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Lebanon and the Middle East

Volume 453: debated on Wednesday 29 November 2006

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir. I want to draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests and to thank the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding and Medical Aid for Palestinians for facilitating a recent visit to Lebanon. I also thank the Speaker’s Office and the House authorities for making special arrangements for this debate today. It comes at a critical time, but one or two of my colleagues arrived thinking that we were having a debate on Punjabis so perhaps the publicity for my debate was not ideal, which may be why there are fewer of us here than such an important debate merits at such an important time.

This is an opportunity to debate issues arising from the 33 or 34-day invasion of Lebanon when more than 1,000 people died, 4,500 were injured, around 1 million were displaced, an estimated £4 billion of damage was done and, as we saw on our visit, many villages in the south particularly were almost erased from the ground. Indeed, I understand that only 70 per cent. of the people have been able to return to their villages in the south, which illustrates the damage that was done during that time.

There was also political damage. Lebanon is now more polarised and trust between politicians has evaporated. We hear continually about the possibility of street protests and a ratcheting up of issues that most of us believe are not to the benefit of Lebanon. Recent events have compounded those difficulties. The assassination of Minister Gemayel and the suicide bomb incident at the Lebanese-Syrian border yesterday will do nothing to calm nerves.

My starting point is that strong support for the elected Government of Prime Minister Siniora must be our goal. However, in giving that support, we must recognise the instability in Lebanon, which relates partly to the history of the country and partly to its weak institutions. People often ask me how things happen in that country. The complexities of the confessional system, particularly the Taif agreement, are difficult to understand, especially when there is no estimate of the overall population of the different communities, but a suspicion that the Shi’a community may be increasing rapidly at the expense of the other four or five communities.

In that regard and after the events in the summer, Hezbollah has been agitating for an end to the Government’s pro-western stance, citing its under-representation. The national dialogue that was a feature in that country has ended recently and Ministers who support Hezbollah’s position have recently withdrawn from the Government. There are deep divisions between the 14 March pro-Government supporters and Hezbollah and its supporters. However, we found that attitudes were tempered by the country’s historic experience, particularly the spectre of civil war. On our visit we met the Prime Minister, the President and many political figures, and all expressed some confidence that dialogue would continue with no decline into the sort of activities that took place in the past.

There is also a history of foreign power intervention in Lebanon, most recently by Israel, but for many years Syria was directly involved in Lebanon. That feeds Lebanese suspicions. I was interested that a recent poll suggested that 84 per cent. of Lebanese people thought that Israel’s intervention was premeditated by Israel and the United States. There is a general lack of trust in the international community which is particularly important in relation to the United Nations forces that are based there. The international community has failed in the past because not only were previous forces of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon not seen to deliver what had been promised, but the reconstruction aid promised in 2000 was never delivered.

The Lebanese see their country as a surrogate arena for the wider conflicts in the region and that perception was reinforced by the conflict in July. Particularly poignant was the long delay before cessation of the violence and the fact that not everyone in the international community condemned the activities of the Israeli authorities and the disproportionate nature of the invasion.

However, something changed the whole dynamic in the region: during the conflict Hezbollah challenged the invincibility of the Israeli forces. I am not here to say whether that succeeded in reality, but the perception in Lebanon and the wider middle east is that there was some success and I believe that that changed the dynamic, not particularly in Lebanon, interestingly, where polarisation of the two sides did not lead to a significant increase in support for Hezbollah, but undoubtedly in the middle east generally.

Taking all that together, I want to consider today what has happened, what the international community has done during the past three months and what it needs to do to ensure and safeguard peace not only in Lebanon but in the wider middle east.

First, on security there has been some progress in the implementation of UN resolutions 1559 and 1701. I am pleased that there were very few breaches in the cessation of hostilities, but we were constantly asked why there was no ceasefire. It took some time, but Israeli troops have been withdrawn entirely and that must be very welcome. We saw the deployment of Lebanese troops in the border areas and when we travelled there we saw regular contingents, although there is still some concern about the loyalty and quality of some of those troops. Most importantly in the circumstances, UNIFIL is beginning to deploy several European countries and others have been involved in that role. However, when we asked about terms of engagement there still seemed to be confusion or lack of clarity that could prove to be critical in any future difficulties.

The problem of cluster bombs is very much to the fore in Lebanon. It is estimated that there are 1 million unexploded cluster bombs in the south of the country—90 per cent. of them were dropped within the last three days of the conflict—and we were told that because of that two people are killed every day while they are trying to gather in the harvest. My first question to the Minister is: what representations have been made to Israel to help that situation? We must clear those cluster weapons at the earliest opportunity and Israel has an important role to play in that.

There remain significant challenges for the international community to overcome in Lebanon. Although the air and sea blockade has been lifted, Lebanese sovereignty has not been respected, and Israeli air incursions continue regularly. They include mock raids, which are provocative and meant to terrorise the local population. When we were in the country, political leaders from all sides told us that the international community must do more. Have the Government protested publicly about the incursions? Will the Minister take up that issue with the Israeli authorities? There can be no military or security reason for the incursions, and taking up the issue would help enormously to reduce tension between the two countries.

There is little movement on border disputes. I am talking specifically about Shebaa farms. We understand that the United Nations has started mapping, but Prime Minister Olmert on behalf of the Israelis says that no way will they give back the Shebaa farms either to the United Nations or to anyone else. In reality, the farms will remain a flashpoint and a source of friction between the two countries.

In many ways, Hezbollah’s protection of the border, which it believes includes Shebaa farms, is its raison d’être. Again, have representations been made? It would seem eminently sensible, and the Lebanese told us that the land should be handed over to the United Nations. Before anything is done with it, the decision might perhaps be subject to final Israeli approval. Undoubtedly, that issue must be resolved at the earliest opportunity.

