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FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH AFFAIRS

Lebanon

1. Mr. Mudie: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on events in south Lebanon. [27192]

2. Mr. Gerrard: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the current situation in Lebanon. [27193]

6. Mr. Booth: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the current relationship between Israel and Lebanon. [27197]

11. Mr. Watson: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what discussions he has had with the Israeli Government relating to recent bombing raids on Lebanon. [27202]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind): While we welcome the ceasefire reached in Lebanon, the region will attain peace only as a result of a comprehensive settlement. We strongly support the resumption of talks in the framework of the middle east peace process.

Mr. Mudie: The Foreign Secretary's colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, is on record as suggesting that Israeli actions were not disproportionate. In view of the sad events at Qana, what is the Foreign Secretary's view?

Mr. Rifkind: The sad events at Qana happened some time after the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The important point to emphasise is that the United Kingdom, including my colleague the Secretary of State, has always made it clear that, given the Hezbollah attacks on Israel, it was not unexpected that there should be a response by the Israelis. It was crucial that any response should be measured and proportionate. The attack on Qana was, of course, a tragedy, and it has been widely deplored. When I spoke to the Israeli Foreign Minister on the night that it happened, he described it as a tragedy that was bitterly regretted. One takes that into account. However, one must also take into account the recent United Nations report, which makes disturbing reading.

Mr. Booth: Does the Foreign Secretary agree that he would express incredulity at the idea that the Israelis should attack any innocent civilians, bearing in mind their history and the fact that they have no known territorial ambitions towards Lebanon? Will he put pressure on Syria, as part of the international community, to ensure that the vassal state of Lebanon is free to make peace with Israel?

Mr. Rifkind: It is intolerable for Israelis living in northern Israel to be subject to Katyusha attacks and it is

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an undisputed fact that the recent crisis began with Katyusha rockets being used against Israeli civilians. The only proper way of achieving peace is through a mutual cessation of violence as a means of resolving the problems. Against that background, we warmly welcomed the agreement that has resulted in an end to that crisis. I have no illusions about the fact that, until the peace process goes forward on a comprehensive basis, any progress on those localised but serious issues will be only a partial solution to the problem.

Mr. Gerrard: Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the United Nations reports suggest that the events at Qana were avoidable and that the comments by his colleague put the Government in the position of appearing to condone the bombing of Lebanese villages and the gross disregard for the human rights of Lebanese civilians, who were driven from their homes and returned to find those homes destroyed? As for the territorial ambitions of Israel, is not the only way that we shall get a lasting peace in the area when Israel eventually agrees to abide by international law and to withdraw from the occupied part of south Lebanon, as UN resolution 425 requires?

Mr. Rifkind: There were two disturbing aspects of the United Nations report, although we have not yet had the chance to study it in great detail. The first was the conclusion that it reached, that the Israelis might have deliberately intended to target the UN camp. The second was the criticism of UN officials for having allowed Hezbollah individuals to enter the camp in the first place. Both matters should be properly addressed and properly dealt with.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend: Will my right hon. and learned Friend take this opportunity to praise the Secretary-General for compiling a report on the incident at Qana so quickly after the event, and a report that criticises officers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in some regards? Is it not deplorable that some countries, notably the United States and Israel, should seek to have that report kept under covers?

Mr. Rifkind: It is not realistic to believe that such a report can, or should, be kept as an internal, confidential matter. It is a matter of supreme public interest and it is right and proper that the serious conclusions that have been reached should be addressed. We have noted the clear statement by the Israelis that they do not accept the criticisms that have been made. We understand the sensitivities involved, but it is important that--on a matter which resulted in so many tragic deaths and which gave rise to so much concern--the cause of, and responsibility for, the incidents is properly investigated.

Mr. Menzies Campbell: Does the Foreign Secretary accept that whether the bombardment was deliberate, careless or accidental is of no moment for the victims, having regard to the consequences? Can he tell us precisely what representations the Government made to Israel after the bombardment? In particular, did the Foreign Secretary convey to the Israeli Government the fact that the events have done them grave diplomatic and political damage?

Mr. Rifkind: Shortly after the bombing was reported--indeed, later that day, as I told the House a few moments

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ago--I spoke directly to the Israeli Foreign Minister on the telephone. He expressed the Government's deep sense that what had happened was a tragedy and he maintained then, as they have maintained ever since, that it was not part of the deliberate policy of the Israeli Government, and there was no deliberate decision, to attack the camp. That has been their position, and they have held it consistently.

Mr. Janner: I share the grief at the awful tragedies of war. Will the Secretary of State join--I hope--the whole House in congratulating Warren Christopher on achieving and brokering a ceasefire, in the hope that that will lead to a real peace in which both sides will be able to look after their people and ensure that their civilians are not attacked?

Mr. Rifkind: Yes, of course, I warmly congratulate the efforts of Secretary of State Christopher and all the others who have been involved in the search for peace. The hon. and learned Gentleman is correct to refer to a ceasefire. It is not a peace, and we shall not have made real progress until the substantive Israeli-Syrian discussions get going again. We hope that they will not only lead to a peace between Israel and Syria, but will unlock the process that will produce a peace between Israel and Lebanon as part of the wider middle eastern peace process.

Mr. Rathbone: While pursuing that end, which the whole House will endorse, will my right hon. and learned Friend start at last to bring British Government pressure on Israel to withdraw from the illegal occupation of southern Lebanon, according to United Nations resolution 425, which was reiterated by the more recent United Nations resolution of last April?

Mr. Rifkind: I agree with my hon. Friend that the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon is illegal. We have made it clear, in an unambiguous way, to the Israeli Government that we do not accept their entitlement to be in south Lebanon and that we urge them to comply in recognising the international boundaries.

Mr. Fatchett: I am sure that everyone will welcome the ceasefire and the prospects for resuming peace negotiations, but does the Secretary of State understand that there is concern on both sides of the House that Britain, with its unique history and links in the middle east, appeared to have no effective role in brokering the ceasefire? Is it not about time that Britain assumed a much more proactive role, using its history, links and experience to build a bridge between the parties in the middle east so that we assume some responsibilities, or are we prepared to leave that to the Americans and the French and become a spectator, rather than a participator seeking a comprehensive and just peace in the middle east?

Mr. Rifkind: The hon. Gentleman's premise is incorrect. During the course of the crisis, we were in regular contact with Syrian, Israeli, Lebanese and other political leaders. I took a conscious decision not to join a substantial number of other Foreign Ministers who were going to Syria or to the region. I do not believe that the success of one's influence is measured by membership of a large group of ministers. The crucial requirement was for the international community to co-ordinate its position.

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The interests of Britain, France and the United States were not different. We had a common interest in peace. The prospects for peace would have been even better enhanced if there had been early co-ordination and a common position rather than the slightly more complex arrangements that a number of countries chose to introduce.


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