotiations and aimed to begin negotiation with President Abbas before embarking on his plans for withdrawal from the west bank. From a wider perspective, in April this year President Bush welcomed Prime Minister Siniora to the White House and proclaimed that Lebanon
“can serve as a great example of what is possible in the broader Middle East”.
Those small steps towards peace and wider regional stability and prosperity were not in the interests of terrorist organisations, which thrive on chaos and fear. Their power derives from derailing negotiations and causing turbulence and violence.
I have no doubt that Hezbollah kidnapped the Israeli soldier in a deliberate attempt to stop any progress in the peace process, and to escalate violence and so increase and consolidate its power. In so doing, it has taken the world’s attention away from Iran’s attempts to secure nuclear weapons—a prospect that would have immensely harmful repercussions for the stability of the wider regional and global theatres. We cannot conclude that Iran directly ordered the attacks and kidnappings against Israeli targets—that would be a crude assessment—but there is a strong and co-ordinated web of influence between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, and that relationship has been nurtured over the past few decades.
Hezbollah was created by the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war, and since then it has received training and weaponry and technical expertise from Tehran. Iran is Hezbollah’s main sponsor, donating an average of $100 million to $200 million a year. As was said earlier, Hezbollah has deliberately entwined itself into civilian life in Lebanon. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) pointed out, missiles and military equipment are stored in densely populated areas.
That is the context of the current crisis. Israel has a wish—a legitimate one, in my opinion—to try to destroy Hezbollah’s military capability to minimise the risks to its citizens and to mitigate, as much as possible, the existential threat to itself. Israel also has a right, which I do not think anybody in the House or elsewhere could dispute, to defend its borders. However, that task is made immeasurably more difficult by the deliberate intention of Hezbollah to intertwine its military capability into civilian life in Lebanon. This tactic is cowardly, but I urge restraint on Israel.
The loss of life, the injury and the impact upon the basic humanitarian situation in Lebanon have been truly horrendous. Israel must show restraint and try to ensure that its legitimate aim of destroying the military wing of Hezbollah does not coincide with or cause the destruction of the infrastructure of normal Lebanese life. Such a move would help breed even more of a culture of hatred and disaffection in the region, and would result in the evaporation of support from actors such as the G8 and Saudi Arabia.
Diplomatic pressure for a ceasefire and thereafter a negotiated two-state structure are the only solutions, both in the short term and taking a longer perspective. I fully support the Government in their stance on the matter and their ability to try and get all parties to the negotiating table, but I accept that influence on Hezbollah is limited. The world must be firm that any of those short green shoots of peace which we have seen in recent months in the region are not trampled upon and destroyed for ever by extremist and aggressive states and terrorist organisations.
I shall do my best to keep to three minutes. I entirely agree with what the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) said and I do not wish to repeat it. I thought it was a fine speech.
I declare my interest. I am the chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel. This will not be a balanced speech because I do not think I should take the time to balance it as I would otherwise like. When hostages are taken and still held, I find it difficult to be balanced. The Foreign Secretary was absolutely right in saying that the crisis could be brought speedily to an end by the hostages being released and by the firing of the rockets being stopped.
I shall make four points. First, some people say that the occupation by the Israelis is the problem. Well, if that were the case, when Israel withdrew from Gaza they could have expected some benefit from it, but instead what they got was a rain of rockets coming out of Gaza. That withdrawal from Gaza was heavily objected to by many people in Israel, and now the reaction in Israel by the opponents of withdrawal from Gaza is, “Look, we were right. We should never have withdrawn from Gaza in the first place.” We do not want to send the wrong message to Israel by allowing rockets to continue to rain down on Israel from the areas that it releases.
Secondly, people are calling on Israel to be proportionate and restrained. Yes, of course it must be proportionate and restrained, but what do we expect the Israelis to do? Do we expect them to leave open the route to restock Hezbollah’s rockets? Do we expect them to negotiate with kidnappers and thus to create more kidnappers? Do we expect them to let out of jail the people who have been murdering their neighbours? We call on Israel to show restraint, of course, but Israel over many years has been showing restraint in the face of those rockets. A couple of weeks ago I was in Kandahar and had to spend two hours in a concrete air raid shelter because of the fear of rockets coming in from the Taliban. To be honest, it turned out to be almost a bit of a game. But in Israel it is happening night after night, and the Israelis could see that going on time after time and never stopping.
Thirdly, the Iranians are talking about their nuclear weapons. We cannot just ignore what the Iranian President says about wanting to wipe Israel off the face of the map. We cannot pretend from our western perspective that he never said it or that he was joking. I believe that he meant it. The way that he is working, through Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah, is something of which we need to be very scared.
My final point echoes a comment by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore). It is worrying that 80 per cent. of Palestinians are living below the poverty line. In the long term, the only solution to the problem is dramatically to regenerate the economies of Palestine and Lebanon. One can of course argue that that will not be achieved by destroying all the infrastructure. Equally, however, it will not be achieved if the security situation there is such that they are free to launch rockets and to intimidate Israel, their democratic, rule-of-law neighbour.
