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The 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 their full authority throughout Lebanese territory. That means being able to control the area
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between Beirut and the Israeli border, which is 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.

We are working closely with the Ministry of Defence on how to help those British nationals who want to leave to do so safely and the House should not underestimate the scale of the task or the numbers involved. The Royal Navy destroyers, York and Gloucester, are now offshore and other vessels, 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, which 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. For example, this morning we were able to use 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, to exercise caution, to keep in touch with the embassy and to 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 also have deep concerns 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, and we welcome the work President Abbas is doing to achieve that.

Let me repeat that, although 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 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 stuck on the Egyptian side of the crossing will be able to enter Gaza. Such cases should
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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 either be charged or released. We fully support Egyptian efforts to mediate between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the militias 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 come only through a lasting settlement. As the Prime Minister 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 there is somehow 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 crisis to get back on to that track.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. We join him in offering condolences to the Governments of Lebanon and Israel, and to President Abbas, for the losses that they have suffered, and to the families of those affected.

We are all extremely concerned by these events. The crisis has entered into a new and gravely dangerous phase. What appeared to be a local and contained Israeli-Palestinian confrontation risks becoming a regional conflict. As the Minister said, our first concern is for the welfare and safety of British nationals in Lebanon and Israel. We welcome his statement that the Government are acting to protect British citizens in the area. What number of British citizens and those with dual nationality reside in Lebanon, how many of them applied for evacuation and how many people do the Government envisage having to move to safety?

We welcome the news that two Royal Navy vessels are now off the coast of Lebanon and that two others have been despatched. Can the Minister confirm when the order was originally given for the ships to leave for the Mediterranean?

According to the Foreign Office document, “Information for British nationals in Lebanon”, dated yesterday, it is not currently safe for people to try to leave Lebanon. What representations have been made to the Government of Israel to ensure that the lives of British citizens will not be in danger during an evacuation programme? What advice have the Government given to UK citizens in Israel—stay put, or leave?

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I understand that the UN Secretary-General’s mission is in the region and due to brief the Security Council on Thursday. What support have the Government offered to that mission beyond the logistical support that the Minister mentioned? What are its aims and what action do the Government anticipate from the Security Council?

The G8 statement calls for the “creation of the conditions” that could lead to a cessation of violence. Those include the release of the Israeli hostages, the end of rocket attacks on Israel, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza and the release of Palestinian parliamentarians. Is it realistic to expect that those conditions can be fulfilled in the absence of a ceasefire and in the context of a rapidly escalating conflict?

What role does the Minister see for diplomacy, particularly with countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to put pressure on Hezbollah and to mediate in the release of the captured Israeli soldiers in Lebanon and in Gaza?

The Prime Minister and the UN Secretary-General have called for an international force to be deployed into southern Lebanon to halt the bloodshed. What discussions have the Government had with the Lebanese Government regarding those proposals? When does the Minister envisage that force being deployed—before or after hostilities have ceased? Would this plan involve a commitment of British troops?

The welfare of innocent civilians caught in the fighting is of great concern to everybody. What representations have the Government made to the Israeli Government about the need to avoid civilian causalities and the destruction of infrastructure in the operations in Gaza and in Lebanon? There are reports of Iran and Syria providing Hezbollah with weaponry that is being used to attack Israel, as the Minister mentioned. What representations have been made to those two countries to test their willingness to bring pressure to bear on Hezbollah?

We note the Government’s concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The G8 has called for an “immediate expansion” of the temporary international mechanism for the delivery of aid to the Palestinians. Will the Minister explain what is envisaged here? What impact is the situation in Gaza expected to have on the delivery of aid and what support is being given urgently to address the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza strip and to speed up the delivery of food and medicine?

It is imperative that we find a route to the resumption of dialogue between all sides. In particular, it is crucial that the dialogue between Palestinian and Israeli political officials resume as soon as possible and that there be a return to negotiations on the basis of a two-state solution, as the Minister said.

In Lebanon, it is imperative that resolution 1559 be enforced, above all in respect of the disbanding and disarmament of all militias, including Hezbollah. What steps will be taken to achieve that and to reinforce the authority of the Lebanese Government in the south of the country? I understand that, later this week, the Government intend to proscribe the military wing of Hezbollah. Will the Minister confirm that that will take place and whether the Government have considered proscribing the political arm of Hezbollah as well?

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The middle east is an issue of the utmost importance to international peace and security. The current crisis is likely to have an impact well beyond Lebanon and Gaza. We ought to be very careful that the conflict raging in the middle east does not adversely affect our joint diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue and our military presence in Iraq, particularly in the south where Iranian influence remains considerable.

In the last two or three months, we have had a series of debates in Westminster Hall about various aspects of the middle east: Iran’s nuclear programme, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, global terrorism and Israel. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House pressed the Government to hold a debate on the middle east in Government time to explain Government policy on the middle east across the board. I urge the Government to reflect on that and to take urgent action.

Dr. Howells: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments; his questions are extremely relevant and germane to the current crisis. At the start of the crisis, 3,500 British families were registered in Lebanon and we have subsequently registered an additional 2,000 individuals, bringing the overall total to approximately 12,000 British nationals. There are also approximately 10,000 dual nationals. We have agreements with Commonwealth states, which means that we have some responsibilities there, too. When we take those numbers into account, the figures become very large. I have heard the situation described graphically in the sense that, if we had to evacuate the numbers that I have just mentioned, it would be the biggest evacuation since Dunkirk.

