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Middle East

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 20 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What action they are taking to help to resolve the present conflict in the Middle East.

My Lords, both my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary remain actively engaged in the situation in the Middle East. They have spoken to their Lebanese, Israeli and Palestinian counterparts on a regular basis. We are working closely with international partners in the region, the UN, the EU and the G8. Indeed, my honourable friend Dr Howells is in the region today.

As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear, the most immediate priority is to create the conditions in which a cessation of violence can happen. We are working towards that end.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Will the Government take a much more positive role in discussions at the UN today than they took with their EU colleagues and at the G8 by asking for an immediate ceasefire in the Middle East? It is obviously terrible to see casualties on any side, but does the noble Baroness feel that Israel's actions have been proportionate or in her long-term best interests when the casualty levels are 10 times higher in Lebanon than they are in Israel and we see the “shredding”, in the words of the Lebanese Prime Minister, of a state that was a beacon of reconstruction in the region? Surely the situation shows how vital it is that the international community puts muscle behind moving the peace process forward before it is simply too late.

My Lords, we continue to take a positive role in both the EU and the UN. We are working very closely with all our international partners. On the terrible, tragic destruction that is taking place in Lebanon, Gaza and Israel, we are calling on all sides to cease. Clearly, the killing of civilians is wrong and the targeting of infrastructure is wrong. We recognise that all those actions are probably counterproductive. That is why we are continually working with our partners to try to achieve a resolution to this dreadful conflict.

My Lords, I welcome the current effort that our Government are making on this matter. Has my noble friend received some of the e-mails that I have received during the past few days showing charred—burnt-out—children? I should very much like to hear what my noble friend has to say about what pressure our Government are putting on all sides not to involve children and women in collateral damage.

My Lords, I, too, have received those dreadful e-mails. I must agree with a statement made by Jan Egeland this morning in which he said that it was absolutely appalling that one-third of the people who have been killed or wounded are children and that neither Hezbollah nor Israel seems to have proper regard for civilian life. The Government absolutely agree with that and, as I said, we are working with all those agencies to try to ensure an end to all the violence, including violence against women and children.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that Israel has every right to take out the odious Hezbollah? It has had 1,700 rockets rained on its cities—Tiberias, upper Galilee and Haifa—in the past few days. It is utterly reasonable that it should attack and destroy the people who launched this unprovoked attack on it. But does she also agree that the response of seeking to destroy not merely the Hezbollah hideouts but the entire Lebanese state and the Lebanese Government—that is happening now; food, petrol and other basic resources are all being destroyed and people are being reduced to desperation and terror—is not the right course and will not benefit Israel in either the short term or the long term? Can that view be made more clearly than it has been so far? We read in the papers that President Bush, apparently backed by the British Prime Minister, has given the green light to the Israelis to carry on bombing. Can the Minister deny that and say that we are not associated with that view because it is the not right way to peace, it will not help Israel and it will not save Lebanon from utter destruction?

My Lords, I certainly agree that Israel has a right to protect itself. That means taking out Hezbollah, which is exactly what it is doing, but, of course, its response in Lebanon must be proportionate. We, together with the G8 and all the international organisations, are constantly urging that on Israel. We hope that the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will go into the region soon and will be able to broker some sort of peace in that region so that we can get back to the road map and all the other things that are necessary. It is important to note that we are working constantly to get results. It does not matter who is leading, who is following or whatever. We just have to get results, and we are doing what we believe to be right in all circumstances.

My Lords, will my noble friend give a progress report on the government help to British passport holders leaving Lebanon? Can she also say what specific promise the Prime Minister has given on British troops in the proposed buffer zone? What are the necessary preconditions before we send a component?

My Lords, on the British citizens in the Lebanon, I am pleased to say that the reason why my noble friend Lord Triesman is not at the Dispatch Box today is that he in Cyprus monitoring what is being done there. We have six ships there, which are taking people out of Lebanon. We have 100 extra staff from the Foreign Office working in the region to ensure that people can be got out as quickly as possible. We are not charging people as they come out of the region, unlike, I believe, the Americans and some other states; we are doing it all free of charge. We are working to ensure that people’s journeys are as uncomplicated as possible, that there are playgrounds for children and all that sort of thing.

On troops and a new military or peacekeeping force in the Lebanon, we are not there yet. However, I note that my honourable friend Dr Howells said in the other place the other day that there will be no British troops in the Lebanon.

My Lords, with great respect to the Minister for her obvious sincerity, I ask her to reply to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. Do the British Government support what evidently is the American view that there should be no immediate ceasefire to enable Israel to carry on not only with the destruction of Hezbollah, which we understand, but with the devastating consequences for Lebanon that will plunge the whole region into despair and chaos?

My Lords, that is not our view. We have made it absolutely clear that we want a ceasefire, that we want it as soon as possible, and that we have to stop the violence.

My Lords, will the Minister encourage Her Majesty’s Government to make it plain to the Government of Israel that it is difficult to see the strength of their commitment to the peaceful negotiation of a two-state solution when, in the first place, glorification of an act of terrorism committed 60 years ago in the King David Hotel is taking place and, in the second place, one of the specific targets for bombing has been the Foreign Office of the Palestinian state?

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are in constant contact with Israel, and I am sure that they are making that case all the time because they recognise that ultimately Israel’s security depends on its living in peace with its neighbours.

My Lords, may I associate myself strongly with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, about bringing pressure to bear on this? However, no one has mentioned the role of Syria. Undoubtedly, Lebanon at the moment is being torn between the natural determination of Israel to defend itself and the equal determination of Syria to keep a foothold in Lebanon at all costs. What can my noble friend say about pressure being brought to bear on Syria to withdraw completely from Lebanon and to stop its backing for Hezbollah?

My Lords, the Government are extremely concerned about the role of Syria through its support for Hezbollah. We are not working directly with Syria. However, we are working with many others—we are in daily contact with our friends—who can put this necessary pressure on Syria and we will continue to do so.