I will not have changed many minds, but at least I have been brief.
I, too, will not be balanced because of the limited time available.
I absolutely accept that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister are acting in good faith. I am sorry that the Foreign Secretary cannot be here to hear that. However, I profoundly disagree with their judgment on this issue. I do not feel that the Prime Minister’s responses to questions yesterday and following the G8 summit demonstrated an even-handed approach, and many of my constituents have contacted me to say the same. That particularly applies to the issue of proportionality by the Israelis. It is meaningless for the Government to keep saying that they call on the Israelis to exercise restraint and ask them to be proportionate and to act within international law, but then fail pointedly to answer the question of whether they think that the current action is proportionate or within international law.
The blitzkrieg—there is no other way of describing it—that has been unleashed on Lebanon beggars belief. Merely talking about numbers of missiles on either side does not get across the inequity of the situation. Israel is the fourth largest military power in the world. Its missiles and weapons are of a different order of magnitude to the weapons ranged against it. That is not to excuse the people attacking the Israelis; I decry those attacks too. However, it is out of all proportion to launch that indiscriminate blitzkrieg on Lebanon against civilian targets, which has already resulted in 359 deaths, including 294 civilians, of whom a third were children. Some 1,000 people have been wounded and 500,000 displaced. Now that the foreign civilians have been evacuated, there is a fear that the bombing will increase still further. The Israeli defence force said today that it believes that it has got rid of half of Hezbollah’s military capability. Does that mean that there are to be another 359 deaths and another 500,000 displaced before it has achieved its aims and stops what it is doing?
If the Government are to have credibility, they must be seen to be even-handed and to uphold international law and say that the Israeli action is disproportionate. Many people in Israel are prepared to say that their Government are acting disproportionately, so why will not this Government do so?
I should like to draw attention to the action in Palestine, where Gaza is under siege. The whole civilian population—
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey). I endorse the gracious tribute that the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) paid to the newly elected hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies), who made a passionate, decent and admirable speech of which he should be proud.
Of course, there is terrible violence and an enormous crisis in the middle east, and that is the immediate pretext for today’s debate. However, there are other crises elsewhere, and I would like to focus briefly on a couple of them.
First, there is the running sore and international shame of what continues to take place in Darfur. So far, more than a third of a million people have lost their lives and 2 million people have been displaced—250,000 have been displaced in 2006 alone. The crisis has erupted over the border into Chad. Foot-stamping by the Sudanese Government has already prevented a vital deployment of troops by the United Nations to Darfur. It cannot be allowed, through procrastination, delay and objection, to prevent that necessary deployment again. I appeal to the Minister for the Middle East to advise the House today of what the Government are doing in response to the cri de coeur from the African Union, the aid agencies and others to press the matter, bring it before the United Nations Security Council and try to ensure that, sooner rather than later, there is a vote.
Secondly, there is the long-running crisis—the slow-burn genocide, as I would characterise it—in Burma. Early-day motion 902 has attracted the signatures of 312 hon. Members who are united in calling for United Nations Security Council action. We need a resolution. We have support from European states and we enjoy the backing of the United States. We need the British Government and others to exert diplomatic muscle to exhort African states such as Ghana, Tanzania and Congo-Brazzaville to secure support for a discussion, with the consequence—I hope—of a resolution, binding or otherwise, to try to insist that the regime, which has an appalling human rights record, is brought to book.
Those two important crises need to be tackled. There are many others but the United Nations must now decide what it is to be in future: a vehicle for necessary change in the world or simply an instrument of passive acceptance of an unsatisfactory status quo. Let it be the former, not the latter.
When one becomes involved in issues such as those in the middle east and develops friendships there, it is easy to see the suffering of only one side. It is easy to rationalise the indefensible and dehumanise the other side. I hope that being aware of that will stop me ever rationalising or excusing rocket attacks, or saying that they are okay if they are provoked or—to use that ever-so-polite word—“proportionate”. If I apply those sentiments to rocket attacks—I do without qualification—I also say that, when air strikes kill 300 people and displace 500,000, when 100 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza in the past few weeks and when water and electricity supplies are cut to homes and hospitals in one of the poorest and most densely populated places on earth, people should not rationalise that or say that, somehow, it is okay.
I never thought that Ministers in the Government whom I support, who rightly prefix everything that they say with a demand for an immediate and unconditional end to rocket attacks, would find it so difficult to call for an immediate ceasefire by both sides. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East that, unless the Government change their description of events, their credibility in the outside world will take a knock and the charge of double standards will have considerable force.
