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Middle East

Volume 684: debated on Monday 17 July 2006

My Lords, I beg leave to repeat a Statement made in another place by my honourable friend Dr Kim Howells. The Statement is as follows:

“In these very difficult times for the Middle East, I welcome this chance to update the House on British activity and policy. The United Kingdom is gravely concerned by the escalating crisis in Lebanon. Not only does it pose a serious threat to the relationship between the Israeli and Lebanese Governments but it threatens the wider security of the region, and it is causing huge harm to the civilian populations, with casualties mounting on both sides. We offer our condolences to the Governments of Lebanon and Israel for the losses they have suffered, and to the families of all those affected.

“The United Kingdom is committed to helping to resolve this crisis. The Prime Minister has spoken to Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, and the Foreign Secretary has spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni. We appreciate the pressures that both Governments are under at this very difficult time, but both have a responsibility to help to end this crisis.

“Our priority must be to create conditions to allow a ceasefire and to explore quickly how the international community might facilitate a peaceful, diplomatic resolution, guaranteed perhaps by the deployment of an international force into the area. Ultimately, the only way to achieve a sustainable solution to the situations in both Gaza and Lebanon is to address the root causes. That means getting back to a state where negotiations can resume on the basis of the quartet road map. With that objective in mind, the Prime Minister is discussing the crisis with his G8 counterparts at the G8 summit in St Petersburg.

“The EU High Representative, Javier Solana, and a UN team representing Secretary-General Kofi Annan are in the region as we speak. We fully support their efforts to broker an end to this conflict, and we are offering both teams logistical assistance on the ground. We are urging all involved parties to do all that they can to address this crisis and to prevent the situation from worsening. We reiterate our call for the urgent release of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers and for an end to attacks on Israeli towns and cities. We urge all those countries with influence over Hezbollah to play their part.

“We are very concerned about the role of Syria and Iran. Through their support for Hezbollah, they are encouraging extremism, threatening the stability of the region and putting peace in the Middle East further out of reach. Israel has every right to act in self-defence, but we and the international community have urged it to act in proportionate and measured ways; conform to international law; avoid civilian death and suffering; and refrain from acts that destabilise the Lebanese Government. Disproportionate action only escalates an already dangerous situation.

“This crisis also underscores the need for the full and sustainable implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559, including the importance of the Government of Lebanon exercising its full authority throughout Lebanese territory. That means being able to control the area between Beirut and the Israeli border, an area cursed by militias such as Hezbollah, whose political masters reside in Damascus and Tehran.

“Our most pressing concern in this crisis is the welfare and safety of the thousands of British nationals in Lebanon. We are working day and night with our EU and other international partners towards a properly organised and, above all, safe arrangement to help British nationals and others for whom we have consular responsibility and who want to leave Lebanon.

“With the Ministry of Defence, we are working closely on how to help those British nationals who want to leave to do so safely. The House should not underestimate the scale of this task or the numbers involved. Royal Navy destroyers, “the York” and the Gloucester, are now offshore and others, including HMS “Illustrious” and HMS “Bulwark”, are heading towards the eastern Mediterranean. A rapid deployment team from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has arrived in Beirut to assist British nationals, together with a military reconnaissance team that will carry out detailed planning for a possible evacuation.

“We judge that departure by sea is the safest and most practical option for British nationals wishing to leave. We are already using British helicopters to transport some of the more vulnerable British nationals to Cyprus. We were able to make use this morning, for example, of UK helicopters, which brought in the rapid deployment team and EU High Representative Solana to help about 40 of the most vulnerable British nationals to leave.

“For the moment, we are advising British nationals in Lebanon to stay put, exercise caution, keep in touch with the embassy and heed local advice. British nationals in Lebanon have been informed that they should listen to the BBC and other English-language broadcasts. Our embassy in Beirut is advising British nationals in Lebanon who want to leave to get ready for departure at short notice, including by having travel documents in order.

“We have deep concerns also about the situation in Gaza. The escalation in violence since the 25 June attack at the Kerem Shalom crossing has caused great suffering on both sides and mounting casualties.

