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11 Oct 2006 : Column 82WH—continued

I do not say that the fear of those living in Shlomi is anything other than real; of course it is. If there are armed people over the fence from you in Lebanon, you are going to be scared. And those who live in southern
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Lebanon, who have the Israeli Defence Forces over the fence from them will be pretty scared as well. The only invasion that has happened in recent years has been the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; it was not the other way around. The fear on both sides is real, but I raise the matter because we need some rigour in understanding what happened in the run-up to the Lebanon war.

Those statistics indicate that the Shebaa farms issue is a major source of tension in the area. It is the pretext for Hezbollah retaining its arms in Lebanon. In practical terms, that is where progress is needed. Resolving that is the key. I caution any Government who want to put preconditions on resolving the issue of the Shebaa farms, because getting that sorted will allow so many other things.

I shall now speak about Arab communities in Israel. Much attention has been given to the fears of Israel’s Jewish communities—and rightly so. I noted a huge polarisation of Israeli society, and the Palestinian communities, particular in northern Israel, feel utterly alienated from the state of which they are citizens. Long-standing matters such as nationality laws that discriminate against them, or regulate who they can live with or marry are a problem. That alienation was brought to the fore by the fact that when Hezbollah attacks were coming—after the war had started and not before—Arab communities were not given the same protection as others. They were not given bomb shelters or the early warning systems that other communities in Israel had. That increased the sense of alienation.

Israel talks about the need to withdraw from certain areas of the occupied territories—which I would like to see—in order to solve the demographic problem; it means that Israel should not be ruling over territories where the non-Jewish minority might one day become a majority. What signal, what message, does that send to Israel’s Palestinian and Arab citizens? The message is that they are tolerated, so long as they know their place and never become a majority. They now feel that they are regarded as a sort of fifth column in the state of which they are citizens. The international community needs to bear that in mind.

I turn to the peace process. When I was on the plane going to Israel, there was every hope of a national unity Government between Hamas and Fatah. By the time we landed, it seemed that those hopes had gone. I hope that it was nothing to do with my journey. Hamas and Fatah have real issues to deal with in order to go forward. Hamas needs to deal with what the international community says about violence, about accepting Israel as part of a long-term settlement and about abiding by existing agreements.

The international community, too, needs to make a few decisions. Do we want to encourage Hamas down that political route, or do we want to issue fog-horn demands that are not made of the other side? Should we insist on every dot and comma of the most inflexible interpretation of the preconditions, so that when they do not accept that we can say, “We told you so. There is no chance of progress. There is no partner for peace. We have a choice. I want to go down the first route. Sadly, diplomacy from the United States and sometimes from our country, seems to be going down the second route.

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It is important to remember that actions speak louder than words. There was violence from Palestinian groups during the latter part of 2005. My right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) was right to say that. Hamas was on ceasefire for the best part of a year, and it then entered elections for the first time. I wish that that was sometimes acknowledged. Hamas has never said that it recognises Israel or that it will renounce violence, but in practical terms it had a ceasefire for a year. Israel said that it accepted existing agreements and says that it wants to support a Palestinian state, yet 3,000 Palestinians have died since the start of the intifada, settlement building has continued in defiance of international agreements, and the wall is being built which closes in many ways many of the chances of there being a viable Palestinian state.

If we want to make progress, it is important that we look at the actions of the parties involved, not just what they say. In order to ensure that Hamas moves towards a political route and accepting a two-state solution, it is absolutely vital that we understand the dynamics. That includes recognising the levels of poverty and deprivation in Gaza and increasingly in the west bank, where there are 160,000 public servants—refuse collectors, teachers and health workers—who have not been paid for months. That is causing real hardship, and it is a problem when those people hear all the demands apparently coming to one side and polite reminders going to the other.

Jane Kennedy: The whole international community is asking Hamas to recognise Israel; it is a United Nations request. It is not one small thing, but a significant thing that would allow the sovereign Governments of other nations to say that this is now a Government with whom we can deal.

Richard Burden: The international community is saying that it wants Hamas to recognise Israel. I would like Hamas to recognise Israel. However, I want to find ways to make it happen, rather than simply saying that Hamas has not done it so there will be no talking and the conflict will continue. The international community has also said clearly to Israel that it should discontinue building settlements and that it does not agree with the wall in occupied territory, and rightly so. Do we ever hear the international community saying to Israel, “We won’t talk to you unless you change your policy.”? Do we ever hear the United States Agency for International Development saying that the huge financial support they give to Israel for development should be cut off until Israel abides by international agreements and recognises in practice, not in theory, how to achieve a Palestinian state?

I am not suggesting that the international community should stop talking to Israel. However, considering the approach we take with Israel, simply saying that we will not even engage in a dialogue with Hamas and ignoring its ceasefires and the fact that it has been democratically elected, we have a problem. We should not ignore what President Abbas, who has no love of Hamas, has said about encouraging dialogue and moving Palestinian society forward.

I welcome our Prime Minister’s commitment to do everything he can to move the peace process on, but that requires movement from both sides. I would like to draw attention one more time to an issue repeatedly
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brought up by Palestinian communities and people in the Lebanon: that the west, and all too often Britain, displays double standards. If we give the impression that we have double standards, our credibility will be reduced, as will our chances of promoting peace with justice for all peoples in the region.

10.22 am

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I commend the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and the enormous amount of work he has done over a prolonged period to advance the understanding of the situation in the occupied territories as chairman of the Britain-Palestine all-party group. It is a pleasure to work with him on that group as vice-chairman.