The Prime Minister told us that we needed to examine the underlying causes and I agree with that. There is no time to consider most of them, so I shall mention only a couple. The Prime Minister singled out the kidnappings of Corporal Shalit in Gaza in a raid on 25 June and two soldiers in Lebanon on 12 July. He said that we must call for their immediate and unconditional release and I agree. However, if we say that, what about the families of the 741 Palestinian prisoners whom Israeli troops abducted and who are still held without trial in Israeli jails? Corporal Shalit is 19 years old; 282 of Palestinian prisoners are under 18. What do we say to Palestinians when the unjustifiable capture of one Israeli causes an international incident but that of Palestinians does not? Can we honestly say that there is no connection between that and the sense of hopelessness that breeds terrorism? There is a connection, and we ignore it at our peril.
I should like to repeat the call for another urgent debate on international affairs. The hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) mentioned two other international issues, but there are also problems in Tibet, North Korea, Nigeria, the Caribbean and other places, and we need time to debate those issues as well as returning to the incidents in the middle east.
I shall concentrate my brief comments today on the middle east. We all feel resentment when we are slighted. There are Back Benchers here who were once Ministers and who are still seething that they no longer hold that position. That anger can last for years and sometimes blight their lives. But what resentment must people feel when they see their land cut off by a wall so that they can no longer get to their stock? What resentment must people feel when they see their shops and premises destroyed by shellfire? What resentment must people feel as they stand and watch bulldozers moving over their homes? And what resentment must someone feel when the child in their arms dies as a result of an attack? To balance that, what resentment must an emergency worker in Israel feel when they have to clear up the wreckage and carnage caused by a suicide bomber on a bus?
I do not expect a country to react to such circumstances in an emotional way. I expect a rational response. The right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was right to say that we in the House are friends of both Palestine and Israel. It is the duty of friends to say, “Hold on. We understand your anger. What is happening to you is wrong, but your response has to achieve an end. You have invaded Lebanon before, and it has not worked. Your reaction now might bring temporary respite, but it will make things worse in the long run. You are destroying the bridges and infrastructure that were improving the quality of people’s lives and bringing economic success to the country, which would have done a lot to ameliorate that anger and resentment.” I urge everyone to say clearly to Israel, “Cease. Stop. Pull back from what you are doing. Use surgical attacks if necessary; we understand that you have a right to self-defence. But what you are doing now is not going to help you in the long term.”
I shall restrict my remarks to the humanitarian consequences of the conflict. As many speakers have mentioned today, more than a third of the victims are children. They are the voiceless ones in this tragedy, and I hope that we will all remember them in our considerations.
I totally condemn the actions of Hezbollah, but all sovereign Governments have a duty to minimise the risk to civilians and the damage to civilian infrastructure. The United Nations human rights spokesperson, and its humanitarian co-ordinator, Jan Egeland, have both referred to the tragedy that will soon emerge as a result of people being trapped in their homes and cities, which they are not allowed to leave. Their water and electricity supplies are being cut off, and they face an utterly horrific humanitarian disaster.
The international community needs to re-examine its role in this dispute. We were scheduled to discuss the Department for International Development White Paper today, some of which is relevant to our debate. It reminds us that all 191 United Nations member states
“endorsed for the first time the groundbreaking principle of a ‘responsibility to protect’. They agreed that while individual governments are responsible for the protection of their own people, the international community would no longer tolerate inaction by national governments in the face of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity within their borders.”
If we truly want to live up to those principles, we have a duty to make it clear and transparent when any party to this dispute has acted disproportionately, and to call for an immediate ceasefire. There have been reports of a week’s delay until someone does something, but that is not the way to live up to our responsibilities. More than ever, we need to be seen to be an objective party in relation to the dispute. We need to make the civilian populations our first priority. More than ever, we need to show our real support for the moderate voices on all sides of the dispute, whether they are in Israel, Lebanon or the Palestinian community.
I want to make three brief points.
First, everyone has talked about the calm and measured speeches from those on the Front Benches, and I endorse that. However, on Monday, the Minister who will respond to the debate made an excellent appearance in the House, and I put it to him that it would be a good idea if the ambassadors of Syria, Iran and, indeed, Israel, were summoned to the Foreign Office, so that that calm, measured language could be conveyed to them, and they could be told how the Government felt about these matters. He responded disarmingly and frankly to say that he had not really thought of that, but that it was a good idea. I would like to know whether that idea has been put into practice. It is a time-honoured practice that, when a country seeks to exert influence, and when other countries behave in a less than entirely admirable way, their ambassadors are summoned. I think that that would be good in this instance.
Secondly, I entirely endorse what has been said on both sides of the House about the actions of the Syrian and Iranian Governments, which are utterly indefensible. No one in the House can begin to condone terrorism. On the other hand, at the moment, Israel needs friends who are, above all, candid. It needs people who will say, “Of course we believe absolutely in your right to exist. Of course we are totally dedicated and committed to that. But it is possible that in your response, disproportionate as I believe that it is in some respects, you are actually making your own position much more difficult.” In that sense, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) made an eloquent speech, and I endorse what he said. I hope that the Government will talk to Israeli Ministers in that regard.