I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said, and I endorse what he says about Shebaa farms. Is it not true that when Prime Minister Siniora was in the United Kingdom in May, before the Israeli incursions last summer, he emphasised that the single biggest thing that the international community could do to relieve tension in Lebanon and promote a peaceful future in the country was to secure movement on the Shebaa farms?

That is absolutely correct. The farms issue predates all recent issues, and it is undoubtedly a source of friction not only in Lebanon, but between those two countries. It seems impossible to imagine long-term peace not only between Lebanon and Israel, but in the wider region, without a resolution to the Shebaa farms issue. It would go a long way to building confidence between the two countries.

Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that a source of tension would be removed if UN resolutions were adhered to and Hezbollah released its Israeli prisoners, the taking of whom started the conflict? Hezbollah has admitted that it was a mistake to capture them in the first place.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing up that point. I was just about to come to it, because it represents the other side of the border dispute issue. As he rightly says, originally, Israel invaded Lebanon on behalf of its two captured soldiers, and the issue remains unresolved. Almost everyone in Lebanon told us that there are secret ongoing negotiations to find a resolution, and that attempts were being made to exchange prisoners. Shebaa farms might form part of an overall agreement that resulted in the release of those prisoners. However, again, I urge the Minister to do whatever he can on behalf of the British Government to secure at the earliest possible opportunity a prisoner exchange or some other final settlement.

Smuggling of arms continues unabated, and we are told that Hezbollah rejects any calls to disarm. If we are to implement UN resolution 1701, we must address those issues. Sadly, inside Lebanon, they are contentious and a stalemate remains. It is therefore critical for the international community to play a more prominent role. Internationally, the key to both issues is dialogue with Syria—with Iran, too, but primarily, with Syria. I welcome the British Government’s overtures to the Syrians, and I hope that the Government draw Syria into a dialogue that leads to improvements in Lebanon and the implementation of resolution 1701.

I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s interesting speech, and I apologise for arriving in the Chamber one minute late. On Syria, what is his view about the international tribunal and inquiry into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, which has been followed, as the hon. Gentleman briefly mentioned, by the assassination of Pierre Gemayel?

The inquiry is an important development, which I support 100 per cent. That view is not universally held in Lebanon, and it certainly is not in Syria. However, its consideration is important, and we must clear up those assassinations. The inquiry is an internationally approved mechanism for achieving clarity, and I want the Government to continue to support those moves.

I was with my hon. Friend in Lebanon a couple of weeks ago, and I am sure that he would wish to confirm to the Chamber that the Prime Minister’s initiative to engage with Syria and Iran was welcomed across the political spectrum. They all wish for a practical and concrete initiative that gets under way as soon as possible.

I was pleased that there seemed to be unanimity in Lebanon towards the Prime Minister’s approach. He has been—if I may put it as delicately as possible—a somewhat controversial character in Lebanon and in the region, and it was heartening to see his latest initiatives universally welcomed in that country.

Does not my hon. Friend agree that although discussions with Syria would be beneficial, there are serious concerns about that regime’s alleged involvement in assassinations? The sooner the allegations are cleared up the better, because if the Syrian Government were believed to be engaged in such activity, it would be an impediment to discussions for our Government.

That is why I welcome the UN tribunal. It is primarily intended to clear up the matter and provide evidence that will prove one way or another who was responsible, and whether they were sponsored by one or other states in the region. However, I am concerned by the assumptions that some countries’ major spokesmen have made in different forums. We must await the evidence before we accuse individuals or countries of guilt.

I do not want to conclude without discussing our fact-finding mission to determine the impact of the conflict and what has been done to address it. The good news is that immediately after the conflict, the emergency relief operation was successful. Medicines, food, water and temporary accommodation were all delivered. When we were there, food was available at affordable prices, and the emergency relief operation was running relatively smoothly. However, more than $900 million was promised at the Stockholm conference, and it is critical for the image and the reality of the international community that several things happen in Lebanon. First, those pledges must be met. They were not met in 2000, and they must be met now; otherwise, we will be totally undermined. Secondly, I mentioned bomb clearances, and I am talking primarily about cluster bombs, although there are also land mines. Until we clear those cluster bombs, we will not really get the reconstruction process under way.

Sadly, we found that the resources that had been promised for the south were not getting through. We were unable to find out exactly why that was; it is a source of great political controversy in the south, and accusations are regularly made. We understand the need for transparency and for the international community to be assured that money does not go into the pockets of local bigwigs, but that money needs to get through.

That is an important point, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend could just tease it out a little for us. He has a good instinct for these things and he is very perceptive on this issue, so could he give us some idea of why the money and resources are not getting through as they should?

First, I should affirm that we are talking about reconstruction, rather than the aid process. The answer depends on whom one speaks to. The local elected officials, who are mainly sympathetic to Hezbollah, blame the Government; they say that Prime Minister Siniora is responsible because he has delayed the money that is going to southern towns and villages. When we spoke to those in the Government, they said that there was an internal dispute between Hezbollah and Amal over who got the political glory for delivering the international resources. However, one thing is absolutely clear: the resources are not getting through. Although I understand that the international community wants to set up mechanisms to monitor the funding and introduce a transparent process, it is becoming critical that we deliver some of the funds and get the reconstruction process under way. Currently, the only group that is helping in the south is Hezbollah, which is using its funding from Iran, and that cannot be good in the longer term.

What next? What do we need to do? First, we need to kick-start the regional dialogue. There is no point trying solve Lebanon’s problems in Lebanon; they can be solved only through wider dialogue. I welcome the Prime Minister’s first visit to Lebanon, although it perhaps did not go according to plan. I hope that he will be able to return to the region before the end of the year, because we need a concerted effort to draw Syria and, I hope, Iran into a dialogue, although I understand from recent statements that the Americans continue to resist that. Without such a dialogue, we will be unable to find a way forward in dealing with the wider conflict in the region.

