Previous Section Index Home Page

Both representatives highlighted the fact that women’s voices need to be heard. The Israeli representative repeatedly said that there was a gender
20 July 2006 : Column 560
divide in public opinion. Although women felt that it was terrible to be bombed, they felt that the conflict had to stop.

The IWC wants to continue a dialogue and to build understanding, even in these difficult times. We also discuss what is needed if a ceasefire can be brought about. It was felt that UNIFIL had lost trust and was no help in protecting the border. It would be helpful, in terms of responding to the people who took part in the conference call, if my hon. Friend the Minister could tell the House anything more about the proposals for that force when he responds to the debate.

I also hope that the Minister will be able to find a way to support the work of the IWC for a just and sustainable Palestinian and Israeli peace. As I have said, women have played a vital role in conflict resolution and peace building in other conflicts. We should not ignore their role, but support their efforts as they work across the divide and urge both sides to cease fire and return to negotiation.

5.32 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): As I am morally bound to speak for just three minutes—and I shall do so—I shall make only two points. The first is to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) when he said that various people will be rubbing their hands with glee at the developments that have taken place. In particular, the strategists in Tehran will be doing so, because Hezbollah would not have initiated this cycle of violence and counter-action without orders and permission from Iran. We have to ask why Iran would want to give that permission. The answer is obvious when we look at the proportion of time spent in this very debate on the issue of the confrontation between Israel and Lebanon, compared with the time spent on the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons. This development is assisting Iran in its quest to become a nuclear power, and we should draw appropriate lessons from that.

I thought today that, for the first time in nine years in this House, I would agree with something said by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), when he told the story of the frog and the scorpion and how they both drowned because the scorpion stings the frog in mid-river, despite not being able to swim. However, for some reason, the right hon. Gentleman chose to change the ending. The ending actually is that as they are both drowning, the scorpion admits to the frog that it knew that it would also die, but it could not help stinging because that is in its nature.

What is the nature of some of the groups that are operating in the conflict today? We owe a debt to my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who has just published a new book, “Celsius 7/7”, which traces some of the ideological roots of Islamism. He quotes one of its founding fathers as saying, when talking about the ideal Islamist state, that

What we are dealing with in Hamas and Hezbollah are totalitarian movements. This House can prate all it likes about immediate ceasefires and two-state solutions, but as long as there are actors on the scene who do not wish for anything else but to create a new holocaust as they deny the last one, those solutions will not suffice.

5.36 pm

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): I wish briefly to take the Minister for the Middle East back to the subject of the preparations for the evacuation. I asked him earlier this week whether the Royal Navy would evacuate not only those who are United Kingdom passport holders, but their dependents who might not be. He gave a clear answer, but I ask him that question again because a news broadcast of last night had a caption saying that “UK passport holders” had been asked to assemble. Can he look into this as a matter of urgency, in case a slightly incorrect message is going out?

We all view with great concern what is going in Lebanon, and in particular the potential for the collapse of democracy there and the very real possibility of a new civil war. That alone should be an encouragement to us all to support the creation of a United Nations intervention force with, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, a very strong mandate indeed. We cannot expect a fragile Government in the fragile democracy of Lebanon to disband or disarm Hezbollah on their own. That would certainly lead to civil war, and I suspect that the last thing Israel needs is another failed state on its northern border.

The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) talked about the perception that we were not being even-handed. Some of the comments coming out of the west have not been even-handed, but we must be so. That means that when we call for the kidnapped soldiers to be released immediately and for the missile strikes to stop immediately, we must also call for the Israeli shelling to stop and for the collective punishment of those in Gaza and Lebanon, who might not be Hamas voters or Hezbollah fighters, to cease at the same time. For that to happen, the immediate fighting must come to an end, and I find it extraordinary that the UK Government have thus far equivocated, even on calling for an immediate ceasefire to effect those ends.

As we all know, the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people is an open sore. It continues to radicalise people and to act as a recruiting sergeant throughout the Muslim world and the middle east. Therefore, we must deliver the long-term solution—the two-state solution of Palestine and Israel. We must return to the road map.