Thirdly, the people who are rubbing their hands at the moment are those who support terrorism, in Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever it is practised. The people who are delighted at the disproportionate response of Israel are the terrorists—the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the terrorists who are raining rockets on Israel and who precipitated this crisis by seizing that soldier a few weeks ago. The House cannot, because of our commitments over the last few years, fail to recognise that fact. That is why I so disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who calls for a withdrawal from Iraq. At the moment, that would send out all the worst signals, whatever one may think of the background.
In the remaining seconds available to me, I appeal to the Minister to respond to my points, and to do everything possible—
I begin by saying that I speak as a friend of Israel and a friend to the Palestinians. There are many things that I would like to say, but I will restrict myself to one set of comments.
The crisis in the middle east is a tremendous challenge to the international community, and I fear that we will not rise to it. We have not risen to it up to now. We have allowed a situation to continue to develop in the middle east that generates a huge amount of trouble, not only for those in the middle east but for those in the streets of London, those who travel on the buses in London and those who travel on the tube—my constituents. We need to be able to resolve the issue of the middle east because it continues to a generate a feeling of enormous resentment and of justification for the sort of terrorism that we are now suffering across the world.
If we cannot, as an international community, develop international organisations that can resolve such situations, where are we heading? How can we just stand on the sidelines and say, “The neo-cons are dominating American foreign policy, and therefore we have to behave as though we have been cut off at the knees, and we can do nothing about it,”? How can it be that so little is done about the continuing open sore that is Palestine at the moment? How can the Israelis be allowed to build walls on Palestinian land and the road map be allowed simply to drift? How can that be? Now we see the bombing that is taking place across the middle east and the terrible suffering of civilians, and we seem to be able to do nothing.
We must do something. We must rise to the challenge. We must work together as a whole community, because the world is small and getting smaller. It is our duty to play our part and to be brave, to speak to our friends and to ensure that we behave responsibly.
I shall make five points in three minutes, if I can manage that.
First, I think that the Foreign Secretary was very wise to resist pressure to say whether she considered Israel’s response to be proportionate or disproportionate. I am sorry that others were not quite so statesmanlike. It is extraordinarily difficult to say what is a proportionate and what is a disproportionate response in such circumstances. Is it proportionate not to take out stores of missiles because Hezbollah chooses to locate them in populated areas? That is scandalous in itself, and is of course the responsibility of the Government of Lebanon, although no one has wanted to say that in the House today. The Government of Lebanon have simply acquiesced in the state of affairs for a very long time. They have made no attempt to enforce Security Council resolution 1559, and I am afraid that a great deal of responsibility now lies on their shoulders.
Secondly, there is no doubt in the House and in the world about who is responsible for this. The middle east has been pretty calm for the past couple of years, and certainly during the past few months. There can be no doubt that it was an entirely gratuitous and deliberate decision by Hamas and Hezbollah—perhaps acting in concert, perhaps not—to attack Israeli soldiers, and to capture some Israeli soldiers and hold them hostage, that started the crisis. We do not do a service to the facts, and we certainly do not do a service to peace, if we do not recognise that, and if we try to put the attacker and the attacked and the innocent and the guilty on the same footing.
Thirdly, many people are now saying that because there is great conflict and loss of life on all sides, the answer is for the international community to put pressure on the parties. That is understandable, but it has not been thought through properly. It is not possible to put pressure on Hezbollah or Hamas. It is not even possible to put pressure on their supporters, Syria and Iran. If we could put pressure on Iran we could solve the nuclear weapons problem, but we all know that we cannot do that. Putting pressure on the parties basically means putting pressure on Israel.
What a perverse and absurd situation that would be. What a terrible, dangerous message to send around the world, and the middle east in particular: that if a country launches rocket attacks on Israel or attack Israeli soldiers, the international community will put pressure not on that country but on Israel. That really would be extremely perverse and extremely dangerous, and we should not do it.
Fourthly, Israel must learn the lessons of its mistakes. In no circumstances should it carry out a prisoner exchange. It is, to some extent, paying a terrible price for having done that in the past.
My final point is that the only solution is an international force. That is the only alternative to an indefinite buffer zone in southern Lebanon—
The events of recent weeks are part of an ongoing tragedy for all peoples of the middle east. Israel has suffered an unprovoked attack on its cities from Hezbollah in Lebanon after withdrawing from Lebanon, which is in contravention of international agreements and assurances given through the United Nations at the time. Similarly, since Israel withdrew from Gaza its cities have been subject to shelling from Gaza.
Israel is entitled to defend itself, and it is rational for Israel, when subject to shelling and rocket attacks from Lebanon, to go to the source of that shelling and the source of those rockets. It is the responsibility of Hezbollah and the Lebanese that they have, disgracefully, put so many civilians in the line of fire, and that is absolutely to be deplored.
It is important for the nature of Hezbollah to be recognised. Hezbollah is just one of the rejectionist terrorist organisations that are determined to prevent there ever being peace between the Israeli and the Palestinians. It is linked with Iran, which has described Israel as a cancerous tumour that should be removed. It is a terrorist organisation. It murdered more than 200 people in the Argentinian Jewish Centre in 1992. It was implicated with Yasser Arafat in bringing arms to the Palestinian Authority in violation of the Oslo agreement in 2002. It murdered Israeli civilians at the Matsuba kibbutz in 2002.