Secondly, I deprecate all the accusations of foreign plots to overthrow the Government of Lebanon and of Syrian complicity in assassinations, which are made without any evidence. We have set up the UN tribunal, so we should let it do its work. We should wait for some evidence before suggesting that the assassination of Minister Gemayel, which was carried out in a Christian area and in an entirely different fashion from previous assassinations, must somehow automatically be Syria’s responsibility. Let us wait and see. The process is sound, and we need to look to the UN tribunal to answer our questions.

Given that the assassination of Pierre Gemayel took place on the day on which the tribunal that will look into the assassination of Rafik Hariri was announced, does the hon. Gentleman agree that nothing should stand in the way either of the pursuit of justice on this issue or of bringing relief to Lebanon’s beleaguered political community?

Yes. It would not seem to be beyond the ability of the international community or the Lebanese authorities to ensure that the tribunal also looks into the assassination of Minister Gemayel. That would be welcome, including, I am sure, in Lebanon. However, we have to await the evidence. All that I am saying is that we have to deprecate those who jump the gun and who have made accusations without any evidence to back them up.

We await the recommendations of the Baker commission. I was watching television last night, and I gather that they will be out next week. I hope that the commission will, if nothing else, resolve the ambivalent attitude of the United States authorities to Syria and Iran. Yesterday, the President of the United States said that the Iranians were beyond the pale, but other spokesmen say different things. If it does nothing else, therefore, the Baker commission could at least resolve the question of whether there will be a dialogue. That would help enormously to resolve some of the problems that exist, particularly in relation to the arming of Hezbollah and the border incursions, which, if yesterday’s events involving a suicide bomber at the border are anything to go by, are still very much under way.

The good news is that Lebanon is beginning to get back on its feet, and the international community can do a great deal to re-establish a better image of itself in Lebanon by helping those involved in that process. However, we need to do that publicly, because the Lebanese are looking for our Government to put pressure on the other states in the region, to stand up for Lebanon and the Lebanese Government and to try to bring peace to their beleaguered country.

Order. I intend to take the winding-up speeches from about 10.30 am, so I appeal for brevity from speakers.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on securing the debate. I am a co-chairman of CAABU along with the hon. Members for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) and for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) and I am delighted that CAABU facilitated the visit of the hon. Member for Edmonton.

I went to Lebanon slightly earlier, with the Conservative Middle East Council, and I disagree with almost none of the analysis that the hon. Gentleman has presented. I have to say, however, that it was rather easier going there as a member of the Conservative Middle East Council than as a supporter of the Government. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Prime Minister has an enormous amount of ground to make up in Lebanon, where he is seen as significantly responsible for the extension of the Israeli assault on the country.

Like the hon. Gentleman, however, I see some grounds for hope, despite all the awful stories coming out of Lebanon and Gaza and despite the seeming paralysis of the Syrian position. My instinct tells me that the Prime Minister is now investing considerable effort in the issue. Following the disasters of the recent few months, the situation is now potentially much more fluid than it has been for some time, although it could, of course, get much worse, rather than better.

I invite the Minister to comment on two things. One, about which I was concerned during my visit to Lebanon, is the role of UNIFIL. It seems to have a chapter 6½ mandate for its deployment, and it is not clear quite how that will play out in its relations with Hezbollah. More serious, perhaps, is the prediction made to us by Robert Fisk—it comes with all the knowledge and authority that he brings to such matters, although he is not always right—that one potential threat to UNIFIL comes not from Hezbollah, but from Sunni militants. He said that we could expect UNIFIL to be attacked by Sunni militants in Lebanon. UNIFIL, I think, does not have a very clear mandate and that is a particular challenge for it; I should be grateful for the Minister’s view about how he sees things developing.

What is clear, however, is that both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine are now necessary players if we are to extricate ourselves in a positive fashion from the challenges faced by the region. Will the Minister ensure that channels are available and open to Hamas and Hezbollah to encourage them to take a statesmanlike and constructive role?

There are some good signs coming out of Gaza. The ceasefire in Gaza is very much to be welcomed. I particularly welcome the attitude of the Israeli Government in making certain allowance for the fact that there will be Palestinian rejectionists, determined, as Israeli rejectionists are, to avoid the possibility of a final settlement in the west bank and Gaza; those people exist in both communities. There appears to be some give by the Olmert Government, and a recognition of the reality that the Palestinian Authority are not in a position to bring all Palestinian violence against Israelis to a complete conclusion or full stop, with no violation of the ceasefire.

If the ceasefire is agreed by Hamas, Fatah and the other major elements of Palestinian representatives, it will not enjoy 100 per cent. support among the Palestinian population. We need to understand how radicalised that population has become. There will continue to be people around who take a fundamentalist position of total rejection of the existence of the state of Israel. When those people turn to violence, they will have to be policed by every responsible representative. The challenge is to police and control them; to expect 100 per cent. control is unreasonable and puts the whole peace process in the hands of rejectionists on both sides. That is not a position that Palestinian or Israeli representatives should be in if they are trying to pursue the interests of their entire communities.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on Syria. I see the Syrian Government, or regime, or however one wants to describe them, as stuck in a historical position as a nominally secular, socialist party—the Ba’ath party regime. They have faced down Islamic movements in the past 20 or 30 years, sometimes with extreme severity. There is potential, if we can find a way forward for the Government in Syria, for them to play a constructive role in finding a wider solution in the middle east and a way forward in the new politics of the middle east—perhaps as an ally—with liberal, secular, European values on the one hand, against fundamentalist Islamic values on the other. Somehow we need to find a way to extricate the Syrian Government from the necessity of using authoritarian measures to sustain themselves in office, and enable them to find a way of establishing institutions in Syria that will allow the people of Syria to become sovereign and make a choice about their future Governments.