“We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of Corporal Shalit. We also condemn the continued rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli towns. We have called on the Palestinian Authority to prevent all terrorist attacks, including these rocket attacks, and to work for the release of Corporal Shalit. We welcome the work that President Abbas is doing to achieve this. Let me repeat that, while we recognise Israel’s right to defend itself and to secure the release of Corporal Shalit, we insist that its actions should be proportionate and in accordance with international law as we, the G8 and the EU have made clear.

“We continue to have serious concerns regarding the current humanitarian situation in Gaza. Israeli military actions have targeted key roads and bridges and damaged the Palestinian civilian infrastructure. We continue to urge Israel to take action to allow the full provision of basic services to the Palestinian people. We welcome the agreement to open the Rafah crossing on 18 July and hope that all those currently stuck on the Egyptian side of the crossing will be able to enter Gaza. Cases such as these should be resolved as quickly as possible through negotiations. The EU mission at Rafah has played a key role in bringing the sides together and continues to perform an important function under difficult circumstances. We have also made some humanitarian support available to those who have been stuck at the border.

“We continue to have concerns about the detention of members of the Palestinian Government and legislature on 29 June. Those detained should be accorded their full legal rights and be either charged or released.

“We fully support Egyptian efforts to mediate between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the militants currently holding Corporal Shalit, and we have offered our assistance. Egypt plays a key role in the peace process and we will continue to work with it. We have also pressed Syria to use its influence on Hamas. I can assure the House that the United Kingdom will continue to work to resolve this crisis.

“We need an urgent end to the current crisis, although we know, of course, that real peace can only come through a lasting settlement. As the Prime Minister has made clear in St Petersburg, our priority must be to create the conditions for an early resumption of negotiations. The events that we have witnessed around Israel’s borders over the past few days have reaffirmed the great urgency of constructing a lasting settlement and the perils of assuming that, somehow, there is a military solution to this historic conflict. Negotiation is the only viable way to move the peace process forward.

“Our goal remains a negotiated two-state solution achieved through the road map. We must all find a way to work through the current crises to get back on that track”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating this important and somewhat gloomy Statement. This is a sombre moment, not just for the Middle East peace process and the road map but for the wider stability of the whole region and, indeed, of the world and for all of us. As the fighting expands, it can obviously have an impact far beyond either Lebanon or Gaza. It can have an impact on global stability, on oil prices—we remain far too dependent on oil—and on financial markets. Indeed, it is already doing so.

In the face of the immediate crisis, I am sure that the Minister will agree that there is little point in spending time finger-pointing about who started this particular round of horror and for what reason and so on, but there is every need to halt the spiralling cycle of killing, rocketing, bombing and kidnapping that has been going on.

We need to ask, first, about British nationals who want to leave. The Minister gave the position very fully in the Statement. Can British nationals get easy access with their travel documents to the authorities who can arrange departure by sea? Have the Israelis given a specific all-clear that there will be no molesting or interference? Are further helicopter airlifts possible, given the obvious danger of the Hezbollah operatives, who are all over Lebanon—not just in the south—and could inflict damage?

Is the Minister aware that Hezbollah has been planning this attack for five months, as confirmed by comment in Beirut, and that it has been shipping in huge volumes of weapons? I gather from the latest estimate from both sides and not just the Israeli side that those weapons include 12,000 Katyusha missiles, which have a range of about 20 to 25 kilometres, and other missiles which, in some cases, have a considerably longer range? In all this, Hezbollah is getting full personnel support from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who appear to be present in southern Lebanon in some numbers. The aim of this whole operation, planned many months ago, is to raise tension and kill Israel's citizens, which it is succeeding in doing.

Does the Minister also agree that, whether or not one says that it is provoked, the immediate Israeli response not only is inclined to be—indeed, is—disproportionate but can also be said to be flawed? It is very difficult to understand. Can the Minister explain how bombing the life out of Beirut, closing the airport, frightening the lives out of Lebanese citizens as they flee and, in some appalling cases, even gunning them down as they flee can possibly make it easier for the elected Lebanese Government—a young Government struggling to do their best—to grapple with Hezbollah, the serpent in Lebanon's midst? Those Lebanese citizens might be said to have been on the same side as Israel, or at least to have had the same enemy—namely, Hezbollah. Lebanon has been trying for a year to handle the state within a state, and the bombing will make that much harder. I hope that, in our discussions with the parties, we will point out that fact.