What is the solution? The immediate solution is a ceasefire, yes, but it must include securing Israel’s northern border so that its civilians are not subject to indiscriminate attacks, financed and supplied by Iran and issued through Hezbollah. The long-term solution must be a return to the road map, a negotiated agreement on a two-state solution of a Palestine and Israel based on the 1967 boundaries and with Jerusalem shared between those two states. Current events make that even more difficult to obtain and I hope that our Government will, through their diplomacy and negotiations, help to bring that situation about.
I welcome the statements made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), who both made it clear that they believed that Israel’s response was not proportionate. As to what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said, we would have been much better off if Israel had exercised restraint. Indeed, Israel itself would have been a great deal better off. We have been down this road before, in 1982, and Hezbollah grew and sustained its strength out of the consequences of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that year. The consequences of the present invasion of Lebanon will be far more damaging to the Government of Lebanon than to Hezbollah, which is not in the best interests of all.
In the very few moments available, I want to reflect on the dangerous overlap with our policy towards Iran—a source of considerable danger for the liberal west, as its values are so different. The situation is somewhat analogous to that of the Soviet Union, which was also a powerful force that was very different from us ideologically. My proposal is that we need to understand the country a little better and try to develop contacts with it, as I am attempting to do myself. However, Israel continues to accept the appalling injustice that has been meted out historically to the Palestinians and does not appear to be pursuing a policy that recognises that injustice. Until the Palestinians start to feel that Israel has a made, at the very least, a serious attempt to address it and to find a two-state solution, all these issues are going to get horribly mixed up—and with all the consequences for the strategic position of ourselves and our allies.
We have been quite close to a two-state established solution. The Geneva accord was negotiated between Palestinians and Israelis of good will. The negotiations at Taba and then at Camp David came close. I would reject the interpretation that the Palestinians missed an important opportunity, as they could not realistically have accepted what was on offer. What the Government of Israel and the Israelis need to understand is that until the Palestinian issue is addressed, Israel will never have peace. Until that is done, we are going to get into these horrible complications of living in a world split between Islamic and our own ideologies, in which the state of Israel is going to be a horrible—
I want to focus my comments on the impact of the conflict on Israeli, Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, particularly women and children, and the need for the international community to work to bring an end to the fighting and return to negotiations.
As we see, the media show us harrowing pictures from both sides of the conflict every day. Last night, two Israeli children, who were brothers, were killed after Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets hit the Arab-Israeli town of Nazareth. We know that more than 200 people, many of them civilians, have been killed in Lebanon. That reality is echoed in the calls of the International Women’s Commission for a Just and Sustainable Peace between Palestine and Israel. The IWC is an international body of Palestinian, Israeli and international women, established in 2005 under the auspices of the United Nations Development Fund for Women. At a recent emergency meeting, IWC members requested the Quartet to intervene to stop fighting and expressed their deep concern at the current crisis in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon, which they see as threatening the region as a whole. They called for an immediate return to the political process, led by the international community.
Groupings of women in the middle east have for many years kept the discussions going across the political divide as continued dialogue is the only way to return to the political process. Before coming to the Chamber today, I spoke to two representatives from the IWC in a conference call. They were Professor Galia Golan, an Israeli member, and Miss Samia Bamia, a Palestinian member. I shall give the House a brief account of some of their thoughts and suggestions on the situation.
The two representatives felt that the public internationally are ignoring the war in Gaza, but there is still a large toll of civilian deaths in that conflict. The Israeli representative said that while there was public support in Israel for the action described by the military as weakening Hezbollah, that support is lessening as the conflict deepens. Among women, there is a growing feeling that the response is not commensurate with the incursions that cause the military action. Both the women stressed the need for the international community to intervene to achieve a negotiated withdrawal, a ceasefire and an exchange of prisoners, and they are looking to the Quartet to assist that return to negotiations.
The Israeli representative, Professor Galia Golan, also spoke about stopping the boycott of funds to the Palestinian Government. While she had little sympathy for Hamas, she felt that it was wrong to ignore the levels of hardship caused by the boycott and that it was now starting to weaken the voice of moderates. Both representatives repeatedly stressed the importance of the need for intervention by the UK, the Quartet and the international community. In fact, from Palestine, Samia Bamia said that there was anger growing at the feeling that the international community was watching, but not acting to help a return to the political process.
Both representatives highlighted the fact that women’s voices need to be heard. The Israeli representative repeatedly said that there was a gender divide in public opinion. Although women felt that it was terrible to be bombed, they felt that the conflict had to stop.
The IWC wants to continue a dialogue and to build understanding, even in these difficult times. We also discuss what is needed if a ceasefire can be brought about. It was felt that UNIFIL had lost trust and was no help in protecting the border. It would be helpful, in terms of responding to the people who took part in the conference call, if my hon. Friend the Minister could tell the House anything more about the proposals for that force when he responds to the debate.