That is extremely difficult, because in all likelihood if there were a popularly chosen Government in Syria, the first one would be formed by the Muslim Brotherhood and would be likely to be an Islamic Government. We must find a way to develop political processes—in Syria, in particular, but it applies to other Arab states as well—without arriving at the situation that came about in Iran, where there was an Islamic revolution that established a position in which people could not be candidates for office unless they supported an Islamic Government. That is not my idea of democracy. We must find a way to enable Syria to have institutions that will allow a change of Government to happen without its being the last election that ever takes place there.

I know that the hon. Gentleman knows Syria well. Can he tell us whether he detects any appetite in the Syrian Government for developing institutions of that kind?

Not at the moment. I think that the Syrian Government feel that they are fixed in position; they see the potential for the entire thing to collapse if they begin to release the controls that have kept them in office, under the President and his father. Of course, there are people in the regime, as there are in many other Governments in the region, including the state of Israel, whose actions in trying to sustain the interests of their Governments do not bear very much examination according to the standards by which we should expect our Government to proceed, and by which we hold them to account through the courts. That is part of the challenge facing us—to extract people from positions in which their record of behaviour does not bear examination. We need a form of truth and reconciliation process for all the different communities; there are many different communities in Lebanon, for example, with a record of the most brutal and violent internecine conflict. Looking back over a century, the record of those communities’ interaction is a tragic and ugly story.

Any attempt to use British influence to make progress means talking to all representative groups that have widespread support in their communities, even if we do not like their present politics and methods. The only way we can begin to pull standards forward is to engage with them. My instinct is that that is the position of the Prime Minister now, and it is a shame that it is happening at the end of his term of office, and that he is focusing on the issue when he is politically at his weakest. Indeed, that rather mirrors what seems to happen with American Administrations; Presidents at the end of their time in office always focus on the middle east as their authority and their ability to deliver wane.

I believe that there are signs of hope, but hope will come only if we can engage with elements that we see at the moment as radical and rejectionist. Where they enjoy significant support in their populations, we need to guide, coax and encourage them into a much more constructive path. I hope that our Government can play, and are playing, a role in that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on securing the debate. He and I, with my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) and for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) were in the delegation in Lebanon a couple of weeks ago. As chairman of the all-party group on Lebanon, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton was the de facto leader of the group, and he led us with good spirits through 15-hour days and the Beirut traffic, keeping our spirits up as far as was possible in the circumstances. I am also pleased to welcome my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East. Three times in the past 12 months I have come back from areas of conflict, and three times I have debated with him in this Chamber. It is a good relationship so far.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, I was profoundly moved and distressed by the images that we saw in Beirut and the south of Lebanon. There is no doubt that the killing of the eight Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two on the Lebanese border was wholly unnecessary and wrong, and the kidnapping should be remedied as soon as possible. The same applies to what is happening in Gaza as well.

However, the way in which the Israelis responded to that situation, with the desolation and damage that we saw, was wholly disproportionate. We went to the village of Ait al-Chab, where virtually every house had been destroyed. According to Christian Aid, 54,000 homes were damaged or destroyed overall by Israeli attacks over 33 days, with 140 schools damaged. Why target schools? We visited a school for children with learning disabilities that was on a hill above the village. It had been bombed and destroyed, so 93 children from 23 different villages were being educated elsewhere, in just one room. We saw bridges that had been clinically taken out. Every single bridge on the motorway between Beirut and the south of the country had been taken out with precision bombing. We also saw places in Beirut where clinical attacks had removed blocks of flats with such precision as to leave scars like missing teeth in the fabric of the city.

As well as that, 1.2 million cluster bombs were used, as my hon. Friend said. We saw several of them first hand in olive groves, which has made it impossible for the harvest to be taken in this year and for people to get their businesses and livelihoods back together. Every day since the war ended, two people—mostly children—have died because of unexploded bombs. Those bombs have a 40 per cent. failure rate, which makes it inevitable that they will be dangerous and life threatening for a long time to come. Indeed, we were told that some of those munitions were already 30 years old. They were probably ex-Vietnam stock, and were rusted up and looked pretty lethal. The impact on us of what we saw will probably last a lifetime.

Perhaps the most moving moment for me was when my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury and I visited the site at Qana where a block of flats had, I think, been taken out on the last day of the war. Some 29 people were killed, 17 of whom were children. Completely fortuitously and unplanned, we met an elderly man who had lost his brother, his son and his daughter-in-law, and three grandsons in the destruction of those flats. As far as we knew, there was no military reason for taking out that building. It was miles from anywhere and was not even particularly close to the border. I do not think that a satisfactory explanation for such wanton and wholly disproportionate destruction can ever be given.

The good news is that there has been a cessation of hostilities since the middle of August—people were anxious that we regarded it as a cessation of hostilities, not as a ceasefire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton said, there are still factors that bring into question whether a real ceasefire and withdrawal of forces is in operation. Those factors include the Shebaa farms and the over-flying—that is, the threatening use—of military aircraft, not to drop bombs, but simply to remind people of their presence and the nearby Israeli border. All those issues are yet to be resolved.

I agree with the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on many things to do with the middle east. However, we had to wait 33 days for a ceasefire and, although I was one of those who called for early words from all sorts of sources to try to resolve the conflict, if words had been sufficient, I am sure that they would have been used. But words were never going to be sufficient, and it was always going to be more important to have a sustainable cessation of hostilities. That sustainability was always going to take longer to achieve than simply waving a magic wand. Therefore, although it is wholly regrettable that the war continued for 33 days, and although the Israelis could have stopped it at any time—having got compensation, as they saw it, for the attacks on their land—the fact that British people were at the United Nations, negotiating, talking and relating to other players in the field, and the fact that what has happened subsequently has proved to be 99.99 per cent. sustainable meant that it was worth going that extra mile and waiting those extra few days. Some of the politicians whom we met in Lebanon accepted that. They accepted that a worse solution would have been a ceasefire that broke down every few days.

