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Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): Does the Minister agree that the fundamental reason why people in Gaza and south Lebanon are willing to use violence is that there is no political route to justice? Does he also agree that the road map is collapsing, and that Israel is in breach of it by expanding its borders with settlements surrounding Jerusalem? If we do not take action, there will be unending violence in the middle east, causing great danger and suffering throughout the region and a threat to the world economy.

Dr. Howells: I do not know exactly what my right hon. Friend means by “take action”. We have played a very full part in trying to draw the sides together. There can only be one way out of this. There cannot be a military solution; there must be a properly negotiated solution. Neither name calling nor apportioning blame to this or that side has ever succeeded in the past, and I doubt that it will do so in the future.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): While accepting totally the need for Israel to defend itself against terrorism, I should like to ask the Minister to call upon our Israeli friends to avoid any further attacks on non-Hezbollah Lebanese citizens and non-Hezbollah interests such as the airport. Otherwise, is there not a danger that the impotence of the Lebanese Government to protect their own non-Hezbollah citizens will lead those citizens to look outside Lebanon for protection? That could severely exacerbate the crisis?

Dr. Howells: Those are wise words, and I very much agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): In relation to what my hon. Friend said, how far is it likely that Israel can be persuaded that while it has a right to defend itself, which no one disputes—at least in this House and generally among the western democracies—the manner of its response is unacceptable and has caused untold suffering and many deaths including those of children? Is not it also important to recognise that the present conflict is playing into the hands of the extremists on both sides—those who do not want any recognition of Israel, regardless of circumstances, and those in Israel who have no wish whatever to give up post-1967 territory?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but it is difficult to see with whom Israel is supposed to negotiate. The conflict has not arisen as a consequence of one nation invading another. It is a consequence of Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation, with its militias in the south, Fatah with its militias, and Hamas with its militias, killing and kidnapping the soldiers of a sovereign state. In those circumstances, it is difficult to negotiate and impossible to set the rules of engagement. Where I agree with my hon. Friend is that we must impress on the Israelis the international rules of conflict. When civilians are killed and the terrible phrase “collateral damage” is used to describe what is seen as a legitimate attack, the impression given across the middle east and the world is not a good one. I am sure that the Israelis must have got that message, but we will continue to give it.

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Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): While totally condemning the terrorist activities of Hamas and Hezbollah, it is important that Israel’s response should not only be proportionate but be seen to be proportionate. In so far as it is disproportionate, it leads people outside to use the phrase,

and it looks like the same kind of terrorism to which it is meant to respond. Will the Government assure the House that they are putting all pressure on the United States, which, after all, is the key to a solution, to be insistent that Israel act proportionately, in her interests as well as those of the whole world?

Dr. Howells: Yes. Again, that is wise advice. On every occasion, we have tried to impress on the Americans that, whatever we do, we must not fuel the attraction of terrorists in that area, because all too often, that attraction exists. In meetings in Bradford last Wednesday, I kept hearing the phrase, “our martyrs”. It is extraordinarily worrying if young, university-educated people in this country refer to those murderers who strap explosives around themselves and blow innocent people to pieces in a café in Haifa or any other city in Israel as martyrs.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend recognise that while the killing by rockets and other means of innocent Israeli civilians, and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, are vile terrorist crimes to be condemned, the Israeli military action against Lebanon, the killing of its citizens and the disruption of its fragile democracy are grave breaches of international law? Will he accept that unless a way is found to take a grip on this crisis, it could escalate into a global military, economic and political crisis?

Dr. Howells: We certainly understand the gravity of the situation, as does Kofi Annan and the G8, which has made it clear that a cessation of violence is essential and must be brought about sooner rather than later. My right hon. Friend is right—if weapons and fighters arrive from other areas, and the conflict is seen as some kind of holy jihad, we have problems. Bringing the conflict to a conclusion is the imperative. I have tried to make clear in answers to questions from other right hon. and hon. Members that all the actions that the Israeli state takes should be proportionate.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): May I associate my party with the Minister’s earlier words of condolence? I condemn the kidnap of the Israeli soldiers and support calls for their immediate return. I also condemn what many believe to be disproportionate retaliation by the state of Israel. I welcome the deployment of the Royal Navy to the area to facilitate any evacuation, but what will happen to husbands, wives or children of United Kingdom citizens who are not themselves British passport-holders?