I also hope that the Minister will be able to find a way to support the work of the IWC for a just and sustainable Palestinian and Israeli peace. As I have said, women have played a vital role in conflict resolution and peace building in other conflicts. We should not ignore their role, but support their efforts as they work across the divide and urge both sides to cease fire and return to negotiation.
As I am morally bound to speak for just three minutes—and I shall do so—I shall make only two points. The first is to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) when he said that various people will be rubbing their hands with glee at the developments that have taken place. In particular, the strategists in Tehran will be doing so, because Hezbollah would not have initiated this cycle of violence and counter-action without orders and permission from Iran. We have to ask why Iran would want to give that permission. The answer is obvious when we look at the proportion of time spent in this very debate on the issue of the confrontation between Israel and Lebanon, compared with the time spent on the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons. This development is assisting Iran in its quest to become a nuclear power, and we should draw appropriate lessons from that.
I thought today that, for the first time in nine years in this House, I would agree with something said by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), when he told the story of the frog and the scorpion and how they both drowned because the scorpion stings the frog in mid-river, despite not being able to swim. However, for some reason, the right hon. Gentleman chose to change the ending. The ending actually is that as they are both drowning, the scorpion admits to the frog that it knew that it would also die, but it could not help stinging because that is in its nature.
What is the nature of some of the groups that are operating in the conflict today? We owe a debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who has just published a new book, “Celsius 7/7”, which traces some of the ideological roots of Islamism. He quotes one of its founding fathers as saying, when talking about the ideal Islamist state, that
“a state of this sort cannot evidently restrict the scope of its activities…It seeks to mould every aspect of life and activity in consonance with its moral norms and programmes of social reform. In such a state, no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private. Considered from this perspective the Islamic State bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states.”
What we are dealing with in Hamas and Hezbollah are totalitarian movements. This House can prate all it likes about immediate ceasefires and two-state solutions, but as long as there are actors on the scene who do not wish for anything else but to create a new holocaust as they deny the last one, those solutions will not suffice.
I wish briefly to take the Minister for the Middle East back to the subject of the preparations for the evacuation. I asked him earlier this week whether the Royal Navy would evacuate not only those who are United Kingdom passport holders, but their dependents who might not be. He gave a clear answer, but I ask him that question again because a news broadcast of last night had a caption saying that “UK passport holders” had been asked to assemble. Can he look into this as a matter of urgency, in case a slightly incorrect message is going out?
We all view with great concern what is going in Lebanon, and in particular the potential for the collapse of democracy there and the very real possibility of a new civil war. That alone should be an encouragement to us all to support the creation of a United Nations intervention force with, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, a very strong mandate indeed. We cannot expect a fragile Government in the fragile democracy of Lebanon to disband or disarm Hezbollah on their own. That would certainly lead to civil war, and I suspect that the last thing Israel needs is another failed state on its northern border.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) talked about the perception that we were not being even-handed. Some of the comments coming out of the west have not been even-handed, but we must be so. That means that when we call for the kidnapped soldiers to be released immediately and for the missile strikes to stop immediately, we must also call for the Israeli shelling to stop and for the collective punishment of those in Gaza and Lebanon, who might not be Hamas voters or Hezbollah fighters, to cease at the same time. For that to happen, the immediate fighting must come to an end, and I find it extraordinary that the UK Government have thus far equivocated, even on calling for an immediate ceasefire to effect those ends.
As we all know, the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people is an open sore. It continues to radicalise people and to act as a recruiting sergeant throughout the Muslim world and the middle east. Therefore, we must deliver the long-term solution—the two-state solution of Palestine and Israel. We must return to the road map.
The UK has a massive role to play in that. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a G8 member and a large state within the European Union, it has a great deal of weight that it can use. However, at the moment I fear—not least because of unguarded comments in the press earlier this week—that in many parts of the world the UK is seen as a client of the USA, and that must cease. There must be a coherent and robust position to bring all sides around the negotiating table and demand an immediate ceasefire; that must happen as quickly as possible.
This debate was called for by a number of hon. Members and hon. Friends, not least those of us who are regular attendees of middle east debates in Westminster Hall. I know that the Government were nervous about holding this debate—and, as a former Whip, I can imagine that it was constrained in its time as much as possible. However, the Government should not have been worried about it. This debate has proved that Members can argue very strongly and passionately about an issue that is very important. In the words of the Foreign Secretary, the current crisis is perhaps one of the greatest in the middle east that we have had to face. I urge Ministers to bear in mind Members’ calls for another statement or debate on this important subject, and to provide one perhaps next week.
Many Members have spoken, some of them under the enormous constraint of having only three minutes, and I shall not attempt to fill up my 10 minutes by reading out a list of names and making a few brief comments; instead, I shall pick out a few speeches.
The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) made his maiden speech in the middle of this important debate, and I congratulate him on it. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who rightly pointed out that this debate is on not the middle east but international affairs, spoke with passion—and within the allotted time—on the very important subjects of Darfur and Burma. I note that he has tabled a question on Burma for next week’s Foreign Affairs Question Time.
