Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Steve McCabe.]
May I say how pleased I am that we have the opportunity to discuss this important subject? This debate is timely, given that Monday was the one-year anniversary of the abduction in Gaza of Gilad Shalit; 12 July, next month, will be the one-year anniversary of the abduction of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
It is worth briefly explaining the background to both abductions. In the case of Gilad Shalit, members of a collective comprising people from Hamas, the popular resistance committees and the Army of Islam tunnelled their way from Gaza into Israel and engaged in conflict with Israeli soldiers. As a consequence, two Israelis were killed and four were wounded; Shalit was wounded in the shoulder, abducted and dragged through the tunnel back into the Gaza strip.
In the case of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, members of Hezbollah crossed from southern Lebanon into northern Israel and fought with an Israeli military patrol. As a consequence, three Israelis were killed and one was wounded; Goldwasser and Regev were abducted and taken across the Lebanon border. Shortly after, four more Israelis were killed in an aborted rescue attempt. The full extent of Goldwasser’s and Regev’s injuries is not known, but it is believed that one was in a critical condition and the other was seriously wounded.
That chain of events, particularly the kidnapping of the latter two soldiers, led to the recent 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon. That war had dramatic consequences: 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israeli people died, countless others were injured and there was billions of pounds’ worth of destruction to homes, roads, infrastructure, factories and the like.
We all accept that the conflict in and around the state of Israel has been going on for decades—indeed, since its very establishment in 1948. I am sure that some would argue that the conflict had been going on for many centuries before then. Not a week goes by without a new story of death or destruction of some kind in the middle east—so much so that we are almost immune to the massive suffering, misery and tragedy that daily affects so many.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that although it is certainly true that the kidnapping of the two soldiers was the spark that led to the war with Lebanon, the underlying reason for the war was Hezbollah’s build-up of arms, which were taken into Lebanon with the support of Iran and Syria?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. A number of factors led to the conflict, but it is fair to say that the Israelis revealed in an internal report that they were expecting an attack involving an attempt to abduct soldiers; they were therefore particularly trying to avoid that scenario. However, a number of issues are involved in this complex matter in the middle east.
The suffering and tragedy to which I referred were recently brought home to me and some present in the Chamber today during our recent visit to the state of Israel, when we saw at first hand some of the reasons for the conflict. One of the things that moved me immensely was meeting the parents and relatives of the three abducted soldiers. I will never forget the words of Miki Goldwasser, mother of Ehud: she said that when she eats, she thinks about whether her son is having any food, and if so, what food; and that when she goes to sleep at night, she wonders whether her son has any cover, and if he does and it falls off, whether there is anyone to cover him again.
The situation in the middle east is a volatile mixture, full of high tensions. The issue of the prisoners remains emotive for all concerned—Israeli, Lebanese and Palestinian—and it is at the very heart of the current crisis in the area. I make it absolutely clear: I am not saying for one moment that the release of the prisoners will solve all the problems; far from it. However, I am saying that the current tensions may well be lessened if the prisoners are released. The arguments for release are humanitarian and born of a genuine belief that the release would ease some of the tensions that simmer with deadly effect in the area.
It is also tragic that although there has been evidence that Shalit is alive—most notably, the release of the audio tape earlier this week, on the anniversary of his abduction—there has been no such indication as far as Goldwasser and Regev are concerned. The position is probably best summed up by Karnit Goldwasser, wife of Ehud, who said last November in an article in The Sunday Times:
“I am asking all who are helping with the Lebanese reconstruction to help us get a sign of life, a letter from him, or even better, a visit from an intermediary which would encourage him so much…So far we have had nothing.”
Perhaps, in the context of this debate, it is also worth mentioning the names of six other people, five of whom are Israelis: Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz have been missing since July 1982, Ron Arad has been missing since October 1986 and Guy Hever since August 1997. All five are listed by the Israeli authorities as missing in action. Although over the years there has been some indication that some of the men may be alive, to this day there has been no conclusive evidence confirming their true fate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is giving a moving account of the Israeli prisoners who have been held elsewhere in Gaza and Lebanon, and particularly of the pain of their parents.
I should like the hon. Gentleman to respond to this question. He said that the release of prisoners would help reduce tension. Does he also see that releasing rather more of the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel—250 releases have been announced, but that is not many against 10,000—would also go some way towards releasing tension? Given that about 20 per cent. of the adult Palestinian population have been detained by Israel since 1997, making progress on Palestinian prisoners as well as on Israeli prisoners would certainly help reduce tension in the area.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main differences is that Palestinian terrorists being held by the state of Israel can all be visited by their families, and that those families know where they are, that they are safe, and that they are being fed? Perhaps some of the terrorist organisations might consider giving the same benefit to Israeli hostages.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, for which I am grateful. The people concerned are human beings with families, and one would have thought that, no matter how much hatred and bitterness there might be in the conflict, it should be possible to provide basic information to families that their loved ones are alive and safe despite being kept as prisoners. Let me add that I know my hon. Friend to have been a doughty campaigner in the cause, and I give him due credit for that.
I mentioned five Israeli names, but we must not forget a sixth name—that of our own BBC reporter, Alan Johnston, who remains a captive in Gaza. Although we have evidence that he is alive, I feel sure that the whole House would rather have seen pictures of him without the belt full of deadly explosives strapped around his body.
To return to the Israeli soldiers, there has been comment about a possible prisoner exchange between the conflicting sides, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden). It is fair to say, however, that there has been a more vocal conversation on a possible exchange for Gilad Shalit than for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. There is clearly a deal to be made; deals have happened in the past, and it is to be hoped that they can happen again. It seems that the issue is in deciding the precise number of people to be exchanged, as well as the categories of those people.
I know that the British Government have made efforts to secure the release of the Israeli soldiers. Will the Minister enlighten us, however, as to what precisely has been done and to what extent? For example, with which individuals and Governments has contact been made to try to bring pressure on the captors?