There are legitimate political arguments taking place in Lebanon. Although I am no expert on it, Lebanon has an interesting constitution, because it maintains that there should be statutory representation at the highest level for the Christian, Sunni and Shi’ite communities. That is under attack now, partly because of the political ascendancy of Hezbollah, partly because of a strong feeling that the one-to-one-to-one relationship in the constitution is 50 years out of date, and partly because of controversies around issues such as the United Nations investigation into the Hariri assassination. Although all parties superficially supported the UN investigation, it is clear that the pro-Syrian ones perhaps did not have their hearts in it. Indeed, the day before we arrived, five members of the Lebanese Cabinet walked out, bringing about a political crisis that was being dealt with as we were there.

There have been other assassinations besides that of Hariri. We met the father of Mr. Tueni, who was killed a year ago, and there has been the killing of Gemayel since then. There has also been a rearrangement of some of the political alliances in Lebanon, with General Aoun’s party occupying a different position on the political spectrum than in the past.

There are 128 members of the Lebanese Parliament, of whom 14 are Hezbollah’s elected representatives. The view that Hezbollah politicians put forward within the democratic context must be acknowledged as a genuinely legitimate part of the Lebanese political spectrum. We met Hezbollah politicians who were committed to democracy and the parliamentary route, but who were nevertheless using the present lack of clarity in Lebanese politics precipitated by the war to push home what they saw as their political ascendancy. That has been caused by the feeling, particularly in the south of the country, that Hezbollah’s military wing successfully resisted the Israeli incursion—that is not my interpretation, but my feeling of what people were thinking in that part of the country. When an organisation such as Hezbollah is not only seen to be actively defending people’s interests and delivering aid to them—by providing cash directly to homeless families, for example—but seen to be a legitimate political force, that organisation will be in the ascendancy.

Putting the war aside for a moment, I am sure that the reason for Hezbollah’s ascendancy is exactly the reason Hamas was so successful in Palestine earlier in the year, as the hon. Member for Reigate said. The reason is to do with the effects on the economy, and therefore the self-confidence of the countries that are directly affected by the way in which Israel has undermined the operation of their economies. The Lebanese economy in the south of the country is non-existent in exactly the same way as the economy of the west bank is made non-functional by the network of roads, settlements, roadblocks and occupation there.

Lebanon is at a historic crossroads, as it has always been in 1,000 years of history. Its democratic tradition is under threat—it is certainly wobbly—and we need to support its democratic institutions such as its Parliament. We need to support its President, its Prime Minister and all those committed to the democratic way. We must ensure that they are not undermined by the threat of war and its effect on the economy, society and civilisation of Lebanon.

At present in Lebanon, there are 1.2 million unexploded cluster bombs, which threaten people’s lives daily, and 500,000 land mines, some of which have been there for more than 20 years. Such a country cannot function as we would hope and expect.

My hon. Friend rightly said that two or three children a day were dying as a result of cluster bombs. Does he agree that it would be helpful if the Israelis gave the grid maps for those bombs? That could save lives; the fact that the Israelis are not yet doing that is nothing short of shameful.

There are many ways in which Israel could help to correct the problems caused by the deliberate and direct military actions taken earlier this year, and it would be in its best political interest to be seen to be doing so. I am not sure how useful some of the information that my hon. Friend mentioned would be. I believe that some of it is available. When one cluster bomb dropped from an aeroplane explodes in the air, the 644 bomblets that come out can cover an area of 200 sq m. That means that specific grid references, although I am sure that they exist, are not necessarily that helpful.

My hon. Friend may recollect that the Mines Advisory Group, which works in Lebanon to deal with cluster bombs and wider mines issues, specifically said that the grids would help it do its very difficult job. The group anticipates that it would take 60 weeks. Given the feeling of the group, with its expertise, and the fact that up to three children a day are dying, our Government should push to save some of the lives that are being lost unnecessarily.

Everything that we can do on a diplomatic front, including trying to obtain such information, should be done. I am sure that my colleagues wish to pay tribute to the people whom we met from the British-led Mines Advisory Group for their incredible bravery and commitment. Indeed, I understand that since we came back, a member of the mines clearance teams has, for the first time, suffered a serious injury from a cluster bomb.

My hon. Friend rather anticipated the end of my speech. I simply reiterate that Lebanon has real issues. We need to play our part in addressing them and do what we can to address the whole middle east situation. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to involving Syria and Iran as we look for that regional solution. I am sure that Lebanon and the democratic forces there would want to participate in that—for the future not only of Lebanon, but of the whole middle east.

Order. Before I call the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), I should remind her that I intend the winding-up speech to start at about half-past 10.

Thank you for that reminder, Mr. Weir. I am conscious of that fact and shall keep to the brief few minutes available.

It is a pleasure to rejoin this debate, and I look forward to the contribution from the Front Bench. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt). It is right that we should debate the use of cluster bombs. I hope that he accepts that the issue is as hotly debated in Israel as elsewhere; in fact, there is a parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of the conflict in the summer, and we await the outcome of that. The fact that a democracy in the middle east can have such a public, open inquiry when the issues surrounding it are full of such anguish, which has been described this morning, is testament to the quality of that democracy, which we should and must support.

The assassination of Pierre Gemayel on 21 November, only a week ago, has exacerbated the crisis in the region. It followed six resignations from the Lebanese Cabinet last month. If only one more Cabinet member goes, the Government will collapse and a new election will be forced.

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on the timeliness of his debate. He urged us not to jump to conclusions about who was involved in the assassination. Many in Lebanon believe that Syria was involved, although obviously it has denied all involvement. However, it is important to remember that it was the fifth political assassination since the killing of Prime Minister Hariri in February 2005.