The Foreign Secretary spoke with a degree of caution, given the minefield through which she is attempting to steer Government policy, and the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) spoke with great reasonableness. But as you might expect me to say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) spoke very well indeed—I say that not because he happens to lead for the Conservatives on foreign affairs—across a wide waterfront about middle east issues. Importantly, he talked about what needs to be done.
Members in all parts of the House, whatever position they adopted on the middle east, agreed that this conflict has the potential not only to be highly local, with an immediate impact on people living in Israel, Gaza and Lebanon, but to draw in other countries as well, and to be a nightmare scenario for all of us.
So the real question that we face is, can Britain actually make a difference in this crisis? Here, I want to make a few points, some of which reinforce those made not only by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, but by Members in all parts of the House. First, the British Government do have a role to play. Although, in a classically British way, we often underestimate ourselves and think that we perhaps do not have influence, we have direct influence over most of our allies. We do have influence over the United States of America, and it is important that, at times, behind closed doors—if not always in public—we be frank and honest with the Americans. Indeed, we can go to places in the middle east that the Americans cannot, which is a very important point.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks said, this crisis has again proved—as virtually every crisis in the middle east does—the lack of any cohesion and direction on the part of the international community, particularly all the great powers of one kind or another. The point that I take from this debate is that, if we resolve the immediate conflict in the next two or three weeks—perhaps we will—the danger is that, once again, most of the major Governments outside the area will wash their hands, walk away and look at some other crisis. We cannot do that again, not only because of the immediate crisis involving Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas, but because, as many Members said, of the activities of Iran in particular, which is playing a very dangerous game. Iran is sponsoring terrorism that is aimed directly against many countries in the middle east, including Arab countries. Some of those activities have resulted in the death and injury of British military personnel, and we cannot walk away from that.
The Government must take the following courses of action. First, they must make certain that the period when military operations are given a chance is as short as possible. The Israelis have every right to protect themselves against terrorism and rocket and shell attacks but, as many hon. Members noted, they will be only too well aware that there can be no long-term military solution. The conflict can be resolved only by political means.
In addition, many hon. Members spoke about what is happening in Lebanon. My fear is that, although the Israelis have every right to root out the Hezbollah rockets, they might inflict so much damage that the state of Lebanon will be literally knocked out. If that happens, Israel will be in danger of losing the support of world opinion, which will render a political solution much more difficult to achieve.
Secondly, the Government must energise the international community. We are a member of the UN Security Council, and I look forward to hearing what actions Ministers propose to take there. Thirdly, as many hon. Members noted, there is the problem of getting humanitarian aid to Lebanon, the west bank and Gaza.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks and I spoke to the Lebanese ambassador earlier today, who said that the problem was not one of money but of getting aid to communities. He emphasised that, with 500,000 people crossing fields and walking along roads to get to Beirut, there is likely to be a civil disorder crisis in that city in the next two or three days. We look to the British Government, in particular, to take a lead on that.
Finally, I believe that the House of Commons is justified in taking a view on this crisis, and that the Government should not feel that it should not be debated. Strong and genuine views have been expressed on all sides of the House today, but mostly in a constructive manner. This Government resemble the Government who faced a series of international crises some 60 years ago. In the late 1930s, faced with an even greater crisis than this, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, said that his Government were hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. This Government may have to do the same.
This has been a very good debate, albeit a very short one. It has been about the huge issues—matters of life and death—that at present affect the lives of thousands of British nationals and millions of Lebanese and Israelis, among others.
We heard the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies), and I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing him well.
Quite rightly, the debate focused on the grave situation in Lebanon and Israel, but many other topics of equal gravity were touched on. The hon. Members for Buckingham (John Bercow) and for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), and the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), among others, reminded us about the other huge issues facing the world today, such as Tibet, Darfur, development aid, debt relief, AIDS, and Burma. Another matter raised in the debate was the argument for an international arms trade treaty—something that is very close to my own heart.
The hon. Member for Buckingham will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade summoned the Burmese ambassador to the Foreign Office—he has also written to Burma’s Foreign Minister for the same purpose—to express our concerns about a range of human rights issues, such as the large-scale abuses of ethnic groups, forced labour, restrictions to religious freedom, the use of sexual violence and the exploitation of children. My right hon. Friend also called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will wait for questions on Tuesday for his answer.
It is worth spending a moment on Darfur, which has been raised by a number of right hon. and hon. Members. The UK reaffirmed its pledge of £20 million for the African Union force for this financial year. That is out of a world pledge of £260 million. I am told that the amount pledged is likely to be more than enough to meet the force's short-term needs but we will continue to put pressure on others to contribute more.
We believe that the African Union force in Darfur needs to be replaced by a UN peacekeeping force. The Sudanese Government have not agreed to that. Kofi Annan has said that he hopes to see a UN force in Darfur. The Security Council has taken a strong line. The African Union wants such a force and so do many leading African countries. We will continue to press the Sudanese Government to accept it and we call on others to do the same.