Is not one very serious conclusion from the past few days—it is an ominous conclusion for the very future of Israel—that, when it comes to weapons technology, the Israelis may have lost their famed and hitherto unchallengeable superiority? There has been a colossal miniaturisation of very powerful weapons, combined with vast cash resources from oil-rich Iran flowing into weapons and support for Hezbollah. If it has not already done so, that will have an equalising military impact, as the Israeli military is now finding out to its dismay. Does that not suggest that, in the end, the Israelis will have to talk and negotiate and perhaps discuss the release of prisoners and detainees, rather than fruitlessly bombing and shelling?

As to the Gaza situation—the other ugly pattern of development—here we have a major humanitarian crisis. As in all modern advanced societies, but in developing ones as well, the effect of cutting off electricity by bombing the generating stations is to cut off the water supplies, medical supplies, traffic controls and, indeed, the entire pattern on which an urban existence depends. What can we do to ensure that assistance continues to get through to the Palestinians and that the electricity supplies are further restored? I gather that there has been some restoration and I hope that there can be more.

Meanwhile, in St Petersburg, the G8 leaders are broadly saying—I do not want to reduce it to a cliché—that they hope that better counsel will prevail. They have talked about an international force returning to the Lebanon or expanding in the Lebanon/Israel border area. One has to ask: what on earth can that do while the fighting and the missile firing continues? The answer is, of course, very little. The time for that may come, but it is not the solution to the immediate killing and destruction.

Is the prime, direct task now for our Government and other Governments to tell the Israelis that overreaction will be counterproductive and that if they make enemies of Lebanon, their neighbour and the only other democracy in the region, that will lead nowhere, although it may already be too late for that? Should not we tell Damascus and Tehran that their aid to aggression will lead to their own destruction and must be halted? In the end, their people will suffer. Should we not also urge Israel and the whole international community, including Russia, which is a key player in this, to give maximum and continuing support to the lawful and elected Governments in Beirut and in Gaza and, through them, to the people? Should we not all also support the right of Israel to exist without constant, murderous attacks, which it finds now, even though it believed that they would cease when it withdrew from Gaza and the Lebanon? Of course, above all, Governments should support the right of Palestinians to have back their lands and country and to live there in peace. Perhaps we could have an early debate to mobilise the considerable knowledge and expertise in your Lordships' House and to analyse what is possibly the beginning of a far greater crisis.

My Lords, I endorse much of what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, has said. It is clear that we now face a potential for expansion of the Israel/Palestine conflict into a broader regional conflict. We on these Benches recognise that the Prime Minister has been expressing that view in Washington for some time. Indeed, the Prime Minister was right to argue, as he did to President Bush on many occasions, that any action in Iraq had to be taken in parallel with pursuing active negotiations on the road map for Israel and Palestine. It is a tragedy that the United States resisted that advice.

We have now lost five and a half years in the Israel/Palestine peace process. There is an underlying ambiguity about how far the Government of Israel or the Administration of the United States were committed to a two-state solution and how far they were prepared to accept that we were edging towards a greater Israel with settlement building continuing in the West Bank and with continued impoverishment of the Palestinians. Does the Minister accept that Israel can be secure in the long run only if it finds a way to live in peace with its neighbours and that the only way to secure peace with its neighbours is to have a two-state solution with a viable Palestine? We are now moving further away from that rather than towards it.

We on these Benches are particularly worried about the perceptions in Washington under the current Administration. Condoleezza Rice's remarks about the right of Israel to defend itself as a sovereign state do not seem to be helpful in the current situation. We are much concerned about those who see this as part of a general war on terror in which different terrorist groups—Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaeda, groups in Kashmir and Indonesia and heaven knows where else—are lumped together into a broad war on Islam, which one sometimes gets from some neoconservatives in the United States. Those who said three or four years ago that the road to Jerusalem lies through Baghdad now assume that it has to lie through regime change in Damascus and Tehran as well, although we make no excuses for the current regimes in Syria and Iran.

We recognise that the attempt to redraw the entire structure of the Middle East by the Project for the New American Century was flawed from the outset and unachievable. The disproportionate response from Israel is counterproductive. Every survey of strategic bombing and major bombing campaigns, from the US’s strategic survey of bombing in the Second World War through to post-Vietnam surveys, shows that bombing hardens resistance and increases bitterness. Hezbollah, after all, grew in influence and local prestige out of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Bombing it again is not the way to weaken Hezbollah’s position.