I was in Israel last week, and I saw the exact spot where the abduction of the two soldiers took place. My hon. Friend is addressing the important matter of Britain’s role, on which I am sure the Minister will want to respond. Given the not always entirely satisfactory role that we have played in the past—that of special envoy—does my hon. Friend agree that a country such as Turkey, which has excellent relationships with both Israel and the Arab countries, could be deployed in the role of envoy? He and the Minister might like to comment on whether there are efforts to encourage the Turks, with their special credibility in the region, to deal with the tragic human situation that he is describing so vividly.
My hon. Friend makes a point that is very valid in the context of the conflict. I have always believed that, when enmity has existed between two sides for a long period, it is often intermediaries who bring about peace. In the present context, Turkey is certainly a player with whom we ought to be speaking, as are some of the other people with whom we have been speaking for many years. Turkey ought certainly to be given appropriate attention, given that all sides have respect for that country, and given its possible role in achieving change in the region.
Will the Minister also say whether external organisations such as Amnesty International or the International Committee of the Red Cross have been contacted by the British Government? In his summing up, I very much hope that the Minister will say not only that appropriate pressure has been exerted by the British Government, but that our Government will continue to exert that pressure, because the tragedy is ongoing.
Our Prime Minister will today be stepping down, and as it is widely reported that he might well take on the role of middle east peace envoy, it is right that we should wish him well if he should indeed take on that role. Our good wishes go to him.
There are many people in the Chamber who wish to speak, and time is limited. Let me conclude, therefore, by urging the Minister to do all that he can to obtain the release of the hostages and to ease the tension in the middle east.
Order. I intend to call the Front Bench spokesmen from 10.30 am. On a quick assessment of the hon. Members who just rose, six Members wish to speak. I should be grateful if hon. Members on both sides would take cognisance of that and bear in mind the desire of others to speak.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) on securing the debate, which is an important one, because it is vital that the names of the kidnapped and missing soldiers are not forgotten. Attention should be drawn to both humanitarian and political aspects of what has happened.
No one could fail to be both moved and deeply concerned by the kidnapping of the soldiers Eldad Regev, Ehud Goldwasser and Gilad Shalit. In the case of Gilad Shalit, there is some information and knowledge that he is still alive, and there have been some attempts by the Egyptians to mediate in securing his release, but it is particularly tragic that there is little, if any, information about the condition of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. I have listened carefully to the comments that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire made about his meetings in Israel and his meetings with the families of the missing soldiers. I, too, met some of their families—both here, in the House of Commons, and at a major rally that was held in Albert square in Manchester last year. It is impossible not to be moved by the anguish of what we hear.
It is important for everyone to recognise that behind what has happened is a complex political situation in which the rule of law does not operate. Only at the beginning of this month, there was yet another attempt by Islamic Jihad to kidnap more Israeli soldiers across the border from Gaza. That attempt was foiled, but it is clear that kidnap is being used as a weapon of war despite not being part of normal politics and government—an indication of the breakdown of political society in the Palestinian Authority.
I am not sure that enough attention has been paid to the fact that international norms have been simply ignored in relation to the kidnappings. The Geneva convention has been broken, and access and information have been denied. It is important that international organisations as well as governmental institutions take note of that, and make their protests loudly.
It is impossible, too, to ignore the impact of other players on what occurred. I refer particularly to the roles of Syria and Iran—not just in relation to the kidnappings but in the failure to resolve them, free the soldiers, and release information about them. I fear that, in order to solve the problems, there needs to be a resolution that might well be based not only on negotiated prisoner exchanges but on the co-operation of Syria and Iran, whose proxies are holding the soldiers and refusing to address humanitarian concerns.
During the past week or two, the political situation in Gaza has changed. We might be experiencing a new crisis, but with that new crisis might perhaps come new opportunities. I hope that all efforts will be made by this country, which has indeed been making great efforts to get information about the missing soldiers, and international bodies, to find out what has happened to those soldiers, secure their release and end the anguish of their families, who wonder every minute of every day what has happened to their loved ones.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) on securing the debate. He, I and some others went to Israel about a month ago, and in the course of that visit we had an opportunity to meet the parents and relatives of the three abducted soldiers. It prompted all of us to seek an Adjournment debate, and I am delighted to have an opportunity to participate. He set out the background fully, and I do not wish to repeat it. It is all common ground.
The situation in Israel, on both the Palestinian question and its relations with adjoining Arab states, is immensely difficult. The difficulties are not one-sided, and everybody in the House accepts that anyone looking back over the past 40 years can see that mistakes and wrongs have been committed on all sides. Finding a way to a satisfactory and peaceful solution is a priority for all of us in Europe, and certainly in this country, as well as for many countries in the middle east.
In the course of the conflict there has been much violence. The point has reasonably been made that large numbers of people are held prisoner by the Israelis because of the belief and fear that they have participated in violence. That cannot detract from the evil that comes from hostage taking, which is a completely separate and discrete issue because it is contrary to every humane norm. What is happening cannot be dressed up with legitimacy even by saying that the aim is to take prisoners from the other side. It is a terror device: by removing people and concealing from others their whereabouts, state of health and fate, one country can try to exercise leverage over another. All right-thinking people view that with the utmost disgust.
That is what has happened in the case of the three soldiers. My hon. Friend made the point that, in the case of the two abducted by Hezbollah on the Lebanese border, we do not even know whether they are alive: one or both of them may have succumbed to the injuries that they appear to have sustained at the time of their capture. That makes it doubly reprehensible that there is no information about their whereabouts or fate.
There have been examples close to home, in Northern Ireland, of individuals who have disappeared and whose fate has never been ascertained. In recent years the fate of one or two has been ascertained and their bodies recovered. Denying relatives knowledge of the fate of those they love is one of the most corrosive things that can be done in human relations. How it could contribute to any equitable settlement of a difficult conflict is incomprehensible to all rational people.
