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Middle East

Volume 492: debated on Tuesday 12 May 2009

I am pleased that we are having this debate today, and I thank Mr. Speaker for affording me the opportunity to discuss Hezbollah, Lebanon and the middle east peace process at this important time.

The debate is timely, given the forthcoming Lebanese election, which will take place on 7 June. We need to be aware that a win for the Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance could have a destabilising effect not only in Lebanon, but in the wider region, which is why I requested the debate.

Before I speak about the political situation in Lebanon, I would like to say a little about the nature of Hezbollah, its structure and its objectives. Hezbollah is a political organisation with a strong paramilitary force that operates independently of the Lebanese state. It emerged in the early 1980s to resist the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war. Its fighters were organised and trained by a contingent of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Even today, Iran and Syria are its main sponsors, providing financial, political and military support to the organisation.

The deputy leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Nairn Qassem, stated in April 2007 that

“all policies including firing missiles into Israeli territories could not have been done without the consent of the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has to agree to all Hezbollah’s activities in advance.”

Hezbollah is a proxy of Iran and is used by Tehran to exert its influence over Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean.

The Hezbollah manifesto document produced in 1985, entitled “An Open Letter: The Hizballah Program”, makes it clear that the organisation operates under one command structure and shares the same goals:

“No one can imagine the importance of our military potential as our military apparatus is not separate from our overall social fabric. Each of us is a fighting soldier.”

Hezbollah does not have separate leaderships for its military and non-military work. The Jihad Council, Political Council, Executive Council and Judicial Council all report to the Shura Council. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published on 13 April, the deputy leader, Sheikh Nairn Qassem, said of Hezbollah’s structure:

“Hezbollah has a single leadership. All political, social and jihad work is tied to the decisions of this leadership. The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads jihad actions in the struggle against Israel.”

The 1985 manifesto outlines the objectives of Hezbollah as

“putting an end to any colonialist entity”,

bringing the Phalangists to justice for

“the crimes they had perpetrated”

and establishing an Islamic regime in Lebanon.

In addition, Hezbollah leaders have made numerous calls for the destruction of Israel. The manifesto makes it clear that Hezbollah intends to use armed force to achieve its goals and frames its arguments in the language of jihad.

Hezbollah is committed to war against Israel. On 16 April, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, was quoted thus:

“I am against any reconciliation with Israel. I do not even recognise the presence of a state that is called Israel. I consider its presence both unjust and unlawful. That is why if Lebanon concludes a peace agreement with Israel and brings that accord to the Parliament our deputies will reject it; Hezbollah refuses any conciliation with Israel in principle.”

Hezbollah’s objectives and how it sets out to achieve them threaten stability in the middle east and challenge the sovereignty of the Lebanese state. The violent clashes that took place in Lebanon in May 2008 were triggered when the Lebanese Government sought to challenge Hezbollah’s independent military capacity. Government moves to sack the Hezbollah-appointed head of security at the airport and to close down Hezbollah’s internal communications network were branded by Hassan Nasrallah as a declaration of war against the organisation.

Hezbollah’s response was to engage in violence, which brought civilian life into grave danger. The clashes that took place resulted in the death of some 40 people and took the country to the verge of another civil war. Ultimately, Hezbollah seized west Beirut, which forced the Government into a humiliating climbdown and led to the Doha agreement of 21 May 2008, which resulted in the election of Michel Suleiman as the new Lebanese President after 18 months of political stalemate.

The Doha agreement was nothing short of a victory for Hezbollah. It secured the militant group a veto over Cabinet decisions and allowed it to maintain its weapons arsenal as long as it was not used to resolve internal political conflicts. That means that although the Lebanese Government may no longer be a target, Hezbollah can continue to build its weapons cache for use against Israel in direct contravention of UN Security Council resolution 1701, which calls for disarmament of the group.

The international community continues to voice concerns that Hezbollah is rearming and that weapons are being smuggled across the Syria-Lebanon border, thereby raising prospects of further conflict in the near future. I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister what discussions he held with the Syrian Government during his visit last month on their political, financial and military support for Hezbollah. I would also like to know what steps the British Government have taken to encourage the Syrian and Iranian Governments to do more to prevent the continued rearming of Hezbollah.