We must be concerned that the humanitarian situation in Gaza does not worsen. We must also be concerned to ensure that Israeli efforts to cripple the Palestinian state, administration and infrastructure are stopped. If we are to have some hope of a viable Palestinian partner, we must acknowledge that it was a crucial mistake to refuse at least to talk to Hamas when it was democratically elected as the Government of Palestine.

How closely are we liaising with other states on the evacuation of British citizens? Do we have enough helicopters? As my noble friend Lord Dholakia has just reminded me, what is the situation for British citizens of dual nationality? That is a common situation for people in the Lebanon. Are we actively engaged with it?

Will the Minister give some assurance that Britain is taking active steps towards securing what must be, given the difficulties that we have in persuading Washington to see the complex problems of the Middle East from our perspective, an EU initiative? The Prime Minister has on a number of occasions suggested that what we most need is a regional conference to deal with the problems of the Middle East as a whole. Does he intend to revive that?

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords for their observations. There is a global risk of instability in oil and finance markets. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, that tonight would not be the best occasion for a post mortem or finger pointing. That would not be useful at all.

I start with the noble Lords’ questions about the evacuation. The efforts of the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy have been quite exceptional. I pay tribute to them in this House this afternoon. My right honourable friend Adam Ingram has taken the role of overall military co-ordination, and Brigadier Jacko Page is on the ground ensuring that the arrangements work. I have mentioned that two destroyers are offshore; each can take about 350 people on deck. The aim would be to get people to Cyprus in a 12-hour crossing. HMS “Illustrious” and HMS “Bulwark” are, as I have said, going towards the eastern Mediterranean. Between them, they can lift many thousands of people; they are huge vessels. I hope noble Lords will allow me to say only that there are other ships on the way, not how many. We believe that the bulk of this force will be offshore by Wednesday evening.

We are trying to arrange for coaches to get people from designated points to the dockside. That should be a secure arrangement, which is one of the reasons a military team is scoping it all. We are in close touch with a large number of people. We cannot tell exactly how many British citizens were in the Lebanon when this started—that applies to those with dual nationality in exactly the same way as single nationality. The numbers could exceed 10,000. We do not know the numbers of other nationalities for which we have undertaken some responsibilities, such as the Australians and Canadians.

Briefly, a large number of vessels are queuing to get in. The port sides are damaged. In some cases, the vessels—aircraft carriers, for example—have extremely high sides. You cannot simply put up walkways. Getting people off the quayside and on to these ships will be a difficult logistical task, but work is going ahead rapidly. There is no panic; the Royal Navy being visible offshore has given a good deal of reassurance, including to people to whom I have been speaking in the past 24 hours. I hope I made the point that there is a lot of co-ordination with other nations.

To move on to some wider political issues, the Government, and the Governments of other countries, are aware of the rapid armament of Hezbollah. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, that Hezbollah and Hamas engage in terror: they are terrorist organisations that pursue policies of terror, which puts stability in the region at great risk. It would be foolish to think otherwise. However, despite the fact that they do so, it is vital that the Israeli Government respond in a way that is not disproportionate. The G8 called on Israel,

“to exercise utmost restraint, seeking to avoid casualties among innocent civilians and damage to civilian infrastructure and to refrain from acts that would destabilise the Lebanese Government”.

Plainly, any further destabilisation will make the whole process worse. One of the consequences of any further destabilisation will be that it will be more difficult to resume any kind of peace process. I agree with both noble Lords that the greater the instability created by that route, the less likely it is that Israel will live in security with its neighbours. I do not see that there can be any disagreement about that. However, it needs to be understood that rockets cannot be continually fired into a territory over long periods of time without people in that community saying that they expect their government to defend them, just as any government would defend them. I do not find appealing the argument about proportions on both sides. It is not a relativistic argument; people should stop killing civilians.

Both noble Lords asked about assistance to the Palestinians. We are working to provide money through a mechanism that we believe to be reliable. We have been contributing growing amounts through the temporary international mechanism since 17 June and another £12 million was pledged recently. We believe we must support the Palestinian people and help to provide for their basic needs. On 25 April, DfID announced a payment of £15 million through the UNRWA, and the United Kingdom has given £147 million to the Palestinian people since 2001. Our intention is to make sure that the aid continues and that the mechanism is used effectively.