The reason for the debate is not to pass a wide judgment on the difficulties of reaching peace in the middle east, the apparent meltdown into anarchy of Gaza or whether the Israelis have handled their relations with the Palestinian Authority sensibly, or vice versa, in the past five years. It is to remind people of the fate of the three young men, to reiterate the demand for information on them, which would go a long way towards curing the pain that their relatives suffer as a result of their abductions, and to reiterate that the abductions were unacceptable behaviour that cannot help to achieve long-term peace.
I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what the British Government have been doing, although I accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) that Britain may well not be best placed to intervene and that other countries in the middle east, such as Turkey, could do so better.
An aspect of the case touched on by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) is that to imagine that such abductions and acts of terrorism take place in isolation is wrong. There is clear evidence that other states sponsor and countenance terrorism. After all, the abduction of British naval personnel in Shatt al-Arab was in many ways of the same nature and quality as what happens elsewhere in the middle east, although fortunately with a rapid ending. The unacceptability of that behaviour is just as clear, so the Government’s ability to make the point forcefully to sovereign states may contribute to bringing such activity to an end.
I do not seek to pass judgment on difficult areas of conflict, but I call for a common humanity. At the moment that is singularly lacking from those who abducted these three young men.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) on securing the debate. For once, I find myself in total agreement with what he says. It is a unique occasion. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), because I agree with him, as I have on other occasions. I also agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said.
I have the honour of representing the constituency with the largest Jewish population of any in the country, and the matter is of great concern to them. The fat file in front of me contains just some of the correspondence that I have received on the issue from my constituents. Indeed, it was one of the first issues that was raised with me after I was elected. I see from my file that within weeks of the 1997 election I was receiving correspondence on the matter and took it up with the late Derek Fatchett, who was the Minister responsible in the summer of 1997.
As far as I can see, the Government have engaged with the issue from the very beginning. Derek Fatchett told me that he had participated in a link-up with members of the Knesset on 20 May to mark Ron Arad’s 40th birthday and raised the issue on his visit to Damascus on 28 May, within a month of the 1997 election. It is important to recognise that while the debate has focused on the recent hostages, some people have been missing for well over 20 years with no information about their fate. Derek Fatchett wrote to me in February 1998 to say that he had met the families of some of those people when he visited Israel a few weeks earlier.
On the first day after the 2001 election I tabled parliamentary questions on the matter. By then, of course, we were trying to track down information on other hostages. In March 2002 we had a debate on the 500th day that Elchanan Tenenboim had been held by Hezbollah, and we should not forget his name or what happened to him and the others kidnapped at that time.
So it went on. Throughout the years we have had debates and parliamentary questions on the issue. I have raised it with a succession of Ministers: the late Derek Fatchett, as I have mentioned; Brian Wilson, when he was the Minister responsible; my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O’Brien), and of course I and many others have raised it with the present incumbent. When President Bashar al-Assad visited the UK soon after he took office, it was raised with him by the Government. Unfortunately, that has all been to no avail. As has been said, we have had no information to speak of about any of the people involved, going back well over 20 years. It is important to recognise that some kidnappings go way back, not just to Ron Arad but before. Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz have been missing since 1982, 25 years ago. So I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some comfort that pressure is being put on not just Hezbollah and Hamas, with whom we may have little influence, but on other Governments in the area, particularly Syria and Iran.
Mr. Gale, you will know from your own work on Cyprus how distressing it is for relatives simply not to know the fate of people who are missing. In Cyprus, the situation has gone on for longer and a greater number of people have been involved, but the pain of Israeli families is no less than that of those who suffered in Cyprus. Since I was elected 10 years ago, I have met various relatives and families on many occasions. Their pain does not lessen with the length of time that they have waited for news. In fact, if anything, it gets worse.
What is absolutely cruel about the situation is the lack of information. It may well be that some of those who are missing—some for up to 25 years—are dead, but the relatives should at least be told that that is the case: give them closure. The lack of information is the worst part of all of this—the cruellest thing. Hezbollah knows what has happened to those people, and the Iranians probably know as well, yet they are using the lack of information about what has happened to loved ones as a weapon of terror, not against Israel, although the whole of Israel sympathises with the families, but against individual mothers, fathers and siblings. To focus the problems of the middle east on a small handful of people is utterly cruel, inhumane and wrong. If Hezbollah has a conscience—I very much doubt that it does—it ought to reflect on that fact.
As has been said, Israel has a large number of Palestinians in detention for whatever reason, and we can argue about the rights and wrongs of that, but at least the prisoners’ relatives know what has happened to them. They know that they are safe, and that they are being looked after and fed. The relatives are not subject to a lack of information about what is happening.
There is no doubt that this is hostage taking—there is no question about that. Hostage taking is a feature of modern conflict, but this is hostage taking of the worst kind. Alan Johnston is very much in the news. The BBC—quite rightly, as he is a BBC employee—nearly every day and certainly every week runs stories about the efforts being made by our Government, the BBC and non-governmental organisations to free him. We do not hear every day or every week about the fate of the missing Israeli service personnel. I suspect that our media have quietly forgotten about them, but they have not been forgotten in Israel or in my constituency, and they certainly have not been forgotten by their families.
I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what efforts we are making at least to get some news of what is happening to these individuals, even if we cannot secure their release, which obviously we would want to do. When I met the Prime Minister last autumn, he was optimistic that we might at least be able to make some progress in respect of Corporal Shalit. Unfortunately, those efforts seem to have run into the sand. Let us hope that now, after what has been happening in Gaza, we will see some progress in his case. I very much hope that intervention by other states such as Egypt will result in progress being made, but something must be done to give closure, comfort and hope to the families.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for securing this debate.
I would like to offer my thanks to the Minister, because I know from public and private meetings that he is indeed doing everything that he can to secure the release of the hostages. Following a question that I put to the Prime Minister, I know that he, too, is doing that. Indeed, if the rumours are correct and his new job will be middle east peace envoy, I wish him every success in that venture.