Today, Hezbollah continues to maintain its military capacity in direct contravention of UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701, and in defiance of the UN military mission UNIFIL—United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—which is mandated to oversee implementation of the resolutions.

Hezbollah leaders themselves continue to maintain not only that they are rearming, but that they are acquiring more sophisticated military technology. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s latest report, published on 24 April, on UN Security Council resolution 1559 reiterates concern that Hezbollah continues to maintain a substantial paramilitary capacity and infrastructure, separate from the Lebanese Government, along with a distinct telecommunications network.

Those concerns were reiterated by Terje Roed-Larsen, UN special envoy for the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1559, when he addressed the UN Security Council last Thursday:

“The most significant remaining Lebanese militia is the armed component of Hezbollah.”

He added that it was

“a direct challenge to the sovereignty of the Lebanese State and a threat to regional stability.”

The UN Secretary-General’s report is also critical of Hezbollah’s actions in Egypt, citing the announcement made by the Egyptian authorities on 8 April that 49 people had been arrested for allegedly being part of a Hezbollah cell planning terrorist attacks in Egypt. According to Mr. Roed-Larsen:

“Equally alarming was the fact that Hezbollah has publicly admitted to providing support to Gaza-based militants from Egyptian territory.”

On 10 April, Hassan Nasrallah publicly acknowledged that the Egyptian authorities had detained a Hezbollah operative for attempting to provide logistical and military assistance to Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza strip. It is thought that the operative was the ringleader of the cell.

The US State Department’s annual report on terrorism, published on 30 April, highlights Iran and its proxy Hezbollah as lead sponsors of terrorism in the region. The report notes:

“Hamas and Hezbollah continued to finance their terrorist activities against Israel mostly through state sponsors of terrorism Iran and Syria, and through various fund-raising networks in Europe, the US, the Middle East, and to a lesser extent, elsewhere.”

The US State Department also notes that Hezbollah has completely replenished its ranks, that it possesses more short and medium-range rockets than it had before the 2006 war and that it has moved arms back into southern Lebanon. Perhaps most distressing is the fact that the report notes that London is one of the major financial capitals through which funds to Hezbollah are channelled. I would like to hear from my hon. Friend what steps the British Government are taking to ensure that such funding is monitored and stopped, and that UK banks are prevented from doing business with proscribed sections of Hezbollah.

Focusing on the internal Lebanese situation, the UN Secretary-General criticised Hezbollah for stoking up an atmosphere of intimidation in the run-up to the June election. We should not downplay the consequences and significance of a strong showing for Hezbollah in the forthcoming election. The decision by the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon on 29 April to release four Lebanese generals who were held in connection with the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister represents a major boost for Hezbollah.

More significantly, a new electoral law has redrawn various districts in ways that may bolster Hezbollah at the expense of the current coalition. An electoral gain for Hezbollah would represent a victory for Iran and its long-term strategy of seeking to gain regional hegemony through the promotion of a radical ideology and the application of political violence. It would also strengthen Iran’s power in Lebanon and further blur the distinction between the Lebanese Government and the Hezbollah parallel state.

I would like to focus now on UK policy on Hezbollah. On 4 March, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary wrote to the Foreign Affairs Committee to inform it of a “significant change” in Government policy on Hezbollah. That same day, my hon. Friend, who has ministerial responsibility for the middle east, gave evidence to that Select Committee in which he made it clear that the Government were now exploring contacts with the political wing of Hezbollah. The Government have confirmed that that adjustment to policy was designed

“to press Hezbollah to play a more constructive role politically and move away from violence.”

The Foreign Office issued a statement on 5 March verifying that, prior to that official announcement, our ambassador in Beirut accompanied a group of Conservative parliamentarians to a meeting with the Lebanese Foreign Affairs Committee on 9 January that was also attended by Hezbollah Member of Parliament Ali Amar.

