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Hezbollah’s Rocket Arsenal: Southern Lebanon

Volume 642: debated on Wednesday 6 June 2018

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal in southern Lebanon.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, and I welcome my right hon. Friend the Minister to his place to listen and respond. I called the debate because on the northern border of one of our closest allies, Israel, there is a rocket arsenal of up to 150,000 missiles aimed at all its major towns and cities, and something should be done about that. In the debate, I will rely heavily on a superb report by the High Level Military Group, “Hizballah’s terror army: how to prevent a third Lebanon war”, which was published in October.

The High Level Military Group is a group of distinguished international senior military figures, including our own General Lord Richard Dannatt and Colonel Richard Kemp, which has looked into the issue thoroughly. The report gives us a stark warning:

“The last war between Hizballah and Israel in 2006 was a severe blow to the terrorist group. But since then, Hizballah has been able to recover militarily, amassing a huge stockpile of weapons, developing and fielding new and more precise and lethal systems, and gaining combat experience fighting for Iran and…in Syria.”

On the subject of Hezbollah being a terrorist organisation, does my hon. Friend share my view that the distinction that we choose to make on our side—that there is a military and a civil wing to Hezbollah—is entirely artificial and that Hezbollah sees itself as a unified terrorist military organisation?

Yes. Not only do my right hon. Friend and I agree that there is no distinction, but so does Hezbollah. In October 2012 its Deputy Secretary General, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said:

“We don’t have a military wing and a political one; we don’t have Hezbollah on one hand and the resistance party on the other… Every element of Hezbollah, from commanders to members as well as our various capabilities, are in the service of the resistance, and we have nothing but the resistance as a priority.”

To follow up on that point, at a protest outside the Israeli embassy in Kensington in July, Israeli flags were burned and Hezbollah flags were waved with impunity. Does my hon. Friend agree that that sends a signal of lauding a terrorist organisation that should infuriate all British people?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We will probably see more flag burning this Sunday at the al-Quds demonstration in London. I deplore all flag burning. As British Members of Parliament, we have probably seen the Union Jack burned more often than most other flags. It is frankly a disgrace that Hezbollah can parade on the streets of London. Let us remember that its flag has a raised machine gun on it, which demonstrates its belief in violent resistance.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the al-Quds march in London. One of the reasons why the distinction that our right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) sets out is a problem is that that is how Hezbollah gets away with flying those flags. When it is challenged about being a proscribed military organisation, it effectively has some small print at the bottom of the flag that says it is the civilian wing, and the police are then not empowered to do anything about the march. Does my hon. Friend think that issue should be tackled?

Yes, I absolutely agree, and I hope that the Minister will relay to the Home Office the concerns that have been raised about that here. As we have discussed, Hezbollah does not see a difference between a military and a political wing. Very distinguished international bodies have banned Hezbollah outright and have proscribed it as a terrorist organisation, including the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, the Arab League and the Gulf Co-operation Council. Frankly, we should join them.

Before I took those three helpful interventions from distinguished colleagues, I was in the middle of quoting the High Level Military Group report, which continues:

“There is nothing predetermined in strategic life, but the new configuration of forces in the region could lead to a new war that, because of the regional dynamics and new security imperatives, will be much more violent and destructive than the previous ones.”

We have been warned.

In case I get distracted during the rest of my contribution, I will go on to the solutions that the High Level Military Group outlines. Having extensively researched the subject, including through visits on the ground, it states that

“our assessment is that a new and grave conflict is only a matter of time, and the international community must act to help prevent it.”

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend in mid-flow, but by drawing attention to the financial backers of Hezbollah and Hamas—the Iranians—whose mission seems to be to create mayhem, chaos and murder in the middle east, should we not send a message, as strongly as possible, that Iran’s malign and wicked influence in the region is a threat to peace and we will not tolerate it?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Iran is the bully in the playground. According to the High Level Military Group, Hezbollah is

“an Iranian creation that sits as the crown jewel in Iran’s regional strategy of jihadi revolutionary warfare”.