Dr. Howells: We have consular responsibility for dual nationals who wish to leave and whose lives are in danger. We will of course attempt to evacuate everyone who wants to be evacuated in those circumstances. The situation is difficult, because there are a number of agreements between us and other Commonwealth states
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under which we must look after many of their citizens too. The figures may become very high, but the hon. Gentleman can be absolutely assured that the Royal Navy has the professional expertise and skills to evacuate large numbers of people. We hope that it does not happen—we hope that people will get through the crisis and, most important of all, that we will be able to bring some peace to southern Lebanon that will obviate the need for a mass evacuation—but if it has to happen, we will be prepared.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): While we would all condemn the kidnapping of both Israeli soldiers and Palestinian Ministers, the response of the Israeli Government has not been disproportionate; it has been an outrage. Can my hon. Friend assure us that when our Prime Minister talks to the Americans, his interlocutors understand that—as was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman)—the world faces a crisis of enormous import? The whole world could be dragged into something so tragic that we would regret every moment at which we had not taken action. Are the American Government bringing pressure to bear on the Israeli Government to end the violence?

Dr. Howells: I have tried to make clear that we recognise the gravity of the situation, and that we have tried to impress on all sides the need for proportionality and a cessation of violence. My hon. Friend knows the history better than most Members. He is aware of the feeling of Israelis, as well as Palestinians, about their own safety, the integrity of their borders and—I say this in no uncertain terms—the vital need for a two-state solution. If we take our eye off that ball, I am afraid we will enter into decades of conflict.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Given that these events were deliberately initiated by Hezbollah through the not entirely trivial actions of attacking and killing Israeli soldiers, kidnapping Israeli soldiers and raining missiles down on Israeli towns and cities, and given that Hezbollah is supported by Syria and Iran, will the Minister bring every possible form of pressure—and consequences, if necessary—to bear on Iran and Syria to end their support for terrorism and their support for the rejection of any possible just peace in the middle east?

Dr. Howells: Yes indeed. That is very good advice to the Government, and we certainly accept it.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): My hon. Friend has been very clear in his condemnation of Hezbollah’s actions, and I doubt that he would find any Member on either side of the House who did not also condemn those actions without qualification. However, there is a good deal of concern about the fact that some of the language used is far from equitable. To attack power stations, to kill more than 100 civilians and to talk about taking Lebanon back 20 years is not merely disproportionate: it is immoral, it is illegal and it is unacceptable.

Will my hon. Friend unequivocally support the call from the Prime Minister of Lebanon for an immediate ceasefire on both sides? If he wants Lebanon to adhere to United Nations Security Council resolution 1559, will he also seek Israel’s adherence to resolution 242?

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Dr. Howells: I agree with my hon. Friend that the language must be equitable and constructive, and I do not see any value in destroying power stations, bridges and so on. In the interim there is the possibility for the Lebanese Government to be helped to extend their remit to the Israeli border. That has to be an immediate priority. On the question of the implementation of some of the security resolutions, we have to be realistic and aim immediately to try to end this conflict and to bring about a peace in which negotiations properly can take place and people can feel safe again. On that I agree with him entirely.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does the Minister agree that firing more than 1,000 missiles into Israel over the past four weeks is tantamount to a declaration of war with Israel and that any Prime Minister of any country would defend his people in those circumstances?

Dr. Howells: I doubt if anyone could argue with that. Shortly before I came into this Chamber, I heard that a missile fired by Hezbollah apparently has hit an apartment block and that it has collapsed. We do not know what the casualties are, but it is a serious escalation of the situation.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Can the Minister tell me how negotiations with our European colleagues will be taken forward? Some newspapers have reported today that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wished the European states to be represented by Javier Solana. That will be difficult as there is no agreement between the Germans, the French and the British on how to proceed, is there?

Dr. Howells: We are co-ordinating our activities closely with our EU partners on all matters at the moment, from trying to make some diplomatic breakthrough to making sure that all our citizens are evacuated safely if they wish to be taken from Lebanon. We have received a lot of co-operation on that front and we in turn will offer what co-operation we can to other EU states.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is there any evidence at all that the Governments of Syria, Iran and Israel are listening to the calm and moderate language used this afternoon by the Minister? Have their ambassadors been summoned to the Foreign Office, so that he can explain these things to them?

Dr. Howells: We have not summoned them formally or informally to the Foreign Office since the crisis began. I fear we have been too busy to do that, but it is a very good point and I will take it back to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley) (Lab): Palestinian and Israeli women members of the International Women’s Commission for a Just and Sustainable Palestinian-Israeli Peace met last Thursday and issued a statement rejecting the use of force and urgently requesting that the Quartet intervene to stop the fighting. They also pointed out that civilians are the ones paying the price daily for the cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation. Given that women in the middle east have for many years kept
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discussions going across political divides, does my hon. Friend agree that, as IWC members state, this appears to be the last chance for sanity and a return to the political process?