In response to a written question asking what criteria the Government use to distinguish between Hezbollah’s political and military wings, my hon. Friend stated:

“The Government distinguish between those parts of Hezbollah which are legitimately involved in Lebanese politics and those who are actively concerned in terrorism.”—[Official Report, 31 March 2009; Vol. 490, c. 1118W.]

However, in an article that appeared on Hezbollah’s website, Hezbollah senior activist Omar al-Moussawi says that although the UK’s policy has changed, Hezbollah’s has not. Hezbollah, he insists, remains an unchanged, singular and indivisible entity with no distinction between its military and political wings. He continues by saying that

“today there is a tremendous openness toward Hezbollah, and after a boycott that lasted for many years, Britain has announced a new openness toward Hezbollah and a dialogue with it… despite the fact that Hezbollah has not changed and still resists and refuses to recognise Israel. It is the other side—

—that is, Britain—

“that has changed, and retreated from its previous position”.

As previously outlined, Hezbollah has not made any positive moves towards disbanding its militia, in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701. On 13 March, Hassan Nasrallah made it unequivocally clear in a speech that, despite the British move, Hezbollah would not abandon its strategy of violence and terrorism and would never recognise Israel. It seems most peculiar that the Government have pursued this policy change at a time when Hezbollah continues to arm itself, in breach of UN Security Council resolutions. How do the Government reconcile their decision?

My worry is that the only benefit so far of the UK Government’s policy shift has been for Hezbollah, which has used it for its own electoral propaganda in the run-up to the Lebanese election. Hezbollah’s electoral campaign has been boosted by the British decision, which was made despite the fact that, as outlined, Hezbollah does not distinguish between its political and military wings. I therefore ask my hon. Friend whether he would please list the benefits so far for the UK and the international community of the decision to engage with Hezbollah and what benefits he believes there will be, going forward.

What contacts have been made with Hezbollah’s political wing since the beginning of March? Will my hon. Friend commit to reassessing the Government’s approach to Hezbollah, should the organisation take any further steps in the wrong direction?

An opportunity to re-evaluate the UK Government’s position will present itself after the Lebanese election, when Hezbollah will have the choice either to continue down the path of violence or to disarm and engage peacefully through non-violent means. Should it choose the former, the Government should actively reconsider their policy of exploring contacts with any element of the organisation. Not re-evaluating that policy will allow Hezbollah to continue to use UK recognition as a means to legitimise its actions. Further, the danger is that British policy could undermine Arab moderates in the region who strive for peace through non-violent means.

Hezbollah’s actions adversely impact on the internal politics of Lebanon. The organisation is intimidating the electorate and marginalising the Government’s sovereignty while flouting UN Security Council resolutions 1701 and 1559, which call on Hezbollah to disarm.

Hezbollah also affects the stability of the wider region and the middle east peace process. As admitted by Hezbollah itself, and spelt out in the UN Secretary-General’s report, Hezbollah provides support to Palestinian militant groups to strengthen their capacity to launch attacks against Israel. Such actions undermine the Palestinian moderates, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, who are committed to a two-state solution.

The international community should focus all its efforts on empowering and strengthening the moderates in the middle east—specifically in Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt—who are committed to peace in the region. It should not engage with those organisations that have entrenched, non-negotiable positions and which seek political change through violence. I therefore urge my Government to do all they can to engage with the new US and Israeli Administrations and the wider Arab world in a process to build a comprehensive peace and constantly to re-evaluate their position vis-à-vis exploring contact with Hezbollah.

I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). I congratulate him on securing this debate. On these issues his passion, commitment, integrity and understanding are apparent to all who know him and came through clearly in his contribution.

Lebanon and the middle east peace process continue to be an extraordinarily high priority for this Government, as well being as a subject of great interest to hon. Members in all parties in the House, particularly in the run-up to the Lebanese parliamentary elections in June. The UK is strongly committed to stability in Lebanon and the wider region. We signalled this commitment to the President of Lebanon during his visit to the UK last month, when we emphasised that his role in providing constitutional continuity and promoting reconciliation in Lebanon sets a positive example for the whole region.