More than one third of the electorate in my constituency are Jewish. In fact, I thought that I had the largest number of Jewish constituents, but that is for another day.
We must have looked at different censuses.
I would like to associate myself with some of the words spoken by my friend, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). We must consider the situation from several different angles. The conflict last year did not start because hostages were taken. It started because terrorists were firing rockets into Israel on a daily basis, harming and killing civilians, and any Prime Minister of any country is duty bound to protect his citizens. The hostage taking was coupled with that.
I reiterate that I do not accept any comparison between prisoners in Israeli jails and the hostages. Israel has never released videos like the one that the terrorists released of Alan Johnston with bombs attached to his waist. There is no comparison, and we should not allow any comparison to be made. No sane-minded person wants war, but unfortunately we are dealing with a situation—I have said this quite recently—that involves Hamas, which has shown in recent weeks by staging a coup d’état that it is and always has been a terrorist organisation. Likewise, Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation. It has no regard for human life, whether it be Jewish, Palestinian or any other. In recent weeks, it has killed its own people.
Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and Gilad Shalit have been held hostage for nearly a year. We heard an audio tape this week on which Gilad Shalit asked for medical attention. The distress to their families and to anyone who knows them is apparent. I, too, visited Israel recently. Although I was on a private visit, I joined colleagues on some parts of their visit. We met Members of the Israeli Parliament from all spheres, including Arab Members. All that I heard was that if there is to be any gesture, sign or route to peace, hostage taking must stop, and the Israeli hostages—not just the three I mentioned but going right back to Ron Arad—must be released, or at the least their families must be told whether they are still alive.
The situation is intolerable, and no family should be put through it. The only thing I can say to the Minister is that I appreciate the efforts that he has made but I ask that they be redoubled, and perhaps involve other countries, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) said. We must try to secure the release of the hostages for everyone’s sake.
The situation is no different from when our naval personnel were taken hostage by Iran a few weeks ago. Iran and Syria have questions to answer in that regard. If they want to be better thought of by the world, perhaps they should press for the release of the Israeli hostages. I hope and believe that everyone in the House prays for the safe return of the hostages.
I, too, join in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for securing this debate. We might have been expected to seek a debate to draw attention to the situation of Alan Johnston. Indeed, my hon. Friend took particular care to mention his abduction on 12 March—more than 100 days ago—by the Army of Islam, and an enormous amount of attention has rightly been focused on his continuing captivity. The video that we were subjected to two days ago was a particularly grotesque example of what other hon. Members have described as the cruelty of such abductions.
There is a double crime in abducting a journalist. First, abducting anyone in this manner and holding them must be wrong, but to do that to the BBC’s Gaza correspondent—a journalist who works for an organisation that is committed to reporting impartially the events in the middle east—challenges the essential importance of the freedom of the press, and severely undermines the Palestinian cause. It is not surprising that journalistic organisations from around the world have united in condemning the abduction and mistreatment of Mr. Johnston.
This debate was called because the abductions of the three Israeli soldiers have not commanded the continuing attention in this country that the fate of Mr. Johnston has. That is partly because the time period has been longer. The three soldiers were abducted nearly a year ago—in fact, in Gilad Shalit’s case, over a year ago. I joined my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire on a visit to Israel about a month ago and, like him, I met the parents of the abducted soldiers. I was struck by the fact that as time has moved on in this country the attention given to their plight has inevitably faded away. That is why it is so important that hon. Members discuss these issues and why I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate.
It could be argued that soldiers are in a different position from journalists, who seek to report news impartially in a country, or from other civilians, and that they are legitimate casualties of conflict. I believe that that is entirely wrong and that abducting people in such a manner involves a special kind of cruelty. Throughout the history of conflict in the middle east there has been enormous loss of life and suffering on both sides—no one can deny that—but to remove soldiers or any individual in such a manner, not to inform their parents or relatives about what has happened to them, and to hold the families in a state where they simply do not know whether their sons are alive or dead, involves a special kind of cruelty. Indeed, in a sense, it is a form of torture.
It was immensely moving to meet the parents involved and to be reminded that the parents of two of these young men still do not know whether they are alive or dead. We now have information about the fate of Gilad Shalit and know that he is alive, but we should remind ourselves that this young man is only 20 years old. The anguish of those parents was particularly difficult to confront.
Does the hon. Gentleman recall the case of Yossi Fink? He was the son of British citizens who lived in Israel—his parents still live in Israel—and was abducted across the Lebanese border some years ago. Nothing was heard about him until eventually, sadly, his remains were returned to his parents many years after he had been kidnapped. The grief of his parents is still paramount.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me of that. As has been mentioned, we should not forget that many other Israeli soldiers have also been abducted and their fates are still not known.
I particularly disagree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) who has now left the Chamber. He intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire to suggest that the release of Palestinian prisoners held by the Israeli Government would in some way help to secure some forward momentum in the stalled peace process. I utterly reject what seems to me to be the sentiment behind his intervention, which suggested some kind of moral equivalence between what has happened to these Israeli soldiers and the people who are being held by the Israeli Government. These soldiers are being held contrary to the principles of international law, no access has been granted to them—the Red Cross and other international organisations have not been allowed to see them—and the UN has explicitly condemned the action. Those who suggest that there is some kind of moral equivalence are as wrong-headed as those who, for example, believe that Hamas should be rewarded for its recent seizure of positions in Gaza with immediate recognition by the west. Those are precisely the wrong conclusions to draw from such terrorist acts. In the words of Henry V, we must continue to emphasise that the abduction of soldiers in such a manner is
“expressly against the law of arms”.
We should not resile from that position.