The House of Commons Library, helpful as always, has provided a briefing note, which points out with historical accuracy that it was suspicion of Syrian involvement in the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri that increased pressure on Syria and forced it to withdraw from the Lebanon, leading to the recent period, in the months up to the summer, when we were able to have a degree of optimism for the future of Lebanon as tourism and the economy improved. However, we could be genuinely optimistic about the situation only if we ignored two things: first, the stockpiling of weapons by Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon and, secondly, the assassinations of politicians in the country.

The political unrest in the country follows Hezbollah’s demands, which we have been considering this morning, for a third of the Cabinet to be made up of either Hezbollah or Shi’a affiliates, which would give them the power of veto in the Government. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has threatened mass protests and efforts to topple the Government if his demands are not met.

Hezbollah continues to gain strength and rearm in southern Lebanon. The UNFIL commander, General Alain Pellegrini, has admitted to being unable to stop Hezbollah smuggling arms from Iran and Syria. UN resolution 1701 demands the disarmament of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, but the new powers mandated to UNFIL fall short of allowing it to use force to obstruct rearmament. We have the prospect, the potential danger, of conflict between the Israeli defence forces and the international forces of UNFIL if the Israelis attempt to secure their border. Recently, an overflying Israeli intelligence plane caused real concern and the French issued a warning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton is right: we should not conclude who was involved in the most recent event in Lebanon. However, there are certain truths that we can accept. We know that Hezbollah is funded by and its militia is trained and armed by Iran. If we conclude from the situation in Lebanon that the crisis has been brought about by foreign intervention—the presence of Israeli forces in the past and Syrian involvement—we must equally consider the involvement of Iran, how it is seeking to manipulate the situation and how it is using Hezbollah to attack the northern border of Israel.

I join my hon. Friends in welcoming the Prime Minister’s initiative. I agree that it is vital that we seek to build alliances across what are at present deep and critical divides between countries in the region, and anything that our Government can do to support the initiative is welcome. However, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the murderers of Lebanese politicians must be brought to account. All of us who love democracy must not stand by when democratically elected representatives in another country are assassinated.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) for securing this debate. I share some history with him. In the 1997 general election, I was an unsuccessful candidate in Enfield, Southgate, a constituency that attracted a great deal of media attention. In the next-door constituency, the hon. Gentleman overturned the majority of his predecessor and was victorious, and I have followed his career closely ever since.

I am delighted that the Minister is in his place. In my experience, he always takes an interest in the debates and in his response tries to engage constructively with members of all parties. I shall speak briefly about the conflict in the summer, which has already been discussed by many hon. Members, and then make three points about the situation in Lebanon in the wake of it.

On behalf of my party, I am unequivocal in my condemnation of the actions of Hezbollah in killing Israeli soldiers in advance of the conflict. As was mentioned earlier, Hezbollah also kidnapped soldiers. It is imperative that it releases them and recognises that that is a grossly inappropriate way to behave.

I also take the view that it was wrong for Hezbollah to launch rocket attacks on Israeli citizens from undercover positions within areas that are occupied by Lebanese civilians. That point has been made in this and previous debates by the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy). Hezbollah’s approach is particularly cynical, and we ought to recognise it as wholly wrong.

Having said all that, and recognising that, in these debates, there are always caveats—I do not take the view that an entirely black-and-white analysis can be made of the situation in the middle east—I share the view represented by the word “disproportionate”, which is widely used to describe the Israeli response in the summer. Figures have been given in this and previous debates for the number of people who were killed and displaced, but it is particularly telling that so much damage was done by Israeli armed forces to the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon, which, inevitably, will take time to rebuild. The economic ambitions of the Lebanese people have been set back. In many cases—for example, bridges—it is obvious that major construction will be required. Such damage is an impediment to Lebanon’s progressing in the way we would all wish it to.

The use of cluster bombs was unnecessary in the circumstances. It has been mentioned that 90 per cent. of them were used in the last few days of the conflict. My party said recently that cluster bombs should not be used in any conflicts in future. The principle is an extension of the ban on land mines, as, obviously, the effect of cluster bombs on individuals is often as devastating.

I said that I would mention three features of the current situation in Lebanon, and I hope that the Minister will respond to them. First, I hope and believe that the British Government will continue robustly to support democracy, order, the rule of law and due process in Lebanon. That is an important principle for us, and it is an important rule of thumb for anybody who wants to make an objective assessment of how Lebanon can best progress. These issues are not always quite as simple and clear-cut as they may appear on first inspection. I believe that President Bush is meeting today with the King of Jordan, who is a politician for whom I have huge admiration, although he does not occupy his position as the result of any democratic process. In fact, strictly speaking, he is not even a clear-cut hereditary head of state. As I understand it, the King of Jordan is able to appoint or nominate his successor from among his offspring—it does not necessarily have to be the oldest son or child. None the less, he is an admirable figure in many ways. He has a constructive attitude towards engaging with countries in the middle east and also in the western world, although, as I said, he is not an elected politician. The basic principles of democracy that we wish to promote in Lebanon and the civic society that goes with them would be beneficial for the country.

My second point touches on one of the many tragedies of the conflict in the summer. This country and this Government must do everything possible to support ongoing rebuilding, economic restructuring and increased prosperity in Lebanon, as economic prosperity is always extremely helpful in underpinning any civic society. Lebanon had many bleak years when it fell behind where it might otherwise have been. Progress certainly was and is being made, and we do not wish it to be retarded by conflict.

I am aware that there is a great deal of claim and counter-claim in this area, but let me put my third point in these terms: it is not wise or appropriate for the Syrians to meddle in the affairs of the Lebanese. Any such involvement would represent a serious breach of the obligations of Security Council resolution 1701, which requires everyone to respect the territorial integrity and political independence of Lebanon. I hope that all of Lebanon’s neighbours will recognise the spirit of the resolution as well as the literal application.