Before I come to the specific policy on Hezbollah, it is important that it be set in its proper context. Since the political vacuum of May 2008, there have been welcome improvements in Lebanon: the Doha accord, the election of President Suleiman, the formation of a national unity Government and ongoing national dialogue and reconciliation. We wanted those things to happen and it would be wrong if we did not acknowledge that that has taken place. These promising developments are supported by a greater movement towards stability in the region. Diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Syria, reconciliation between Syria and Saudi Arabia and the recent reports of movement on the Israeli-occupied Ghajar farms will help to provide a supportive atmosphere for the upcoming parliamentary elections. That is certainly our hope and our intention.

The UK is committed to fair, democratic parliamentary elections and has been supporting that process through projects costing almost £200,000. However, despite these developments there remain outstanding issues of deep concern, which my hon. Friend has mentioned: the proliferation of weapons and armed groups and failure to make concrete progress on issues, including the Israeli-occupied Sheba’a farms and the situation in Palestinian refugee camps. Hezbollah, in particular, continues to maintain a substantial independent military capacity—my hon. Friend mentioned that—and claims of more sophisticated technology and news of developments in Egypt add to the urgency of resolving these issues.

Our policy towards Hezbollah sits in the context of these improvements on one hand, and ongoing concerns on the other. But before I address that question, let me state clearly we have no illusions about Hezbollah. The aim of our policy is for that organisation to change and for it to reject violence, disarm and engage constructively, democratically and peacefully in Lebanese politics, in line with UN Security Council resolutions. In order to achieve this, our policy therefore has two strands. First, and most importantly, we take a strong position against any support for terrorism. In July 2008, we extended our proscription of Hezbollah from the external security organisation to its entire military wing. That was absolutely the right thing to do. It is fair to say that that puts us at the tough end of the spectrum within the European Union.

We continue to urge disarmament and to highlight the destabilising effect of an independent militia in the region. Most recently, we highlighted our strong concern at the UN consultations on UN Security Council resolution 1559 when we argued that it was essential to tackle the proliferation of weapons and armed groups, with particular reference to Hezbollah, to ensure long-term stability in the region. We also discussed the issue with the President of Lebanon during his recent visit to this country.

My hon. Friend asked about funding for Hezbollah and allegations that funding comes through London. I am sure that he and other hon. Members understand that because of the sensitive nature of the question, I am not in a position to confirm or deny funding of Hezbollah in the UK, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the UK is at the forefront of global action to combat the financing of terrorism. Terrorist financing is fully criminalised under the Terrorism Act 2000, and following a recent evaluation by the Financial Action Task Force, the international body which sets the standards for tackling money laundering and terrorist finance, the UK gained more “fully compliant” ratings of its work in this area than any other country assessed to date. That emphasises our real commitment to that crucial issue.

Secondly, alongside that tough stance, we are exploring the possibility of limited and considered contacts with Hezbollah’s politicians, and my hon. Friend referred to that. That means contacts only—I emphasise “only”—with those members of Hezbollah who are legitimately involved in Lebanese politics, and not with those who are involved in violence and terrorism. We are open to serious discussion with Hezbollah’s MPs on the same basis as MPs from other factions in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s MPs have condemned violence and assassinations, and called for calm and restraint in the run-up to the Lebanese parliamentary elections. On 25 February 2009, the weekly meeting of Hezbollah’s MPs concluded that the

“circulation of a calm climate...and the contribution in controlling and easing of tensions, is a responsibility to be shared by all officials, forces and reference authorities in all regions and by all confessions and sides”.

We strongly welcome that, and have been pressing for such statements, but it must now be carried through into reality. Such contacts provide the opportunity to speak frankly and directly with Hezbollah politicians about the party’s wider actions that threaten regional stability and the peace process. In doing so, we will gain greater insight into their objectives and can pass on clear, firm messages seeking to influence Hezbollah’s actions. That is an example of our strong, principled diplomacy and engagement.