During our visit to Israel—where we met not just Israeli members of Parliament but the chief negotiator for the PLO—I was struck by the extent to which there is a remarkable consensus of support building up among Israeli politicians and opinion formers for a two-state solution, and a desire to find a partner for peace. What is worrying is that the long dispute that we are all witnessing seems to have moved away from just a dispute over territory to a dispute over ideology. We must understand that some of the groups that lie behind these abductions do not have any desire to settle for territory but are pursuing an ideological war. Those groups must be dealt with accordingly.
This week it is fashionable to talk about red lines, but the one fundamental red line that we in the west and people in any part of the world who subscribe to democratic values should draw, is that terrorism will not stand. The manner of the abduction of Alan Johnston and of these three soldiers will not stand. I understand that that attitude may make negotiations difficult and raise all sorts of questions about the extent to which the Government can legitimately get involved in essential negotiations, particularly through third parties. Nevertheless, it is important that we in the House stand united and say that whoever the people concerned are—whether they are soldiers or journalists—it is totally unacceptable to remove them forcibly, deny them access to humanitarian organisations, refuse to answer questions about their welfare, parade them in front of the media in the way that has happened with Alan Johnston, and use them for the purposes of promoting terrorism.
I thank the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for calling this important debate, which is particularly important in the context of recent events in the Gaza strip. I welcome the opportunity to discuss efforts to secure the release of the captured Israeli soldiers and the aftermath of events surrounding those captures. I wish to put it on the record that, as have other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the courage of Alan Johnston, the captured BBC journalist, and that the bravery of our correspondents abroad should never be forgotten by the House. I am sure that the Minister will want to bring us up to speed on efforts to secure his release.
Hon. Members will understand, however, why I want to concentrate on the subject of debate, which is the abduction of the soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser by Hezbollah, and of Corporal Gilad Shalit by the Popular Resistance Committee, which includes members of Fatah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Of course, that is totally unacceptable and in breach of international law. The seizure of those men, of course, is condemned by all parties in this House and by other national Governments and international organisations. We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of those men and call on all parties to abide by UN Security Council resolution 1701.
I was struck by the comments of hon. and right hon. Members so far that it is impossible for Members of this House to place themselves in that situation and to imagine the mental and physical strain of being held in captivity without any indication from the captors of when one might be released. I am sure that it goes without saying that we hope that the captives are being well treated and respected by their kidnappers, and of course our hearts go out to them and their families as international efforts to secure their release continue.
We must remember, however, that those Israeli soldiers are not the only individuals being held captive as part of continuing hostilities. It has to be said that Israel itself continues to detain a number of elected representatives of the Palestinian people. As democratically elected individuals, whatever we might think of their politics, they have a role in the efforts to find peace. I would therefore support pressure being put on Israel to set in motion negotiations for their release.
No, of course not. I am simply saying that this debate is not best served by pretending that the wrong lies entirely with one side. I think that other Members have accepted already that activities have been undertaken by both sides of this complex conflict that, quite frankly, have done neither of them any credit. In what I hope is a sensible and constructive debate, it would be wrong not to allude to the fact that some people feel equally passionately on the other side of the argument. If I have the opportunity to develop my argument, it will become a little clearer in a moment or two.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a very big difference between the taking of hostages, and people being held where their families can visit them, being fed, not being harmed and not being in distress—such as that caused by having suicide bombs attached to their waist and being paraded on television?
Of course I do. The debate is specifically about the three Israeli soldiers, as the Order Paper shows clearly. Although I think that it is right, as I said, to refer to the situation affecting the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, I am certainly not planning in the short time that I have available to concentrate more on that than on the subject raised by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire—that of the Israeli soldiers. However, of course I accept that difference, and I think that I have explained the context in which I made my earlier point.
I want to mention the Egyptians. The Egyptian Government have been working to negotiate the release of Corporal Shalit and in late October of last year the Popular Resistance Committee announced that an agreement for prisoner exchange had been reached, under which Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, including women and children, will be released in stages, and Israeli soldiers handed over to the Egyptians. In fact, in December, Egypt’s President Mubarak declared that a deal was in its final stages. Reports now state that the names of specific prisoners to be swapped are yet to be finalised. I should be grateful if the Minister would inform the Chamber on how those Egyptian-led negotiations are progressing and perhaps on what the UK Government are doing to facilitate those negotiations.
Not surprisingly, there is considerable debate about the current situation in the Gaza strip and the resulting increased levels of tension, which make the ongoing negotiations for prisoner exchange even more difficult than they might have been. I ask also that the Minister gives us his Department’s up-to-date assessment of how the current situation in the Gaza strip affects the chances of Corporal Shalit being released in the near future.
In answer to a parliamentary question from Lord Turnberg in March of this year, Lord Triesman mentioned an unnamed facilitator working with all parties to secure the release of the two Israeli soldiers being held by Hezbollah. That facilitator was mentioned also in the UN Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1701 in March 2007. I should be grateful if the Minister would advise the Chamber on what, if any, progress the facilitator has made and on what the UK Government are doing to help.
The report on Security Council resolution 1701 stated also that Hezbollah were not only stalling the release of prisoners but placing
“prohibitive demands for proof that the two Israeli soldiers were still alive”.
In December 2006, The Independent reported that at least one of the Israeli soldiers had been injured during the cross-border attack on 12 July, but Hezbollah have refused to allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross or to the UN facilitator. It seems to me that the refusal of that basic humanitarian act by Hezbollah stands in marked contrast to the stance of Israel, which has allowed the Red Cross access to Lebanese citizens captured by the Israeli defence force and authorised that prisoners be allowed to write to their families. As other hon. Members have said, that makes a significant difference to the treatment of the respective captives. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell the Chamber whether any negotiations are taking place to encourage Hezbollah to allow the UN facilitator and the Red Cross access to the imprisoned Israeli soldiers, and whether he can report on any progress in those negotiations.