It is also essential that the connection to the Israeli grid, which has now begun, continues. It supplies some power, but it is not enough. Damage to the power station has resulted in everything that was described by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. Pumping sewage and many other services are critical for ordinary, decent life and we look to see the repairs to that system completed as fast as possible. In the mean time, it is right that connections to the Israeli grid should be made to improve the input of power, which currently varies between three to 18 hours a day.

I do not accept that the G8 was just words. An unusual group of people came together and agreed on a forceful statement, which would not necessarily have happened in other circumstances. All these things suggest the desirability of an early debate, and it is for the business managers of the House to consider that. I am not averse to it, which I hope adds a word of encouragement without disrupting the work of the business managers. I believe that a good, open, frank debate on this matter would be extremely useful.

My Lords, my noble friend has expressed his gratitude to the British forces trying to help those British citizens who want to leave Beirut and Lebanon to do so. I hope he will be able also to express our gratitude to Her Majesty’s Ambassador in Beirut, James Watt, who, together with his very able staff, is struggling in difficult circumstances. I hope we can offer the diplomats there our support.

My noble friend mentioned the role of Egypt in the repeated Statement. He said that the British Government supported the mediation of Egypt between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the militias holding Corporal Shalit. He went on to say that the British Government offered assistance. Will the Minister clarify that? He stated the view that it is not possible to talk directly with Hamas, but supported those who are doing so through this mediation process, and has offered further support from the British Government. Does that mean that there has been some modification to the British Government’s view on talking to Hamas, and, if so, would the same mediation be supported for the two Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon, who are widely believed to be held by Hezbollah? Many of us believe that it is not possible to have a successful resolution of this potentially appalling situation in the Middle East unless some talks go on with those who have hitherto been earmarked as beyond the pale for such discussions.

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Symons for her congratulations, which I will readily convey to James Watt. I have spoken to him, as noble Lords can imagine. He and his team are doing exceptional work around the clock. The consular team manning the switchboards in London is taking about 700 calls an hour, and it, too, has been doing that in 24-hour shifts. Everybody is working exceptionally hard, as you would expect them to, but I thank and congratulate them.

On who is talking to whom, I do not think that there is a modification of view. The Government’s position remains that we do not seek to talk to organisations that have espoused terrorism and argued that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map. That is their position, which is why we will not talk to them. They can remedy that very easily, and should do so. It is obviously important through intermediaries to try to find ways of getting some sort of discussion going. It is likely that intermediaries will have a greater impact on them than we might, particularly the Egyptian Government, who seem to have those links. I say cautiously, because I say it out of partial ignorance, that I do not think they have the same links with Hezbollah as they do with Hamas, but, none the less, there are those who do. The organisation should release all the Israeli soldiers it holds. It should desist from violence and the Israelis should act proportionately.

My Lords, if the conflict escalates to the point where an attack on Iran is considered possible or even likely, what will be the British Government’s attitude?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it was disappointing that, because of American unwillingness, the G8 summit did not respond to the French proposal for a simultaneous ceasefire on all sides?

My Lords, I understand—I was not in St Petersburg—that a number of ideas were canvassed and a good deal of creative work was done before the final statement was produced. Those ideas were thought through by the Sherpa teams working in the background for the G8 leaders. The G8 statement was not just endorsed by the leaders, but endorsed with some enthusiasm. None of them felt that they had been knocked back or set back and it is worth noting that in their own press statements they expressed some enthusiasm for it.

One of the key reasons for that enthusiasm is that as regards Lebanon and Gaza it is possible to see in the statement specific requirements expressed by G8 leaders, which, in my view, touch all the bases needed to stabilise the position. I will not go through them all because of time and other questions that noble Lords may wish to ask, but I strongly recommend that noble Lords look at the set of requirements that the G8 as the leading economies in the world placed on all the parties. I believe that noble Lords will see that the requirements are as strict and as stringent on both sides of the dispute as they should be in these circumstances.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that food, fuel, natural gas, medicines and electricity generators have passed from Israel to Gaza in recent days? Does he further agree that although evacuation from Lebanon has been mentioned, there should equally be evacuation plans—possibly not carried out immediately—of British nationals from Israel?