In short, it is

“the most powerful non-state armed actor in the world.”

It is potentially more lethal than ISIS, and it is all backed and funded by Iran.

Does my hon. Friend agree that support for terrorist proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, poses a serious threat to Israel and its borders? Does he also agree that a massive failing in the Iran nuclear deal was the immediate lifting of sanctions, which allowed Iran to plough millions into proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that sanctions relief funds the jihadi revolutionary network driven by Iran. It is not just Israel that is under threat, but Saudi Arabia. Iran is effectively establishing rocket arsenals in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah, in Gaza with Hamas and now in Yemen against Saudi Arabia with the Houthi rebels. We should call that out.

That excellent report continues:

“Urgent steps are required to contain Hizballah and de-escalate the tensions on the border between Israel and Lebanon.”

The first point for the Minister is that there must be

“a clear recognition of the geopolitical ambitions of Iran,”

which we have just discussed,

“its religiously motivated imperialism and its pursuit of Israel’s annihilation as the core driver of the danger…The international community must take actions to curtail Iran’s activities, raise the cost of its behaviour and engage in efforts at deterrence.”

Apparently, with our new relationship with Iran, we were meant to be able to dissuade it from engaging in that sort of activity, but it seems that since the nuclear deal was agreed, if anything, Iran has stepped up the pace.

The report’s second recommendation is that

“the more specific problem of Hizballah must be addressed from multiple angles. Within Lebanon itself, the political cost of the integration of this terrorist organization into the fabric of the state must be raised. Thus, European nations should legally proscribe Hizballah as a whole, ending the fraudulent distinction between ostensible political and terrorist wings of the organization. Similarly, donor nations to Lebanon, led by the U.S., should make new investments conditional on a plan to strip Hizballah of its de facto status as the leading force in the country… The full implementation of UNSC”—

United Nations Security Council—

“resolutions 1559 and 1701, enforced by an expanded mandate for UNIFIL”—

the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon—

“and the requisite political pressure, should be a central part of such an effort.”

The third recommendation is that

“the West should strongly support Israel in its efforts to de-escalate the tensions. There is no plausible legitimate explanation for Hizballah’s efforts to arm itself and threaten Israel other than the explicit religiously motivated Iranian drive to destroy Israel.”

Again, in the clearest possible terms, the report sends us a serious warning that war is very likely in the short term in southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah is Arabic for “Party of God”—that is what the name means—and it is a radical Shi’a Islamist terror group based largely in southern Lebanon. It was founded in 1982, with Iranian support, after the first Lebanese war. Hezbollah takes all of its ideological inspiration from the Iranian revolution and the teachings of the late fundamentalist Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Hezbollah seeks to violently impose its totalitarian ideology on Muslims and forge a radical, Iranian-style Islamic state in Lebanon in its determination to destroy Israel and drive out western and other non-Islamic influences from the Muslim world.

The Hezbollah leader is known for his venomous, anti-Semitic rhetoric and has called repeatedly for the destruction of the state of Israel. Hezbollah is linked to a history of international terror attacks. It now has de facto control of Lebanon’s Government and boasts the country’s largest military infrastructure, including up to an estimated 150,000 Iranian-supplied rockets capable of striking anywhere in Israel. Iran provides financial support for Hezbollah, with weapons, technology and salaries for its tens of thousands of fighters.

At the time of the last Lebanon war, in 2006, it was estimated that Hezbollah had between 10,000 and 15,000 rockets, and about 10,000 fighters. Now, in 2018, the rocket arsenal has increased tenfold, to up to 150,000 rockets, and Hezbollah has as many as 45,000 fighters, many of whom are battle-hardened from experience in Syria. As well as having a military footprint on the ground, Hezbollah is also involved in drugs and arms smuggling, money laundering and document fraud.

Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal has only one purpose and that is to threaten Israel. Israel has no territorial ambitions in southern Lebanon at all. Moreover, Hezbollah has not only imported weapons from Iran but it now has the capability to manufacture such weapons itself in at least two rocket factories located in Lebanon.