In addition to calling for the release of the captive soldiers, Security Council resolution 1701 calls for the disarming of militant groups such as Hezbollah. I understand that the stand-off in the refugee camp of Nahr El Bared between the Lebanese Government and the Fatah rebels continues. Although we respect the work of the Lebanese Government and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon to disarm militias, we of course join international aid agencies in calling for a temporary ceasefire so that civilians and those who are wounded can be evacuated from the camp.
With regard to the disarming of militias, the UN Secretary-General, in the report on resolution 1701, stated that he is still waiting for the Lebanese Government to define a political process by which Hezbollah and other militias should be disarmed. Perhaps the Minister would inform us whether, during recent discussions with the Lebanese Government, that issue was raised, and whether they are close to creating such a political process. Will he also give us his assessment of how the disarming of militias in Lebanon is progressing?
The Minister for Trade, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), in answer to a question on 5 July last year, stated:
“Israel has the right to take steps to secure the release of Corporal Shalit. Any military steps taken should avoid civilian casualties, abide by international law and observe the principle of proportionality.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2006; Vol. 448, c. 1152W.]
However, for many Members on both sides of the House, it is a matter of great regret that, during the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last summer, the Government refused to join other European countries in calling for a ceasefire. In the light of the tragic loss of life and property that ensued, does the Minister still believe that military action was an appropriate step to take last summer? Does he agree that any attempts to free Israeli soldiers now should be made through wholly diplomatic and peaceful means, not through the use of force?
I sincerely hope that all three Israeli soldiers return safely in the near future and that the militant groups that abducted them are disbanded. The Government need to ensure that, through the UN and the EU, we play an active role in encouraging engagement between Israel and Palestine, because unless they continue talking, a peace settlement will be impossible. I look forward to the Minister’s reassurance that the Government will continue to do all that they can to secure the release of those prisoners and to work for a lasting peace in the middle east.
I am grateful to have caught your eye in this important debate, Mr. Gale. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for securing it and giving us the benefit of the first-hand knowledge that he and a number of my other hon. Friends have acquired from recent visits to Israel. In particular, they were able to meet and have discussions with the families of two of the kidnap victims and they have described poignantly the extreme anguish and hurt that their families are suffering. We urge all those close to Hezbollah and Hamas, which may be holding the three hostages and, indeed, Alan Johnston, to release them as quickly as possible. Many hon. Members have said that what is needed is at least some news of those four victims. It would provide huge reassurance if their families could be told that they are alive and well and being treated well. That would be a great step forward, and I urge all those holding them to do just that.
I am filling in for my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who, sadly, cannot be here today, although he normally deals with middle eastern affairs for the Opposition. The situation that we are discussing is particularly complicated, and this debate has been wholly constructive and almost completely unpartisan. The work of the House is often not viewed in that positive spirit.
We have repeatedly called for the release of the four hostages. I welcome the Minister’s statement in a press release of 25 June, remembering Gilad Shalit’s captivity. I join him when he states:
“Today marks one year since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants. Likewise, the fate of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, captured from Israel by Hizballah on 12 July 2006, remains unknown. Our thoughts are with these men’s families, as they continue to deal with the daily uncertainty over the fate of their loved ones. We also condemn the release of today’s audio tape of Gilad Shalit which can only add to the anguish of his family.
We call for the immediate, unconditional and safe release of all three men. Violence only serves to further increase the tension and frustrate efforts to find lasting peace.”
We would all totally agree with that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) rightly said that kidnapping is beyond all the norms of international behaviour—all the norms that we would expect of a civilised society and under international law. We ourselves have taken prisoners in war situations, but we always treated them in accordance with the Geneva convention, and I urge all parties holding these people to do the same.
We deeply regret the recent attack on UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, which killed six Spanish and Colombian soldiers. The attack underlines the difficulty and danger of the work undertaken by UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. We must do everything that we can to ensure that Lebanon remains as stable as possible. We call on all parties to abide by UN Security Council resolution 1701, which, among other things, refers to
“the need to address urgently the causes that have given rise to the current crisis, including by the unconditional release of the abducted Israeli soldiers”.
That refers to Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. We must give every possible encouragement to the Siniora Government to try to ensure that Lebanon remains as stable as possible.
In relation to all four cases, the Opposition urge the Government—perhaps the Minister is prepared to say something about this today—to keep all channels of communication open to all the parties. Those channels may be official or unofficial. We always did that in Northern Ireland and it produced results. Will the Minister say something about that? My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) made the particularly important point that Turkey has a role to play. Indeed, any other countries that may be interlocutors should also be involved in the process.
Hezbollah appears to have increased its activity recently, particularly after the soldiers were kidnapped. We have seen the disturbing rise of Islamic militantism in Lebanon in the form of the Fatah al-Islam group. What efforts has the Minister made, along with colleagues in government and our American allies and EU partners, to secure the release of Israeli soldiers held captive by Hezbollah, and for the full implementation of resolution 1701? In particular, what impact have UK efforts to rebuild Lebanese security forces had on their capability to keep order in that country, enforce resolution 1701 and uphold the authority of the Lebanese Government?
There are disturbing reports that Hezbollah is succeeding in rearming by way of shipments from Iran over Syrian territory. That is in direct contravention of resolution 1701, which both Iran and Syria signed. What is the Government’s latest assessment of Hezbollah’s military capability and what action is being taken to secure Lebanon’s border with Syria? What progress has been made in Government efforts, beginning with the visit by the Prime Minister’s envoy to Syria last year, to persuade the Syrian Government to clamp down on such activity? Will the British Government make further contact at a high level with the Syrian authorities? What representations has the Minister made to our EU partners about the kidnapped soldiers and what action is the EU taking to secure their release?
The Opposition’s view is that, to achieve real results and the release of the kidnap victims, we should open up all channels. I have asked the Minister a complex series of questions in that respect. We should also, as part of our complex relationship with Iran, bring pressure to bear on Iranian financial support for Hamas, which was estimated last year at a staggering $250 million. Indeed, former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar was quoted telling a German news magazine that he had personally carried $42 million in cash from Iran across the Gaza-Egypt border—thereby increasing the instability in the area.