It is also important to put that change of policy into context. To date, there has been only one meeting. On 9 January, our ambassador in Beirut attended a meeting of British parliamentarians with the Lebanese Foreign Affairs Committee. Representatives of all members of the national unity Government were present, including one MP from Hezbollah’s political wing, Ali Amar. During that meeting, our ambassador took the opportunity to urge all sides to show restraint during the crisis in Gaza, and referred to the importance of their respecting the terms of UN Security Council resolution 1701. No further meetings have been arranged, but any future contacts will be carefully considered and decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.

As my hon. Friend and I have discussed privately, we are apprising ourselves of the new political situation in Lebanon and tentatively exploring step-by-step contact with Hezbollah MPs who are not involved in and reject violence. We are interested only in serious dialogue with Hezbollah about issues of national importance to Lebanon and the region. We will avoid any engagement with Hezbollah that causes publicity that might interfere with the upcoming Lebanese election. I assure my hon. Friend that, as he has urged us to do, we will continue to keep that policy under review and to take developments into account.

My hon. Friend asked specifically about the distinction between which Hezbollah representatives we will and will not speak to. Our distinction is between those who are legitimately involved in Lebanese politics and those who are involved in violence and support for terrorism. We will rightly take a pragmatic approach by speaking to known moderate political figures who, to the best of our knowledge, have no links to acts of violence.

In addition, we are trying to improve stability in Lebanon and to prevent arms smuggling more generally in the region. First, we are working with our regional partners, and calling on the Governments of both Syria and Iran to cease their support for Hezbollah. During my recent visit to Syria—my hon. Friend asked me about it—I discussed the matter with Syrian Foreign Minister Muallem, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised it with President Assad during his visit to Syria in November 2008. We have serious concerns about Iranian support for Hezbollah. Such support is unacceptable, in contravention of the arms embargo established by UN Security Council resolution 1701, and serves only to undermine regional security. We are strongly communicating that message to the Syrian Government, as well as the Iranian Government, although the degree to which they have influence is still open to question.

Secondly, we have provided some £800,000 over two years to the internationally supported northern border pilot project, which aims to secure the border between Lebanon and Syria. On Lebanon’s southern border we are supporting the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies with a grant of £100,000 over two years to increase UNIFIL’s capacity to manage, mediate and resolve localised conflict with the communities of southern Lebanon. I saw some of that work during my visit to Lebanon last year, and it is contributing to the way forward. Through those policies, we aim to improve Lebanon’s security, to increase its sovereignty and to work to achieve long-term durable stability in the region and beyond.

It is important to emphasise—my hon. Friend did not raise this today, but he and other hon. Members have raised it with me privately—that there is no read-across from that policy to Hamas. Our policies must reflect the specific circumstances of the Lebanese and Palestinian political contexts. We have no contact with Hamas, and we do not believe that it is productive to talk to it directly at the moment. The Arab League has mandated Egypt to communicate with Hamas. As long as Hamas fails to subscribe to a two-state solution and fundamentally to reject violence, it is difficult to see how it can be part of the solution. If and when the Palestinians form a Government of national consensus, we will look carefully at their exact composition and programme before making any decisions on engagement.

My hon. Friend asked for this debate on Hezbollah in Lebanon and the middle east peace process, and was right to highlight the regional context and the importance of the process in the middle east. The Government are fundamentally committed to pursuing a comprehensive peace based on a two-state solution. A comprehensive approach to the middle east peace process will bring stability to the wider region, and political stability throughout the world. That means developing a solution on the Israel-Syria track, addressing concerns about Iranian intentions, and ensuring stability in Lebanon. Within that, the international community has a hugely important role to play. We must redouble our efforts to make a two-state solution a reality. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made those points at the UN Security Council yesterday, and we will continue to work with our international partners towards that goal.

We are at a timely juncture in the affairs of the middle east. Some people are pessimistic, but there are hopes and opportunities. President Obama and the new US Government are more committed to pursuing peace in the middle east than any US Administration in recent times. We must engage with the new Israeli Government and support the Arab peace initiative, and we need to see some response from the Israeli Government, particularly on settlements. I hope that with support from the international community, we can drive the process forward and move from a debate about a middle east peace process to a plan for implementation that can bring prosperity, peace and security for all.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, and on his commitment to the issue, which is clear for all to see.