The UK has a massive role to play in that. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a G8 member and a large state within the European Union, it has a great deal of weight that it can use. However, at the moment I fear—not least
20 July 2006 : Column 562
because of unguarded comments in the press earlier this week—that in many parts of the world the UK is seen as a client of the USA, and that must cease. There must be a coherent and robust position to bring all sides around the negotiating table and demand an immediate ceasefire; that must happen as quickly as possible.

5.38 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): This debate was called for by a number of hon. Members and hon. Friends, not least those of us who are regular attendees of middle east debates in Westminster Hall. I know that the Government were nervous about holding this debate—and, as a former Whip, I can imagine that it was constrained in its time as much as possible. However, the Government should not have been worried about it. This debate has proved that Members can argue very strongly and passionately about an issue that is very important. In the words of the Foreign Secretary, the current crisis is perhaps one of the greatest in the middle east that we have had to face. I urge Ministers to bear in mind Members’ calls for another statement or debate on this important subject, and to provide one perhaps next week.

Many Members have spoken, some of them under the enormous constraint of having only three minutes, and I shall not attempt to fill up my 10 minutes by reading out a list of names and making a few brief comments; instead, I shall pick out a few speeches.

The hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies) made his maiden speech in the middle of this important debate, and I congratulate him on it. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who rightly pointed out that this debate is on not the middle east but international affairs, spoke with passion—and within the allotted time—on the very important subjects of Darfur and Burma. I note that he has tabled a question on Burma for next week’s Foreign Affairs Question Time.

The Foreign Secretary spoke with a degree of caution, given the minefield through which she is attempting to steer Government policy, and the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) spoke with great reasonableness. But as you might expect me to say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) spoke very well indeed—I say that not because he happens to lead for the Conservatives on foreign affairs—across a wide waterfront about middle east issues. Importantly, he talked about what needs to be done.

Members in all parts of the House, whatever position they adopted on the middle east, agreed that this conflict has the potential not only to be highly local, with an immediate impact on people living in Israel, Gaza and Lebanon, but to draw in other countries as well, and to be a nightmare scenario for all of us.

So the real question that we face is, can Britain actually make a difference in this crisis? Here, I want to make a few points, some of which reinforce those made not only by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, but by Members in all parts of the House. First, the British Government do have a role to
20 July 2006 : Column 563
play. Although, in a classically British way, we often underestimate ourselves and think that we perhaps do not have influence, we have direct influence over most of our allies. We do have influence over the United States of America, and it is important that, at times, behind closed doors—if not always in public—we be frank and honest with the Americans. Indeed, we can go to places in the middle east that the Americans cannot, which is a very important point.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks said, this crisis has again proved—as virtually every crisis in the middle east does—the lack of any cohesion and direction on the part of the international community, particularly all the great powers of one kind or another. The point that I take from this debate is that, if we resolve the immediate conflict in the next two or three weeks—perhaps we will—the danger is that, once again, most of the major Governments outside the area will wash their hands, walk away and look at some other crisis. We cannot do that again, not only because of the immediate crisis involving Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas, but because, as many Members said, of the activities of Iran in particular, which is playing a very dangerous game. Iran is sponsoring terrorism that is aimed directly against many countries in the middle east, including Arab countries. Some of those activities have resulted in the death and injury of British military personnel, and we cannot walk away from that.

The Government must take the following courses of action. First, they must make certain that the period when military operations are given a chance is as short as possible. The Israelis have every right to protect themselves against terrorism and rocket and shell attacks but, as many hon. Members noted, they will be only too well aware that there can be no long-term military solution. The conflict can be resolved only by political means.

In addition, many hon. Members spoke about what is happening in Lebanon. My fear is that, although the Israelis have every right to root out the Hezbollah rockets, they might inflict so much damage that the state of Lebanon will be literally knocked out. If that happens, Israel will be in danger of losing the support of world opinion, which will render a political solution much more difficult to achieve.

Secondly, the Government must energise the international community. We are a member of the UN Security Council, and I look forward to hearing what actions Ministers propose to take there. Thirdly, as many hon. Members noted, there is the problem of getting humanitarian aid to Lebanon, the west bank and Gaza.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks and I spoke to the Lebanese ambassador earlier today, who said that the problem was not one of money but of getting aid to communities. He emphasised that, with 500,000 people crossing fields and walking along roads to get to Beirut, there is likely to be a civil disorder crisis in that city in the next two or three days. We look to the British Government, in particular, to take a lead on that.