My Lords, some equipment, some food and some medicines have gone through. I heard an estimate of the number of lorries that have passed through Israel and into Gaza, but I do not want to speculate on the number because I am not 100 per cent certain how reliable it is. The situation in Gaza plainly requires much more food, medicines and materials. There are not enough. Unquestionably, there is a humanitarian problem of major dimensions in Gaza. Without anyone pointing fingers, I state that many civilians are under the kind of pressure that most of us would regard as intolerable. This morning, I was able to meet with Jan Egeland, the United Nations commissioner responsible for humanitarian issues. I am quite satisfied in my mind that the problems go well beyond the materials that have been delivered so far—although materials have been delivered.

Finally, I turn quickly to evacuation. At the moment, there has been no call for evacuation from Israel. We have evacuated a small number of British nationals across the northern border into Syria and we are bolstering our consular team in Syria on the grounds that we may have a need, not necessarily to evacuate people, but at least to assist them on their way home.

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that the continuing colonisation of the West Bank, so that there are now nearly half a million Israelis living there—a colonisation that goes on month by month and year by year in complete disregard of the road map requirements—is a provocation for the Palestinians so intense that, frankly, one cannot be surprised that there was an increase in rocket firing from Gaza and the West Bank? Please will the Government accept that, unless something is done to stop building in the West Bank, which now is proposed virtually to encircle east Jerusalem, the last foothold of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, everything else is hot air and evasion?

As all of us are desperate for Israel to live behind secure borders, the Palestinians to live in a state of their own and the Middle East to cease to be the infection of the world's political bloodstream, I urge the Government to get beyond hand-wringing and, frankly, soft words and, if necessary, to break with the United States because, at present, the United States shows not the slightest inclination to accept that fundamental reality.

My Lords, I can hardly think of a prescription more likely to cause devastation to any prospects of peace than the quartet breaking up. It represents one of the most serious, united international forces to try to ensure that some form of negotiation continues. Before anyone says, “It all fails”, let me say that this antagonism has gone on for decades, across generations. With great respect, the idea that it will all be turned around by the quartet in a couple of years and without substantial work is unrealistic.

I have a good deal more sympathy with the points made about the West Bank. I would not use the words that have been used, but it is true that some of the building in the West Bank, certainly in those parts east of Jerusalem that would make a contiguous and viable Palestinian state entirely impossible, is contrary to international law, as is the route of the wall. I have said so from this Dispatch Box, to Israelis in the Israeli Government and to their diplomatic representatives, and I repeat it, if it needs to be repeated, here today. I do not know what is meant by “something should be done to stop building east of Jerusalem”, short of detailed persuasion and key arguments being deployed about the future of peace and the two-state solution, to which we remain 100 per cent committed. I do not know what else is being contemplated.

All the key forces, including the United States, must be brought to bear to secure a return to the road-map negotiations. Anyone, at the UN or elsewhere, who is not disposed to violence as the first tool for dealing with this, believes that those negotiations are the only route to securing a peaceful settlement.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, given the extremely dangerous situation and the danger of escalation, it does no good whatever to join in the blame game, as we have just heard, either of Israel or, as I would prefer, of Iran and Syria for financially supporting Hezbollah? I expressed my concern to the Iranian Foreign Minister at the weekend. It does not help to have the kind of academic discussions about the general situation that we have heard from some quarters. The G8 is now supporting the potentially viable solution of a ceasefire and an international stability force. What are the Government doing to get the support of other countries—we have the support of the Americans—and from other parties in this country for that solution, which is the only one for dealing with the immediate problem?

My Lords, I hope that, broadly speaking, people across the political spectrum in the United Kingdom believe in the two-state solution and the viability of both states as an international outcome. I wholly agree with my noble friend that the blame game is seldom profitable and that, at a time like this, it is most likely to be disruptive. I can see very little merit in it. We need stability, underpinned by an international force if necessary—you cannot simply intercede between warring parties. I understand that Javier Solana and the Secretary-General of the UN are discussing what kind of force that may be. Such a force may greatly encourage the parties to cease shooting at each other if it is believed to be capable of stopping rocket fire in one direction and the bombings in the other direction, in which case it would be well worth having such a disposition on the ground. Those seem to be the lines along which the G8 conducted its discussion. I believe that such a force has potential, and no doubt further discussion and reports to the House would be very important as that proceeds.