The rocket arsenal includes everything from Katyusha rockets at one end, which have a small payload and a very limited range, all the way up to Syrian B302 missiles, Zelzal-2 missiles, M600 missiles and Scud B missiles at the other end, which can reach anywhere in Israel. Although Israel has anti-missile capability, with its anti-missile batteries, taking out 150,000 rockets that are all fired basically at the same time would be impossible for any military force to achieve.

Another problem is that this rocket arsenal is not all lined up on the border, so that everyone can see it; it is embedded in more or less every Shi’ite village located in southern Lebanon. Effectively, therefore, Hezbollah is using the population of southern Lebanon as a human shield for the development of its weapons systems. What is rather more serious is that Hezbollah is not only using the Lebanese civilian population as a human shield, but effectively using UNIFIL as a shield for its activities as well.

At the end of the second Lebanese war, Israel withdrew under the terms of UN resolution 1701. One of the clauses in that resolution said that UNIFIL should disarm military actors in southern Lebanon. Members do not need just to believe me, because the report states:

“UNSC Resolution 1701 mandates that UNIFIL monitor the cessation of hostilities, accompany and support the Lebanese armed forces as they deploy throughout the south, and to take ‘steps towards the establishment between the Blue Line”—

the border with Israel—

“and the Litani river of an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL deployed in this area’.”

It is clear to me and to the High Level Military Group that UNIFIL has completely failed in this part of its mandate and that it has effectively allowed a tenfold increase in the rocket arsenal that Hezbollah can deploy against Israel.

My big ask to the Minister is that we need to use our good offices in the United Nations to strengthen UNIFIL’s mandate, so that it can proactively disarm Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal. Otherwise, what is the point of UNIFIL? I would even go so far as to say that, although there has not been any major outbreak of fighting in southern Lebanon since 2006, it is not clear to me that that has anything to do with UNIFIL’s presence on the ground there. If anything, UNIFIL’s being there has effectively allowed Hezbollah the space and cover it needed to build up its rocket arsenal, which would not have happened if UNIFIL had not been there in the first place.

We can also play a part, as many right hon. and hon. Friends have said, by banning Hezbollah in its entirety and proscribing it as a terrorist organisation, because it entirely meets the criteria for full proscription under the Terrorism Act 2000. The Home Office guidance to that legislation states:

“Under the Terrorism Act 2000, the Home Secretary may proscribe an organisation if she believes it is concerned in terrorism, and it is proportionate to do. For the purposes of the Act, this means that the organisation: commits or participates in acts of terrorism; prepares for terrorism; promotes or encourages terrorism (including the unlawful glorification of terrorism)”—

we will see that “unlawful glorification” on the streets of London this Sunday during the al-Quds march—

“or is otherwise concerned in terrorism”.

Hezbollah is the most destabilising factor within Lebanon itself. It has now become a state within a state, and it has built up a massive rocket arsenal that threatens one of our closest allies. The evidence is there for all to see, especially by those in the Foreign Office, and it is now time for Her Majesty’s Government to take action.

Thank you, Sir Christopher, for calling me to speak and, as always, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate, and other colleagues on their interventions and other contributions. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on the thoughtful and detailed way in which he set out the concerns, based on the report, “Hizballah’s terror army: how to prevent a third Lebanon war”, by the High Level Military Group.

According to sources in the region, Hezbollah’s military capability has grown significantly since the start of the Syrian civil war. I do not have precise figures to respond to my hon. Friend with, but reports suggest that Hezbollah could now indeed have as many as 100,000 rockets, including hundreds of advanced rockets with a range of up to 300 km. That is deeply concerning and a clear threat to the stability of the region. The premise of my hon. Friend’s debate is entirely correct and fully well founded.

In addition, Hezbollah is also in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701, which my hon. Friend mentioned and which stated that there should be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than those of the Lebanese state and that only the Government of Lebanon were permitted to authorise the sale or supply of arms and related materiel to Lebanon. I will say more about our detailed support for Lebanon in a moment.