Dr. Howells: I am very glad to hear that the movement is taking a strong and positive role. Every voice, as my hon. Friend puts it, for sanity and peace should make itself heard right now.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Given how important it is to get people round the table before many more thousands are killed and murdered, is there not a danger that with an EU initiative, a Quartet initiative and a UN initiative, those initiatives individually will lack clarity and authority? Is not there a case, given all the interests of different powers in the middle east, for the UN to have all our support and to be the main force for trying to get people round the table, backed by whatever force the world can muster?

Dr. Howells: Yes, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It should be conducted through the UN. The three-person UN delegation that we helped to get into Beirut has a pretty good idea now of what the situation is like on the ground there. I know that Kofi Annan is involved in trying to negotiate some way through this, if only to bring a temporary cessation of violence. We will give him all the support we can, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to stress that any initiative must be properly co-ordinated, and that we must have some coherence to our approach.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): No one in this House in any way supports kidnapping or the firing of rockets into Israel, but does my hon. Friend accept that collective punishment is clearly against international law and has been regularly and routinely used by Israel over the years? It is being used again now in Lebanon, with the bombing of infrastructure and targeted assassinations from the air that inevitably cause civilian casualties, as the Israelis know when they do it. Those are not the actions of a responsible Government. In comparing the actions of Hezbollah and Israel, let us remember that Israel is a Government and a state, not an organisation like Hezbollah. One expects any state that claims to be a democracy and is a member of the UN to abide by international law.

Dr. Howells: We certainly expect Israel to abide by international law and we are totally opposed to collective punishment. My hon. Friend is right in recalling the history of relationships between Israel and its neighbours since the second world war. There is a great difference now. Hezbollah recognises no international law and targets civilians directly. Hamas’s terrorist elements murder civilians directly. That is the way in which terrorists operate. It is difficult, as we have found in this country to our great pain, to understand how such an enemy operates, and it is still more difficult to erect defences against such attacks. That is not to excuse collective punishment, as my hon. Friend puts it, but we must also try to understand that there are some very unscrupulous organisations around that operate across frontiers, owe allegiance to no one and are prepared to use any murderous techniques they care to invent to achieve their ends. That is a very difficult enemy with which to negotiate.

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Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): With the crisis pushing oil prices to $80 a barrel—and potentially to more than $100, if Iran is more directly involved—and causing great stress to the world economy and to the poorest countries in particular, can the Minister tell me whether the British Government are taking any action to secure the release of strategic stocks to stabilise the situation?

Dr. Howells: No, I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman that at the moment. I know that he is a great expert on the oil industry and I will try to find out for him. I will probably have to whisper the answer to him privately, because if such information reached the market we would see a rapid shift in the price of oil.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): My hon. Friend has mentioned several times the need to return to the road map once this current crisis is over. In that context, may I draw his attention to the fact that among everything else the Israeli Government are continuing to construct the illegal wall on Palestinian territory and are annexing yet more land in the west bank around Hebron? Will he also make representations to the Israeli Government that they must stop creating facts on the ground, because that will mean that the two-state solution will be dead in the water, to the detriment of Israel and the Palestinians?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend is right. There can be no justification for constructing the barrier that has been built on Palestinian land. Nor can the Israeli Government annex Palestinian land and claim some sort of spurious legality for it. We have raised that point with the Israelis time and again, and we will continue to raise it with them. I have been there and seen it for myself and it is causing enormous hardship for many people, Palestinians and other dwellers in, for example, Jerusalem. If Israel is to come out of this situation with any credibility, it is vital that it is seen to be fair and to abide by international law in the construction of the barrier, and to stop the annexation of Palestinian land.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): It was incredibly touching on a visit to Beirut in April to see how much progress has been made in rebuilding the state after the ejection of the Syrians. Does the Minister accept that the Beirut Government face exactly the same problems in trying to disarm Hezbollah as the Government whom we support in Baghdad have with militias there? For Israel to trash the state of Lebanon will do nothing at all for Israel’s long-term security. The target needs to be Hezbollah, not civilians or Lebanese infrastructure.

Dr. Howells: I agree broadly with the hon. Gentleman. We were all hopeful that moves towards real democracy and the move out from Lebanon of the Syrians—at least, the Syrian Army—boded very well. There was a good opportunity there for a lasting peace and for a strong Lebanese Government, which is precisely what was needed. The destruction of infrastructure and deaths of civilians will do nothing to strengthen that opportunity for the future, and we should say so very clearly.

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