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Middle East

Volume 685: debated on Monday 9 October 2006

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mrs Margaret Beckett) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I welcome this chance to update the House on the situation in the Middle East since I wrote to Members of Parliament on 14 August.

Since the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 on 11 August, the Government have been focused on turning the cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah into a durable ceasefire and a long-term solution. And we have been working hard with key partners and the parties to re-energise the Middle East peace process, an issue of vital importance to the region and wider world. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister visited Lebanon—the first ever visit by a British Prime Minister—Israel and the Occupied Territories from 9 to 11 September and I visited Egypt from 7 to 9 September.


As the Prime Minister said during his visit to Lebanon, we must ensure the full implementation of UNSCR 1701 to support the Lebanese people’s desire for a stable, prosperous and democratic future for Lebanon.

Following the ceasefire, one of our immediate priorities has been to address the humanitarian and reconstruction situation in Lebanon. We have seen an easing of the humanitarian situation. Most of the Lebanese displaced population have now been able to return home or are on their way home. Food and other essentials are now available. A worsened humanitarian crisis has been averted. After intensive efforts by the UK and other international partners, Israel announced the lifting of its blockade on Lebanon on 7 September. But life in Lebanon remains difficult for many.

The UK continues to play its part in the humanitarian and recovery efforts. The UK will contribute a total of over £40 million to Lebanon, including £22.3 million for humanitarian assistance and early recovery projects. UK funding has so far helped to provide and deliver shelter, healthcare, food, water and sanitation. We have provided over £1.5 million to clear spent and unexploded munitions. Our funds will also contribute towards emergency bridges to help open critical humanitarian supply routes to those isolated in southern Lebanon. The first three prefabricated bridges provided by the UK arrived in Beirut on 1 September.

The other immediate priority has been to stabilise the peace. Urgent work has been undertaken to strengthen the UN Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), in order to carry out the range of important new tasks set out in UNSCR 1701. The force will be led by France until February 2007, and then by Italy. On25 August, EU Foreign Ministers in Brussels pledged up to 7,000 troops and a range of sea, air and specialist assets.

Due to our current operational commitments elsewhere, we will not be able to provide ground troops. But the UK has sent HMS “York” to participate in the Interim Maritime Force and we would consider providing, in addition, two E3 AWACS and six Jaguar aircraft if needed. We are willing to respond positively to requests to use our sovereign case areas on Cyprus. We are also paying our share of the costs of the UN operation, on which we pay a premium as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

During his visit to Beirut, the Prime Minister made it clear that the UK intends to play a major role in security sector reform (SSR). The Lebanese armed forces have a crucial role in the country and the UK has set aside £2.5 million to support efforts to ensure that the Lebanese armed forces take in control of all parts of the Lebanon. We will work with the Lebanese Government in terms of training and equipment and any other help that we can give.

We must also work to address the underlying root causes of this conflict. This means strengthening the ability of the democratically elected Lebanese Government to be in sole charge of Lebanon, and ensuring that militias, supported and supplied from outside Lebanon, can never again plunge the region into crisis.

Middle East Peace Process (MEPP)

We must not lose sight of the fact that the conflict in Lebanon arose out of the continuing impasse in Palestine. This issue is of fundamental importance not just to Israelis and Palestinians but to the whole of the region and the wider world. As the Prime Minister made clear in Los Angeles on 1 August, there is an urgent need to re-energise the Middle East peace process. We have been working hard to bring the parties back to the road map.

To achieve this goal it is imperative that the violence on the ground stops. As a result of the current situation in Gaza, more than 220 Palestinians have died, including more than 60 children. Three Israeli soldiers have been killed and one abducted. We continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Corporal Shalit. We also condemn the continued rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. We call on Israel to exercise restraint and to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. As the European Council said on 18 July, those elected members of the Palestinian Government and legislature detained by Israel should be released.

We remain seriously concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The Temporary International Mechanism (TIM) is now operational. The TIM is paying allowances to 10,000 officials in the health sector. It is also paying for fuel to reach hospitals across the Occupied Territories. It has supported the continuation of health services in the current difficult environment. The International Development Secretary has announced £6 million so far for the TIM, for essential health supplies and to support water, sanitation and electricity services. The UK will contribute up to £12 million. The EC has already paid allowance to 43,000 of the poorest Palestinians.

The Prime Minister used his visit to exchange ideas and identify a way for the parties to re-engage. Both Prime Minster Olmert and President Abbas agreed to meet each other without conditions and made clear their commitment to a political process. The Prime Minister also discussed the formation of a national unity Government with President Abbas. President Abbas subsequently announced on 11 September that agreement had been reached to form a national unity Government. We await details on the programme to which this Government are committed. But, as the Prime Minister said when he was with President Abbas, such a Government, if based on the quartet requirements, offers the possibility of re-engagement by the international community.

As I made clear to President Mubarak and the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Aboul Gheit, we fully support Egyptian efforts to mediate between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the militants currently holding Corporal Shalit. I also discussed with them and the Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, the need to re-energise the MEPP. Egypt and the Arab League share this goal.