We have taken the very good advice of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and summoned the Iranian and Syrian ambassadors. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken directly to the Prime Minister of Lebanon and the Foreign Secretary of Israel, among others. It was good advice and we were glad to take it.
No. I have little time, I am afraid.
I share the concerns expressed tonight about Lebanon and Israel. This Government are committed to helping to resolve the crisis. We want an immediate end to the violence and our priority remains to create conditions that will allow a credible and sustainable ceasefire. I assure the House that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I are working very hard to achieve that. I will be visiting the area immediately. In fact I would have been there now if it were not for this debate. I hope to speak to a number of leading regional players in the surrounding capitals as well as in the immediate area to try to help to find a way through the crisis.
We have supported the efforts of the UN team and of the EU high representative, Javier Solana, by providing them with transport and logistical assistance on the ground. As I made clear from the Dispatch Box on Monday, we have repeatedly urged the Israelis in the strongest terms to act proportionately, to conform to international law, and to avoid the appalling civilian death and suffering we are witnessing on our television screens. We expect no less from Israel and the world should demand no less from those who, for their own twisted reasons, supply Hezbollah with rockets, guns and finance.
We have called on Syria and Iran to stop their support for Hezbollah and to end their interference in Lebanese internal affairs, in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1680. Syria and Iran will be judged on how they conduct themselves during this crisis.
The first official Lebanese death toll confirms that 300 people have been killed, 1,000 wounded and 500,000 displaced. On the Israeli side, 29 people have been killed. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, says that Israeli and Hezbollah leaders may face war crimes charges over civilian casualties. How should the Government hold both parties to account?
I am sure that, if my hon. Friend had been here earlier, he would have heard this. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) properly raised the issue. Louise Arbour is someone whom we have to take very seriously. This is not a one-sided dispute and the evils of the destruction of civilians, their homes and communities are by no means limited to one side. I have tried to call in a balanced way for a reasonable response and for a cessation of violence.
I said earlier that Syria and Iran will be judged on how they conduct themselves during the crisis. Key players in the middle east are among those who will judge Syria and Iran. We have heard too little about countries such as Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which have broken ranks with the old ways of refusing to criticise the actions of countries that behave in that way. They are extremely concerned about this conflict. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes were right to argue that we should continue to use our great historical network of diplomatic contacts in that region so that we can act in concert to take the heat out of this terrible conflict.
In the few moments that are left, let me turn to the question of the evacuation. It is extraordinarily important. As we speak, some 1,300 people are being evacuated on HMS Bulwark and HMS York. To answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie), they include families of British nationals who may not be British passport holders. They also include many of our friends from the Commonwealth and Europe. We needed their help when the tsunami took place; the reaction to this terrible disaster is a worldwide one, and we need every ally that we can find in situations such as this.
I have raised with the Minister the case of my constituent Mr. Saleh, who is a Lebanese citizen with a British wife whose main home is here in Britain. He may not be able to be evacuated because he has not been able to get British citizenship. Will my hon. Friend take up his case for me?
If my hon. Friend will send me the details, we will certainly take a look at it.
So far, approximately 2,800 people are being evacuated. It is an enormous number. A further evacuation is planned by sea tomorrow. It has been an enormous exercise.
If the events of this last week or so have taught us anything, it ought to have taught us that we must never and can never retreat behind imaginary fortress walls around these islands. The enemies of democracy will always bring the fight to us, wherever and whenever they can. The first duty of any British Government is to defend the lives and liberties of our citizens here and across the world. That is why we must continue to maintain the most professional armed forces in the world and why it is vital that those brave men and women are directed by a democratically elected Government. It is why we must maintain the superb work undertaken in the world’s most difficult areas by our Department for International Development and why we must deploy and use to the best effect the great skills of those who staff our diplomatic missions abroad.
The sight of the Royal Navy’s grey funnels off the coast of Lebanon, whether they were seen directly by those who wished to be evacuated or indirectly on television by their loved ones around the world must have been one of the sweetest sights that they will ever see. All of us must pay enormous tribute to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, which supported it, and to all our armed forces who have taken part and will continue to take part in the operation. I am not sure that people have understood the danger in which they operated off the coast of Lebanon or the danger to the helicopters that flew over Lebanon. This is an extremely difficult situation.
We are very worried, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, about British citizens who are trapped in difficult areas in the south of Lebanon. We must find ways of getting them out. We are working with our colleagues in Germany, the United Nations and other countries to mount convoys and try to get the agreement of all the parties to the dispute to secure safe passage for those trapped individuals to points of safety. We know that a United Nations ferry is going into Tyre in the south. We hope that we can get many of our citizens and nationals and their relations on to that boat.
The Government will try to live up to the challenge of using the superb professionalism among our armed forces and our diplomatic service to help the United Nations and the international community to bring peace to Lebanon and the wider middle east. That must be the message that goes forward from this debate tonight.