My Lords, there are a number of Christian and other groups in Israel and Palestine at the moment. What is the advice to them, and can that advice be given to the thousands of people who are planning in the next month or so to be on pilgrimage or other holiday business in Israel?

My Lords, as the Minister responsible for consular matters, my advice to everyone, whether they are Christian, Islamic or Jewish visitors, is to behave with the greatest caution and to read the travel advice, which, as people can understand, is changing more or less day by day right across the region. We believe that most places in Israel are relatively—I repeat, relatively—safe, but that is changing all the time. I do not want anything that I have said today to be taken to be advice for people over the next couple of months. That would be foolish, and I will not do that. Our advice in respect of Lebanon is also extremely important. There are now more or less no secure places and no clear routes in or out of the country, although of course we are trying to establish routes out.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there are clear points of leverage in respect of Hamas—be it Egypt or the European Union—but it is difficult to find equivalent points of leverage in respect of Hezbollah, which, it is asserted, has been preparing for this for six months or so? Hezbollah is well supplied with sophisticated weaponry and the countries that lean on it—Syria and Iran—have every interest in maintaining the problem. Where does my noble friend see any areas in which pressure could be applied on Hezbollah for restraint?

My Lords, I entirely accept my noble friend’s point that it is easier to identify where there might be some influence on Hamas; it is not easy to see where the influences on Hezbollah are other than among those who would prefer it to continue to fight than not. However, we are trying hard to persuade even those countries that their best interests and security will also, in the long term, be better provided for if they try to assist in ending the violence of Hezbollah across from Lebanon and into Israel.

The Lebanese Government are entitled to survive. One of the great difficulties in this phase of events is the risk to the Lebanese Government, who have, as a result of United Nations decisions—resolution 1559, in particular—had a responsibility to disarm Hezbollah. The other countries in the region, in as much as they have any regard for the survival of the Lebanese Government, should be assisting in that project.

My Lords, the Minister has mentioned the possibility of a UN monitoring capability. Does he recognise that the UN’s experience in the Lebanon up to now has been fairly disastrous? UNIFIL has been there for many years in large numbers and quite a lot of people have been killed in the process. It has not managed to achieve very much because it has not had the backing of the international community against two forces that have treated it with contempt—the first being Hezbollah and the second being the Government of Israel, both of which have treated UNIFIL with no respect whatever. If UNIFIL, or another UN force, is to be asked to operate in southern Lebanon, will the Government give serious consideration to the sort of backing that will be required from all the major powers with respect to those two forces that have hitherto not respected UNIFIL?

My Lords, the simple answer is yes. I do not know whether such a force would be a bolstering of UNIFIL or another force. This is an early phase of what will be a complicated discussion, but there is no doubt that any military presence on the ground would have to respect UNIFIL, or any other force, or that approach could not conceivably work.

My Lords, will the Minister make representations to the Israeli Government to ask them to desist from what I regard to be their unacceptable practice of creating sonic booms across the Palestinian territories? I speak as a member of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, which is very conscious of Israel’s right to take action against threats to its security. I was disappointed because I wrote to the Israeli ambassador in December about this and I have not received a response. I cannot see the military utility of creating sonic booms which are intimidating and harassing the population.

My Lords, that is unquestionably a fair point. We are asking that no disproportionate action should take place. Things that cause terror to civilian populations most certainly count in that list.

The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, rightly declared that the Israeli response to Hezbollah should be proportionate. Can he explain why the Israelis bombed Tripoli, killing a number of people, given that Tripoli is in the north of Lebanon, about as far from the Israeli border as can be imagined? Its population is largely Sunni Muslim, with a small Christian minority, and extremely few Shias who might be supporters of Hezbollah.

My Lords, very briefly, I am not party to the thinking of Israeli military strategists, but I understand the point that is being made. For what it is worth, it appears to me that there is an attempt to create a degree of isolation, which probably means that port installations more generally have been hit. We want to see this stopped and a peaceful outcome, and we expect everyone to behave in a way that gives peace a chance.