The Opposition support the Government’s efforts to ensure that the Sharm el Sheikh summit this week involving Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Mahmoud Abbas and leaders from the Palestinian Authority brings about a further settlement and, in particular, the release of the kidnap victims. What action have the Government taken to prevent further divisions between the differing groups in the Palestinian Authority?
The Opposition warmly welcome—if it is to happen—the Prime Minister’s appointment as an envoy to try to bring about further stability in the middle east. That is obviously critical. If the appointment comes about, we wish him well.
This debate has been very constructive. I hope that, in the very, very near future, the kidnap victims will be released. The Opposition call wholeheartedly for all those who have information that could in any way lead to their release to come forward and act now with the authorities to secure their release and stop the ongoing anguish of the families.
I join hon. Members who have thanked the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for the opportunity to discuss this extremely important issue. He described vividly what happened in this troubled region a year ago and what continues to happen now. I also echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) in reminding us that that is one of the most important functions of these debates. Hon. Members have given eye-witness accounts and related to us accounts of discussions with people who are suffering and witnessing day to day the dreadful problems. The House should regard that as extremely valuable. I have enjoyed listening to hon. Members’ observations and I was struck by how important they are. The hon. Member for Cotswold is right that we as Front Benchers, and indeed the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), often do not get a chance to speak to people in that way, and I would like to have more systematic reports back from the many trips that right hon. and hon. Members make. That is very important.
The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire described how Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit remains in captivity a year on from his abduction by Palestinian armed factions on 25 June 2006. Similarly, the fate of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were captured by Hezbollah on 12 July 2006, remains unknown. The hon. Gentleman and colleagues met the families of some of those soldiers in Israel, and I extend the Government’s sympathy to them—our thoughts are with them at what must be a particularly difficult time. I also condemn Monday’s release of an audio tape of Gilad Shalit, which can only add to his family’s distress.
We have heard about many of the other grave issues. We know all too well of the litany of appalling incidents that have occurred in the region—Palestinians being held without charge, houses being demolished, rockets being fired at civilians and intimidating overflights. We also heard specifically about the kidnappings and their terrible consequences not only for those who are kidnapped, but for their families, who are denied any knowledge of the welfare of their loved ones. Kidnapping is a vile crime, as Alan Johnston’s family and friends will testify all too readily.
The Government utterly condemn the abduction of the three Israeli soldiers, and I take this opportunity to reiterate our call for their immediate and unconditional release. I fully underline my support for the efforts of those who have been working hard to secure the soldiers’ release, and particularly the UN. Acts such as these kidnappings are counter-productive wherever they occur, and drive a cycle of violence and retribution. This is a particularly difficult time in the middle east, and abductions serve only further to increase the tension and to frustrate efforts to promote peace and stability in the region through dialogue.
I am glad that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire raised the case of Alan Johnston, and many hon. Members have asked exactly what is going on. I would very much like to be able to tell everyone about the efforts that are being made, but much of what is being done must remain confidential. I can say, however, that the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli authorities have worked closely with our superb diplomatic representatives in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, our contacts in Ramallah and the Egyptians, who have played an important role in trying to secure Alan Johnston’s release, and I shall try to say a little more about that in a moment or two.
We especially condemn the release of Monday’s video, which can only add to the distress of Alan Johnston’s family and friends. Those holding Alan should release him. I cannot remember which of our colleagues said a moment ago that Alan has been a very fine reporter, and he certainly has. I find his kidnapping particularly perplexing because the Palestinian people cannot have had anybody who reported on events in such a vivid and clear way. Hamas is a repulsive organisation—a very nasty bunch of people—but even it recognises that Alan Johnston’s kidnapping sets the Palestinian people’s cause back considerably.
We understand some of the problems that beset the region, and they are not just ideological or religious; there is also that cloud of criminality. I saw that clearly in Belfast—not so far from home—where terrorist organisations began funding themselves through drugs, smuggling petrol, protection rackets and kidnapping. The members of the clan that is holding Alan Johnston are well known as guns for hire and kidnappers, and they have a nice little sideline in kidnapping. These are terrible people, and this is a terrible crime, and we are working hard to secure the release of Alan Johnston.
Let me now address the substantive part of the debate and answer some of the questions that have been raised about the soldiers who were abducted in Gaza and, separately, in northern Israel. Let me start with those who were abducted by Hezbollah in northern Israel. Securing the release of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev remains a high priority for the United Kingdom and the international community. Since they were captured last summer, we have called consistently for their unconditional and immediate release and we have strongly supported international efforts aimed at securing it.
As part of the mandate set out in UN Security Council resolution 1701, the UN is leading negotiations to secure the release of Regev and Goldwasser. On 1 December 2006, the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, reported that he continued to make the unconditional release of the captured Israeli soldiers and the issue of the Lebanese prisoners detained in Israel a top priority, and I am glad to say that the current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, reiterated that on 14 March 2007.
The hon. Member for Cheadle asked some specific questions about the UN facilitator. The facilitator was appointed by Kofi Annan as part of resolution 1701, and his/her identity has been kept secret. I can, however, say that the facilitator has had a range of contacts with Hezbollah since his appointment by Kofi Annan. He has met the Hezbollah leadership and emphasised the need for humanitarian access to the soldiers and for their release. So far, Hezbollah has—publicly at least—rejected his request, demanding instead the release of large numbers of prisoners held in Israeli jails, which goes beyond the framework of UN Security Council resolution 1701. Negotiations continue, and the facilitator continues to urge compassion in Hezbollah’s demands; in other words, he is trying to inject not only some humanitarian considerations and compassion, but some realism. We very much support the facilitator’s work.
