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Middle East

Volume 454: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2006

1. What steps are being taken in pursuance of United Nations resolution 1701 to disarm Hezbollah and secure the release of Israeli soldiers held hostage. (107305)

The deployment of the Lebanese armed forces and UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—in southern Lebanon in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1701 has had a positive effect on security in the area and has helped to reaffirm the authority of the Government of Lebanon. That Government should be the only body able to authorise use of force in Lebanon.

My visit to Lebanon on 1 and 2 December was undertaken to show support for the constitutionally elected Government and for the full implementation of the UN resolution. We continue to call for the immediate release of captured Israeli soldiers and support efforts by the UN to broker their release.

Will the Foreign Secretary lobby further the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross on the release of the two Israeli hostages? There have been no reports on either of them and their families have had no word on whether they are alive. I ask for that lobbying to take place immediately.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we keep in continual contact with all the many disparate individuals and groups endeavouring to obtain the release of the soldiers. Indeed, I met the wife of one of them in London a few days ago. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is particularly tragic that those holding the soldiers have so far not even been prepared to provide proof of life. That is very distressing for the families. Everyone is doing everything they can to procure the soldiers’ release.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the UNIFIL commander, General Pellegrini, has stated that he is unable to prevent arms from Iran and Syria from being passed to Hezbollah? How seriously does she take that violation of the UN resolution?

As my hon. Friend probably knows, we take such issues very seriously and we continue to work with the Lebanese authorities—and to work through the European Union—to do everything that can be done to strengthen border security. There are obviously concerns about arms passing across the border. At present, there is a certain amount of dispute about whether, and to what degree, such transfer is taking place, but all such transfer is undesirable and we will try to halt it.

Will the Foreign Secretary join me in welcoming the Israeli Government’s decision not to take immediate retaliatory action if they suffer rocket attacks? Does she agree that that is a courageous decision that might help the middle east peace process, particularly if Hamas can play its part by restraining the Palestinians from launching such attacks?

I completely agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, and I think that most people would. There have been many previous attempts to pursue the peace process, and many of them havebeen bedevilled by one side or another reacting very swiftly to provocations that were clearly designed to undermine it. The step that he mentions is very welcome, and I share his hope that such restraint is shown on both sides.

Violations of resolution 1701 are obviously unacceptable from whichever side they come. Therefore, would my right hon. Friend also care to comment on the large number of Israeli overflights of Lebanon, which also violate resolution 1701? What representations is she making on that, bearing in mind that such overflights have been taking place since well before the events of this summer?

I can tell my hon. Friend that we have indeed made repeated representations to the Israeli Government on the issue of overflight, particularly since the events of the summer. I am sure he knows that this discussion goes straight back to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on whether arms continue to flow into Lebanon. Nevertheless, we accept that that tactic can bring considerable dangers in itself, and we have urged the Israeli Government to cease using it.

The Foreign Secretary said that she was recently in Lebanon giving support to the Lebanese Government. Is she convinced that they will be able to face down the extra-parliamentary demonstrations that are taking place, or is she concerned that they will result in the fall of the Lebanese Government and effectively lead to a Hezbollah regime that will be to the benefit of neither the Lebanese people nor Lebanon’s neighbours?

There can be no certainty about the situation in Lebanon, and I share the concern that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. Certainly, the step that is being taken, with the clearly expressed wish of bringing down the elected Government, is potentially very damaging and destabilising. When I was in Lebanon, among the points I made to my many interlocutors were, first, that the international community supports the Government—whom the people of Lebanon themselves elected—and secondly, that there are many pressing issues and problems on the plate of that Government and of the Lebanese people in reconstructing their country, and that that should surely be their top priority.

As the Israeli soldiers remain captive four months after a war that devastated large parts of Lebanon and killed huge numbers of Lebanese civilians—and Israeli civilians, too—does that not make the visit of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Washington this week all the more important in terms of emphasising that none of these problems can be solved without an overall settlement in the middle east?

My right hon. Friend is entirely correct. We have repeatedly made the point—not only in Lebanon, but at the broader middle east conference in Jordan a couple of days beforehand—that although moves toward a peace process in Israel and Palestine are not sufficient to solve all the problems of the region, they are a necessary step, since none of the other problems of the region is likely to be resolved without them.