I thank the Minister for giving way, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate—I also apologise to him for not being here earlier to hear his full speech.

The Minister mentioned the 130,000 to 150,000 rockets. Is he also aware of the 50,000 soldiers, including reservists, that Hezbollah has? Does he agree that Israelis are entitled to be concerned about the relationship between Lebanon and the Hezbollah terrorists? Quite clearly, there is a connection between the two at this moment in time, so Israel has every right to have fears.

Yes, Mr Speaker—sorry, Sir Christopher. I am giving you an elevation there—in due course.

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, yes, the premise of the debate is correct; there is no argument about that here. Hezbollah is a dangerous and destabilising force. It sits on the northern border of Israel. Israel has every right to be concerned and to seek support in relation to dealing with that. That is what I would like to explain in terms of the United Kingdom’s relationship here.

I confirmed the United Kingdom’s support for the position in UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701 when I was at the International Support Group for Lebanon meeting in Paris last December and at the Rome II ministerial conference on support to the Lebanese security forces in March. The joint statements that followed those meetings, which were agreed by a large cross-section of the international community, emphasised the role of the Lebanese armed forces as the sole legitimate armed force of Lebanon. I should add that Israeli overflights of Lebanon also violate UN Security Council resolution 1701 and contribute to increased tension in the area. The activity by Hezbollah risks triggering a conflict between Hezbollah and Israel on a scale far beyond that seen during the 2006 war. That could devastate Lebanon and further destabilise an already vulnerable region.

The UK has made clear our concern at Hezbollah’s destabilising actions in Lebanon and the region. We operate a policy of no contact with the entire organisation, and we have repeatedly condemned the group’s support for President Assad’s brutal regime in Syria.

I am listening to the Minister with great interest, as I always do. Just a moment ago, was he drawing an equivalence between Israeli overflights of Lebanese territory and Hezbollah’s stockpile of 150,000 rockets?

No, not at all, and I would not seek to do so. I was saying that when people are looking for violations of resolution 1701 in the region, as they do, that is an issue that comes up. Clearly, the risk of the missiles is far beyond that of Israeli overflights. I mentioned it simply because if people are going to take note of the resolutions, then everyone should do so, but I fully understand the context in which the overflights take place.

The UK proscribed Hezbollah’s external security organisation in 2001. In light of Hezbollah’s support for militant groups such as Jaysh al-Mahdi, which was responsible for attacks on British troops in Iraq, we extended the proscription in 2008 to include Hezbollah’s military wing, including its jihad council and all units reporting to it.

We are working with our European partners to challenge Hezbollah’s malign activities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering set out. We are a key player in international efforts to strengthen the global response to money laundering, terrorism financing and crime. The UK is a founding member of the Financial Action Task Force. We spend significant resource on strengthening that global network, working with it and the Financial Action Task Force regional body for the middle east and north Africa. We fund and deliver a significant amount of technical capacity-building, including in the middle east. We also designate certain individuals linked to Hezbollah under the Terrorist Asset-Freezing etc. Act 2010.

I hope the Minister will forgive me if he is about to cover this point in his remarks, but I was listening very carefully a few moments ago when he said that the British Government have no contact with any part of Hezbollah. I welcome that, but I genuinely do not understand why we make the distinction in the way we do between the military arm and the non-military arm. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) said, the organisation does not make that distinction in that way.

The distinction has been drawn for some time. We recognise Hezbollah as a political entity in Lebanon in an exceptionally complex Government structure that I am sure all colleagues are aware of. That does not mean we do not keep all its activities under careful monitoring. We have no contact with any part of the organisation, but it is not Government policy to discuss organisations that are not on the proscribed list, including speculation as to whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription. Beyond that, I cannot say anything further. What I want to spend time in the debate doing is illustrating the work that the United Kingdom undertakes to undermine the criminal and terrorist activities of Hezbollah and what we do to strengthen Lebanon in relation to its response to Hezbollah.