Finally, I believe that the House of Commons is justified in taking a view on this crisis, and that the Government should not feel that it should not be debated. Strong and genuine views have been expressed
20 July 2006 : Column 564
on all sides of the House today, but mostly in a constructive manner. This Government resemble the Government who faced a series of international crises some 60 years ago. In the late 1930s, faced with an even greater crisis than this, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, said that his Government were hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. This Government may have to do the same.

5.47 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): This has been a very good debate, albeit a very short one. It has been about the huge issues—matters of life and death—that at present affect the lives of thousands of British nationals and millions of Lebanese and Israelis, among others.

We heard the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Davies), and I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing him well.

Quite rightly, the debate focused on the grave situation in Lebanon and Israel, but many other topics of equal gravity were touched on. The hon. Members for Buckingham (John Bercow) and for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross), and the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), among others, reminded us about the other huge issues facing the world today, such as Tibet, Darfur, development aid, debt relief, AIDS, and Burma. Another matter raised in the debate was the argument for an international arms trade treaty—something that is very close to my own heart.

The hon. Member for Buckingham will know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade summoned the Burmese ambassador to the Foreign Office—he has also written to Burma’s Foreign Minister for the same purpose—to express our concerns about a range of human rights issues, such as the large-scale abuses of ethnic groups, forced labour, restrictions to religious freedom, the use of sexual violence and the exploitation of children. My right hon. Friend also called for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and all other political prisoners. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will wait for questions on Tuesday for his answer.

It is worth spending a moment on Darfur, which has been raised by a number of right hon. and hon. Members. The UK reaffirmed its pledge of £20 million for the African Union force for this financial year. That is out of a world pledge of £260 million. I am told that the amount pledged is likely to be more than enough to meet the force's short-term needs but we will continue to put pressure on others to contribute more.

We believe that the African Union force in Darfur needs to be replaced by a UN peacekeeping force. The Sudanese Government have not agreed to that. Kofi Annan has said that he hopes to see a UN force in Darfur. The Security Council has taken a strong line. The African Union wants such a force and so do many leading African countries. We will continue to press the Sudanese Government to accept it and we call on others to do the same.

We have taken the very good advice of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and summoned the Iranian and Syrian ambassadors. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken directly to the Prime Minister of Lebanon and the
20 July 2006 : Column 565
Foreign Secretary of Israel, among others. It was good advice and we were glad to take it.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Howells: No. I have little time, I am afraid.

I share the concerns expressed tonight about Lebanon and Israel. This Government are committed to helping to resolve the crisis. We want an immediate end to the violence and our priority remains to create conditions that will allow a credible and sustainable ceasefire. I assure the House that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I are working very hard to achieve that. I will be visiting the area immediately. In fact I would have been there now if it were not for this debate. I hope to speak to a number of leading regional players in the surrounding capitals as well as in the immediate area to try to help to find a way through the crisis.

We have supported the efforts of the UN team and of the EU high representative, Javier Solana, by providing them with transport and logistical assistance on the ground. As I made clear from the Dispatch Box on Monday, we have repeatedly urged the Israelis in the strongest terms to act proportionately, to conform to international law, and to avoid the appalling civilian death and suffering we are witnessing on our television screens. We expect no less from Israel and the world should demand no less from those who, for their own twisted reasons, supply Hezbollah with rockets, guns and finance.

We have called on Syria and Iran to stop their support for Hezbollah and to end their interference in Lebanese internal affairs, in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1680. Syria and Iran will be judged on how they conduct themselves during this crisis.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): The first official Lebanese death toll confirms that 300 people have been killed, 1,000 wounded and 500,000 displaced. On the Israeli side, 29 people have been killed. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, says that Israeli and Hezbollah leaders may face war crimes charges over civilian casualties. How should the Government hold both parties to account?

Dr. Howells: I am sure that, if my hon. Friend had been here earlier, he would have heard this. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) properly raised the issue. Louise Arbour is someone whom we have to take very seriously. This is not a one-sided dispute and the evils of the destruction of civilians, their homes and communities are by no means limited to one side. I have tried to call in a balanced way for a reasonable response and for a cessation of violence.

Next Section Index Home Page