The whole matter must be seen in the wider context of the middle east. I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) that the rejectionists on all sides should not, in effect, have a veto on the process. Their views should not be taken to represent mainstream opinion on any side. It is interesting to note that the United States Administration have embarked on some fresh thinking about the middle east. I hope that support for the process in Lebanon and for a new chapter in middle eastern affairs will be advanced by fresh thinking in Washington and by the actions of the British Government in London.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and other colleagues who participated in the debate. As the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) pointed out, it went from a narrow perspective on Lebanon to consider the whole of the middle east.

May I begin by putting down a marker? I shall try to do it in the most non-partisan way, as I believe that the Minister may well agree, although he cannot say so. In the debate on the Queen’s Speech last week, the Foreign Secretary said that there had been many debates over the past year on the middle east. I want to put it on record that the overwhelming majority of debates held on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall, almost without exception, have come about as a consequence of hon. Members asking for them or Opposition parties calling for them and giving up their time, or because the Government were forced to come to the House to answer an urgent question. Given the seriousness of the situation in the middle east—I shall move on to that in a second—it is in the Government’s interest to table a debate in their time, without necessarily having a vote, on Government strategy on the middle east across the board.

My former pupil, King Abdullah of Jordan—it is not possible to have a better line than that—is among the many officer cadets who went through my hands. As I have said before, I have at one extreme one who is serving Her Majesty in jail, and at least one who has become a king. King Abdullah––I agree with the hon. Member for Taunton that he is a very shrewd man—said in a speech the other day that he feared that within the next few months we would see three civil wars in the middle east: one in Palestine, one in Lebanon and one in Iraq. I think that all hon. Members are only too conscious that there is a danger that a series of conflicts are about to morph into one major conflict that could break out in the middle east. The seriousness of the situation should not be underestimated and the challenges are enormous.

This is not necessarily an accurate analogy, but at times I despair that Lebanon, which has so much going for it in many respects—natural resources, an innovative population, a sophisticated society and, at its best, a society that is pluralistic, includes many ethnic groups and religions and has shown in periods of its history that it can work—is in danger of turning itself into the Weimar republic of the middle east, if it is not already in that position. I use that example because it shows a democracy that is slowly being destroyed by political groupings that participate in that democracy but have paramilitary forces that resort to violence and assassination and will use parliamentary democracy ultimately to destroy that state.

We know what we are talking about. It is the fear of any secular Muslim in the middle east and elsewhere; there is an undoubted aim to establish an Islamic fundamentalist state in Lebanon, and not only in Lebanon but in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere. That is not in the interests not only of the millions of Arabs who are domiciled in the middle east but of those of the Islamic faith elsewhere in the world. That is the challenge for us all. I do not have an easy answer for how to cope with political parties that participate in the parliamentary process but, at the same time, have armed militias and are prepared to assassinate. That will be the challenge not only for our Government but for the American Government as well. We should try to work out what we should not do as much as what we should.

I want, too, to emphasise the fact that there are no quick fixes. I do not think that any hon. Members have suggested that. The idea that the President of the United States of America, our Prime Minister and others could have come up with a quick fix this summer is from cloud cuckoo land. Also from cloud cuckoo land is the idea that within the next couple of months, as we wait for the Iraq study group to report, it will somehow come up with a single brilliant answer that will resolve the situation in Iraq. Frankly, when this morning’s sitting is over, I would be happy to buy all my colleagues who are in the Chamber a cup of coffee and give them all half an hour and a sheet of paper to come up with some suggestions, and they will more or less mirror whatever the Iraq study group comes up with. I do not say that in a light-hearted way, but we end up building false hope. We are going to be in for the long haul.

In terms of the debate that we have had so far, I agree that much of the problem in Lebanon has been caused by external forces, whether they are Israel, Syria, Iranian support for Hezbollah or the failures of the so-called great powers in one way or another. However, in many respects, part of the solution is in the hands of the people living in Lebanon. There is always the danger when one goes to the middle east and talks to the people that the excuse is that it is somebody else’s fault. That is partly true, and by expecting the international community and individual countries to bail them out they may put off the evil day, but much of the solution is in their hands.

I believe that what our Government do and can do over the next few months will be important. There will be no quick fixes. I think that the Prime Minister is genuine in what he wants to do in the middle east. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), I suspect, sadly, that, because the Prime Minister has announced that he is going, with the best will in the world his influence will obviously be less than we would hope for a British Prime Minister. The one thought that allows me some optimism—sadly we are about to go through a period of great change—is that realism has broken out in Washington and we are about to see a reversion to a more sophisticated approach not only to the middle east but to the kinds of things that the US Government might do to use something other than fairly blunt instruments.

It is easy to load a lot of the blame for the situation in Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority on the Israeli Government. There is no doubt that the Israeli Government have made serious errors, but I want to conclude by saying two things about Israel. First, despite its many faults, it is a democracy in an area where there are few democracies. It is possible to criticise the Israeli Government and go into opposition. Secondly, it would be unwise to underestimate the ability of the Israeli Government to respond after a recent operational defeat, which Lebanon undoubtedly was. We need Israel to participate fully in any wider middle east peace settlement. Without the Israelis, there will be no peace.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on giving us the opportunity to discuss this vital and timely subject. I am sure that everybody in the Chamber will agree that my hon. Friend has painted for us a vivid picture of a country that has experienced several recent catastrophes and is staring another right in the eye. His report to this House on his recent visit and the way in which he shared with us his analysis of the continuing political crisis in Lebanon is, I am sure, something that we all value. We value, too, the insights given to us this morning by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), who knows the territory well, and the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who gave us the benefit of his insight into the situation and, I was glad to hear, the prospects for the future in Syria. I always assume that an hour and a half will give us lots of time, but my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) and the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who always brings refreshing insight to these debates, have not had an opportunity to contribute. I hope that they will in the future.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) gave us the benefit of his insights, and I think that they are wise. I enjoyed his speech very much, although some of it was chilling. His analogy with Weimar Germany is one that we have to think hard about. It is one of those conundrums right at the heart of the principle of democracy that we believe in. I know that he has taken part in discussions in Egypt and many other countries where people have said, “We are in favour of democracy, but what about when the Muslim brotherhood wins its majority?” In Algeria, there were 160,000 deaths during the 1990s as a consequence of one country trying to come to terms with that conundrum.