Just before my right hon. Friend moves on to that important part of his remarks, would he not accept that the UK Government should judge Hezbollah by the totality of its actions in terms of criminality, drugs smuggling, terrorism and militant activities? By proscribing Hezbollah, we would send the strongest possible message that the UK abhors terrorism in all its forms.

I have no need to express our view on terrorism any more forcefully than my hon. Friend has, as what he said is the policy of the United Kingdom. I have already said what we are doing to try to mitigate the effects of Hezbollah, but I have also said I will not be drawn down the line of proscription, because we do not discuss organisations and whether proscription is possible. If he will forgive me, I would like to say what we are doing to strengthen Lebanon and fulfil some of the obligations of those UN Security Council resolutions, which are crucial.

We maintain that the best way for the UK to help to tackle Hezbollah and its weapons and to support Israel is threefold. The first part is to support UNIFIL, which is important, and I will come on to that point later. The second is to support the defence of the state of Israel, and I do not think anyone queries whether the United Kingdom does just that—we do so in a number of different ways. The third is to strengthen and empower the Lebanese state, which should not be seen as a bit-part player; it is crucial, but all too often it is left out of discussions. It is important we do what we can to protect Lebanon from wider instability in the region.

I hear what the Minister is saying, and I would like to concentrate on his third point. I support him in trying to support Lebanon’s many moderates, but does the existence of Hezbollah not make that a difficult thing for us to achieve?

The region is mostly difficult. Many difficult characters fill Government positions and political positions throughout the region, not all of whom would be elected to our parish and town councils, because of their backgrounds. That is the reality of life. We draw careful distinctions, as we are right to do. It does not make life impossible, because it should not. If I may, I will explain how we try to deal with that.

Lebanon’s security services have a vital role to play in ensuring the country’s stability, security and sovereignty. That is why we promote their role as Lebanon’s sole guarantors of security. Power must be in the hands of the state, not the hands of non-state actors beholden to external forces. With an accountable and professional military in place, the Lebanese people would have less cause to turn to others for their security. That is why we have been working with the Lebanese armed forces since 2012 on a £61 million project to help secure the Lebanon-Syria border. Once complete, the Lebanese armed forces will have secured the entire Lebanon-Syria border for the first time in Lebanese history.

With our support, and the support of other key donors, the Lebanese armed forces have developed and modernised over the past 10 years, to become a respected, professional army capable of protecting Lebanon. I was pleased to meet them and see some of our work there last autumn when I went to Lebanon. The Lebanese forces demonstrated that progress in August last year by defeating Daesh on the Lebanon-Syria border in an operation involving UK-trained troops and border positions constructed with UK assistance. We want to help maintain that success. That is why, at the Rome II conference, I announced an additional £10 million of security support for Lebanon.

However, that security support from the international community will not be sufficient on its own to ensure a stable and secure Lebanon. It is vital that Lebanon’s next Government make clear political progress to strengthen the Lebanese state. We welcome Lebanon’s first parliamentary elections since 2009. We now hope to see the swift formation of a new Government addressing crucial issues. Lebanon cannot afford to be a factor for conflict in the middle east, because that will attract instability to itself.

The next Lebanese Government will have the important task of protecting Lebanon’s stability and security. They must do so by robustly implementing the policy of disassociation from regional conflict, by abiding by the provisions of all relevant UN Security Council resolutions—in particular 1559 and 1701—and by ensuring that the state’s legitimate security institutions hold the monopoly on the use of force. While the UK wants to continue to support Lebanon, I fear that the international community will find it increasingly difficult to do so if the next Government do not take concrete steps on those crucial issues. It is imperative that we see progress.

To conclude, Hezbollah’s actions and the reported size of its weapons arsenal are deeply concerning to the United Kingdom and a threat to stability in an already fragile region. The best way to tackle both those things is a secure and stable Lebanon with strong institutions, a professional army that inspires the trust of its people, and a Government who protect Lebanon from wider instability. We stand ready to support Lebanon in upholding these values and addressing the challenges it faces and to support those threatened by Hezbollah. We will continue to help them in relation to this difficult situation.

Question put and agreed to.