Directly to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, the welfare and safety of those British nationals is our prime consideration. Four more ships are being dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean and we have made it clear that, in the meantime and as we have been doing up to now, we are putting plans in place to ensure that we get those people away as safely as possible. We have to arrange meeting places and provide transport to take people to the port safely and we have to ensure that the port itself is secured. I know that the Ministry of Defence and its professionals on the ground are carrying out those tasks right now.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the UN mission. At the moment, it is an exploratory mission. I know that the people involved wanted to get in and see the situation for themselves. We have helped them to get there and will no doubt help them to get away, too. The hon. Gentleman is right that we will negotiate closely with the mission about all manner of support that we may be able to offer to help take that work forward.

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states in helping to mediate in this crisis. We are meeting them on a daily basis, and we are certainly seeking their help; they have great experience of situations such as the current one, and we need their help now. We are meeting the Lebanese Government on a daily basis. Our ambassador, James Watt, has been working very hard on that front, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has spoken to the Prime Minister of Lebanon.

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As for any force that might go in, I want to say very clearly that we do not envisage any British soldiers or other service personnel being part of that. This situation affects the whole world. Everyone is ready to become vocal about securing a middle east peace settlement and there are many nations that must put their armed forces where their rhetoric has been until now.

We have urged Iran and Syria time and again not to supply arms to Hezbollah, or to any other militia in the area. We are very disturbed that the rejectionist groups in Palestine and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon are being armed—with very sophisticated weapons—by Governments and agencies from outside the area. We have been pressing both Iran and Syria on the seriousness of that, and we will continue to do so. It is an issue that affects them as much as it affects any other country in the area, and that development is a very dangerous ploy.

I understand that, later this week, the Secretary of State for International Development will give a detailed update on the delivery of aid to Gaza, and also perhaps a greater explanation of the temporary international mechanism to try to ensure that basic humanitarian aid is given to Gaza.

We are helping the Lebanese Government to explain how it might be possible for them to extend their remit down to the border, should we get a resolution to this conflict. The United Nations security resolution is in place and the peacekeeping force—whatever title it has—will help to do that. The hon. Gentleman is right that that is central. I am sure that he will also be glad to know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House informs me that we proscribed the military wing of Hezbollah in 2000.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): People across the world continue to be sickened and appalled by events in the middle east. We echo the Minister’s condolences and share his concerns about the plight of United Kingdom citizens and others. Amidst all the complexities of the region, the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers must continue to be condemned as the trigger of the crisis. They must be returned unharmed and nobody should deny Israel its right of self-defence. However, the military response is disproportionate and amounts to collective punishment of the people in Lebanon and the occupied territory, in contravention of the Geneva conventions and in breach of international law.

We are now far adrift of the road map. As hundreds die and thousands flee the conflict, will there now be a sustained high-level mission of all the parties to the Quartet to broker the necessary ceasefires and to plot the necessary short-term route to peace? Will the Minister clarify whether the United Kingdom has committed armed forces to the proposed UN mission, what any terms of engagement might be and where they would come from?

What provision is being made for the growing humanitarian crises arising from the Israeli incursions? Have we not now moved beyond the need for a temporary international mechanism to a requirement for urgent humanitarian aid? On the worrying plight of UK citizens, can we be assured that, as additional needs are identified, sufficient military and consular resources will be made available to those on the ground?

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Dr. Howells: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s initial comments. We are certainly ensuring that there our ambassador in Beirut has everything that he requires to facilitate the possible evacuation of what could be tens of thousands of people. I spoke to him a few minutes before I came to the Chamber and he is satisfied that he has all the resources that he requires. He is also working closely with the commander of our forces that have been sent there by the Ministry of Defence.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the need for proportionality, and I tried to cover that point in my statement. The Quartet will be expected to intensify its efforts and, as members of the EU, we will of course press very hard for that to happen. We believe that the Quartet is the most potent group to take the peace process forward, and we will continue to press for that. I repeat, in case the hon. Gentleman did not hear me say it when I made my statement, that there will be no British troops as part of the UN peace-keeping mission.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I remind Back Benchers that there should be only one supplementary question to the Minister?

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome this balanced statement. My hon. Friend referred to the importance of reopening the Rafah crossing. The American Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, played a key role in bringing about the Rafah agreement last December. Is there any sign that the US Administration are prepared to become more actively involved in finding a solution to the present crises?

Dr. Howells: Yes, the United States Administration are as worried about their nationals in the area as we are about ours. I understand that they are hoping to begin their own evacuation in a few days’ time. We are certainly talking to them and I understand that they are now talking to all the countries involved. I fully expect them, as part of the Quartet, to step up their efforts to find a resolution to the Palestinian problem as well.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Is it necessary for the Minister to sound more equivocal than the Saudi Arabians in holding Hezbollah solely responsible for the present crisis? Is he aware that, in an unprecedented statement, the Saudi Arabians have said:


If the Saudis can say that, why cannot the British Government?

Dr. Howells: I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not think that I have made a strong enough statement on Hezbollah. We have condemned Hezbollah and its tactics for many years, and will continue to do so. I am glad that the Saudi Government have made what for them is a brave statement on this matter, and I hope that it will represent a lead for many other countries in the Gulf and the middle east in general.

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