The international community’s response to the humanitarian crisis in the wake of the July 2006 conflict was rapid, and complete disaster on this occasion was probably averted. But, as we have heard from hon. Members, there were many thousands of personal and communal disasters. Life is still extremely hard for many Lebanese who have been left homeless by the destruction. Reconstruction and economic recovery is a pressing need and the international community’s response to that has been impressive, with pledges from donors totalling $940 million—far exceeding the Government of Lebanon’s initial request for $530 million. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, that is far short of the $4 billion or $5 billion that is probably required to rebuild Lebanon.

The Lebanese will not relish it, but as a measure of the catastrophe that has hit them, statistics show that per capita it is now the most subsidised place on the face of the earth and that it has overtaken Palestine. It says something about the nature of conflicts in the middle east that, despite the huge amount of money pouring in, the catastrophe continues. The need for international involvement also continues and one hopes that, as the hon. Gentleman told us, the Lebanese will be able to take care of their own business.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, all too often the sovereign territory of Lebanon has been used by others to fight wars by proxy. She made a plea, as did the hon. Gentleman, for people to stop meddling in the affairs of Lebanon, whether that is an appalling sequence of political assassinations or an attempt by some countries, and the blame is shared by all sides, to try to cling to power and influence.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development attended the international conference in Stockholm on 31 August to consider Lebanon's early recovery plan. A further conference is planned in Paris in January. We welcome the Lebanese Government’s initiative in seeking to maintain momentum on Lebanon's longer-term needs, and also welcome President Chirac’s willingness to host that important event.

For reconstruction and economic recovery to proceed effectively, stability is the key requirement. The United Nations Security Council resolution 1701 of 11 August, which established the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, provides a sound basis for stability. I thought the description provided by the hon. Member for Reigate of the mandate as chapter 6½ was a very good one—I could not think of a better description myself.

The ceasefire, at least until this morning, continues to hold, apart from an occupation in part of the Lebanese town of Ghajar through which the blue line runs. As my hon. Friend said, Israeli forces have withdrawn from Lebanon and the Lebanese armed forces are deployed across the country—including the south where they have not ventured for many years. The expansion of UNIFIL has proceeded well and nearly 10,000 military personnel are now deployed on land and sea in support of the Lebanese authorities and Security Council resolution 1701. I am sure that hon. Members will have been as shocked as I was to hear the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend that the money and resources set aside for reconstruction may not have been deployed properly in the south. That is an extremely important observation and is something I will undertake to gather more intelligence on so that I can tell my hon. Friend what we know.

As well as paying our full share of the United Nations operation, the UK committed HMS York in support of initial efforts to secure the maritime borders. HMS York has been re-deployed as the full UN maritime operation, led by Germany, and that came into effect in mid-October. The Lebanese security sector—the armed forces and internal agencies—needs assistance to exert the Government's authority effectively. The UK has been playing its part here too. We have allocated £2.5 million to support the security sector and the provision of vehicles to the armed forces to assist with mobility is under way. We are discussing with the Lebanese authorities what training needs we might be able to meet, and we are also working closely with other donors to try to ensure a co-ordinated and effective response to Lebanese needs.

There is never enough time in these debates to cover everything, but before the Minister finishes, could he perhaps address the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) made about the Shebaa farms? Given the centrality of that issue to a long-term settlement in that part of the world, what are the Government doing to move that issue forward?

I am very glad to respond to that because when I was in Beirut in the middle of the bombardment Prime Minister Siniora stressed to me that the Shebaa farms were, in many ways, the most potent motivation expressed by Hezbollah. He said, “Sort that out and a big weapon will be taken away from them.” I do not know if that is true or the effect that Shebaa farms has on Hezbollah. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk hinted, Hezbollah has a much wider agenda than that, but the problem of the Shebaa farms does not help and there is no question about that. We have pressed the United Nations to ensure that the right resources are allocated to delineate those borders properly in order to prevent an argument between Syria and Lebanon about how the Shebaa farms situation should be resolved.

Clearly the issue of Shebaa farms must be resolved, but in terms of Hezbollah’s armament and continued rearmament, surely it was originally the presence of Israeli troops that was the justification for arming and operating as a militia in the south of Lebanon; now its reason is the Shebaa farms. It could be considered that Hezbollah is looking for more and more reasons to retain its organisation and arms in the south of Lebanon.

I have no doubt whatsoever that there is a much bigger agenda and that Hezbollah will find many reasons to maintain its position in Lebanon. That is a poisonous process because, as long as Hezbollah acts as an alternative Government to the democratically elected Government in Beirut, there will be killing and illegal acts. We cannot accept that—it would be tantamount to us admitting that the IRA ran Northern Ireland and in doing so had a profound effect on the governance of the UK as a whole, which we cannot admit. There may be all kinds of rationalisations and some apologists will say, “Well Hezbollah is defending a community.” The defence of the community in Lebanon, no matter where it is, must be the responsibility of the democratically elected Government of the Lebanon: the Lebanese Government believe that and we believe that. We should defend that position and have no brook with the notion that a terrorist organisation such as Hezbollah has some kind of validity: it has no validity. It may be an expression of popular opinion in the south of Lebanon; so be it. Many terrorist organisations have had those kinds of rationales and support, but that does not mean that we, the international community, should for one moment support that; we cannot support it.