The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) put his finger on something important when he said—I tried to scribble it down, and I hope that I have recalled it properly—that the dispute was no longer about territory, but increasingly about ideology, and we must remember that in the case of the kidnapped soldiers. The hon. Gentleman is right that the activities of Sunni Jihadists, which the hon. Member for Cheadle also mentioned and which include Fatah al-Islam—the group responsible for the fighting at the Nahr El Bared refugee camp near Tripoli in the north of Lebanon—are a worrying development. These people are the self-appointed representatives of a movement inspired by the belief that there should be an Islamic caliphate from Manila to Madrid. It is a movement that considers the kidnapping, torture and murder of infidels and non-Sunnis to be a duty for jihadists if it assists in building that caliphate and destroying the structures and notions of sovereign states and democratic institutions, including the United Nations. It has murdered some of the best that the United Nations had, in Baghdad and since. Added to that mix, as hon. Members have hinted, we might consider the nefarious work of Iran and the Shi’a theocracies, which work ceaselessly to support the violence and terrorism perpetrated by Hezbollah and Hamas. Help is also being given to the Taliban in Afghanistan, although I cannot go into that in this debate, and our soldiers are being murdered too. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s observation. It is important to the discussion about what to do to get the soldiers out.
We continue to work closely with the UN, and have offered it the Government’s continued support as it works towards a successful outcome. What is needed as a first step, as hon. Members have said, is humanitarian access to the captured soldiers. That has been requested repeatedly by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is a very important player. We second the call of the ICRC to Hezbollah and others to give that access.
Of course, the abductions by Hezbollah last summer precipitated a wider conflict with Israel. I was there during the terrible violence last July in Lebanon and Israel. I was in Palestine and Jordan and witnessed the horrific consequences of those kidnappings. As the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire showed in his remarks, it is easy for such an event to spark off a calamity. A ceasefire was eventually constructed, but it took a lot of doing. It is very easy—the hon. Member for Cheadle raised the point—to call for a ceasefire; it is a different matter to construct one. I heard calls at the time for a UN peacekeeping force to fight its way into Lebanon. I would like to see nations do that. I have heard questions such as, “What militias have had their weapons taken from them?” Try taking the weapons off Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. It is an alternative Government—a self-appointed group of terrorists who act as if they are the Government of Lebanon. We must understand that Hezbollah has a hybrid relationship with Lebanon. It has Members of Parliament but it also has its own army. If it decides to go to war with Israel it drags Lebanon into that war. There should be in Lebanon, as the United Nations resolution made very clear, one Government and one gun—the Lebanese army, which should be the representative of, and controlled by, the Lebanese Parliament.
I have been watching, week by week—as we all have, I am sure—the majority in the democratically elected Government of Prime Minister Siniora in Lebanon being systematically murdered; its majority is being reduced by murder—and it is not just Members of Parliament who are being murdered by whoever is responsible. It just happens that the people who are being murdered at the moment are all anti-Syrian. I shall not add two and two and make five, but we should ask who is doing the murdering. In the last murder the victim’s son was killed as well, because those responsible knew that if there were a by-election the son would win it. That is how ruthless the opponents of democracy in Lebanon are. That is how ruthless Hezbollah is. Those Hezbollah hit squads are capable not only of kidnapping soldiers but, in sophisticated ways, of murdering even the most important people in Lebanese politics, such as Hariri.
I congratulate the Minister on his firm grasp of the complexities of the situation in Lebanon and the middle east generally. Does he share my concern about the continuing reports on the build-up of arms by Hezbollah in Lebanon since the ceasefire agreement, and the growing concern that, with such a build-up and the intention to start firing on northern Israel again, the seeds of a new conflict have already been sown?
It is an important question. I recently travelled to the Israeli border in Lebanon, an area to which the Lebanese army had not been for a long time, south of the Litani river. I spoke with General Graziano, who is in charge of the UNIFIL forces there. He told me that the forces had not intercepted any significant smuggling of arms across that part of the border from Syria into Lebanon, but that he had no way of knowing what arms had been smuggled across the rest of the Lebanese-Syrian border, especially in the north.
I am sure that many people are watching those borders carefully. Syria has said that if it sees, for example, German peacekeepers moving too close to the border, it will regard it as an act of war. That does not sound to me like the policy of a state that is interested in creating a sustainable peace in the region. General Graziano’s view was that in the interregnum between the creation of a ceasefire and the UNIFIL force’s managing to go down into southern Lebanon, Hezbollah had rearmed itself. Its Iranian and Syrian backers had ensured that it had its 107 mm rockets and everything else that it required, in case it wanted to begin once again to attack Israeli towns. That is a very worrying situation and my hon. Friend is right to raise it.
In the few minutes left of the debate, will the Minister say something about contacts that have been made with Hamas and about the release of Corporal Shalit? In particular, what discussions did the British consul general in Jerusalem have when he met Ismael Haniya, the Hamas Prime Minister? We know that the case of Alan Johnston was raised. Was the case of Corporal Shalit raised? What continuing contact is being made?
I am happy to speak about that. We have been working mostly, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows, with the Egyptians. They continue to mediate between the Israelis and Hamas towards the release of Corporal Shalit. We understand that the stumbling block continues to be the names and overall numbers of Palestinian prisoners that would be released in exchange. A very large number has been given. Recent events in Gaza are certainly one cause for concern in the context, but we continue to support the Egyptians in their efforts.
I think it was the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) who said that it might be a good idea if Turkey were to become involved. We have been trying wherever possible to persuade the regional powers that they should become more involved. I was very glad, as the hon. Member for Cotswold knows, because we have debated this issue before, to see a renaissance in Saudi international diplomacy; it is very important, and I hope that they will put the kind of energy into getting Corporal Shalit released that they tried to put into the broader middle east peace process last month and the month before. I think that it is a good suggestion that Turkey should be involved.
By way of a precise response, our diplomats have not raised Shalit in face-to-face discussions, but only Alan Johnston. It was a UK consular issue.