One of the purposes of these debates should be to advance our understanding of the region, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on obtaining this debate and on his speech. I do not necessarily agree with every dot and comma, but I agree with his general thesis.

The past five years have been a disaster for the British national interest in the middle east. There has been constant debate about how we arrived at that position, but whatever the reasons, the reputation of the United Kingdom has taken a heavy hit, and the war in Lebanon has made that position even worse.

The right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy) said that we are engaged in a war against our way of life. I urge caution in the use of such rhetoric. There is a conflict, but much of it is about the future and shape of Islam, and we are in many ways witnesses to it. When we take part in that conflict and try to act on the side of the people who want a rational interpretation of Islam consistent with liberal western values, often the consequence of our policy is precisely the opposite of what we intended. Direct foreign intervention in a number of countries has in fact helped the people who really do have very different values from ours.

A week ago, I returned from a day in Syria and four days in the Lebanon with the Conservative Middle East Council. We had an outstanding visit, and I am grateful to the ambassadors of both countries for helping us to arrange it. We did not ask our embassy in Syria to assist, because it is Government policy that we should not talk to the Syrians—which I think is a mistake. I understand why the Government wish to isolate and punish Syria for its activities, some of which, in the light of the Hariri inquiry, look deeply unattractive. However, Syria is governed by a secular, socialist party—in name—and we have driven Syria into the arms of Iran. When we ask Syrian politicians how that has happened, with two Governments with very different attitudes now in almost formal alliance, we find that they feel that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Following the sense of hope that accompanied the arrival in office of President Bashar al-Assad, we should continue to work at reinforcing what we believe and understand to be his policy to aim at modernising Syria and breaking it away from its past record, particularly under his father.

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One of the encouraging parts of my visit to Syria was to meet Deputy Prime Minister al-Dardari, who is in charge of economic affairs and is a most impressive figure. He has a clear idea of the economic challenge faced by Syria and the need to liberalise and modernise its economy. When we engaged with him about the capacity of Syria to do that in terms of its administrative structure and ability to find the entrepreneurs to deliver economic modernisation, he had a clear idea of the difficulties that he faced, but it was very clear to us that he enjoys the unqualified support of the President in the effort to modernise the economy. If the system is open and liberalised and can bring benefits by, for example, providing transit routes from port facilities to Iraq, there is an opportunity for the Syrian economy to develop, and that can only be a good thing.

The right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said that we know the history of Hezbollah. I am not sure that we do. Lebanese politics is horrendously complicated: the Lebanese ambassador once said that if one had begun to think that one understood it, it was a clear demonstration that one had not. The history of conflict in the Lebanon between all the different groups that make up Lebanese society is long and involved and goes back many hundreds of years.

For example, we went to the Shatila refugee camp. We had all heard of the massacre of the Palestinians in 1982 when the Israeli armed forces surrounded the camp and enabled the Phalange to carry out the massacre. What I was not aware of was that the camp was entirely flattened between 1985 and 1987 as an extension of a row between President al-Assad of Syria and Yasser Arafat of the PLO. Although the camp that we saw had been completely rebuilt since 1987, it still looked as if it came out of one of the worst parts of mediaeval London with buildings on top of each other, very narrow streets, poor light and frankly appalling conditions. One goes from there to the wealthy side of Lebanon, the success of entrepreneurs and the amazing renaissance of Beirut.

In trying to understand Hezbollah, we should avoid characterising its supporters too simply. One example will suffice. I spent some time talking to a young Shi’a Muslim man who was a convinced Hezbollah supporter, but when I tell hon. Members that his occupation of choice was clubbing and his drink of choice was vodka, they can see that to characterise Hezbollah as some fundamentalist Islamic organisation might be slightly wide of the mark. Hezbollah enjoys enormous public support in southern Lebanon from the Shi’a Muslims, because it is seen as the liberator of most of Lebanon in 2000.

Lebanon remains to be fully liberated. The issue of the Shebaa farms continues to exist and to give Hezbollah a cause and a reason to remain armed as a militia. If nothing else, it is essential that Israel deals with that excuse for Hezbollah to remain armed. One beneficial consequence of the war—there are not many—is that the Lebanese army is now deployed right down to the border in southern Lebanon, and there will be a substantial United Nations force, but we need to remove as far as possible any excuses that Hezbollah has to remain an armed organisation within a state, and the continued occupation of part of Lebanon is one of those reasons.

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10.30 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Thank you for calling me to make the first of the winding-up speeches, Mr. Weir. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing the debate. It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who I suspect laid out in very concise and interesting terms the advice that the Foreign Office has been providing for the Prime Minister and that the Prime Minister has continued to ignore over recent months and years.

This is a wide-ranging subject for debate and because time is limited I propose to concentrate on two issues. One is taking stock of the position in which we find ourselves in Iraq, and the other is the issue that came before the House prominently before the summer recess and that has continued to be prominent over the summer—the situation in Lebanon.

I shall start with Iraq. As hon. Members will recall, the Liberal Democrats, before I was elected, vigorously opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We regarded it as a war not of necessity but of political choice on a flawed prospectus and a fabricated threat, and that has proved to be the case. The war should never have been fought. It has led to the deaths of approximately 40,000 civilians and the figure for coalition soldiers is approaching 3,000, and it has not delivered the benefits that the Iraqi people were promised in advance would be a consequence of it. In addition, it has certainly not decreased the terrorist threat in Britain. It has caused widespread resentment against western states, particularly from within the Muslim and Arab world, and it has undermined the international authority both of the United Nations and of Britain and its allies.

However, as I think most people would agree, by invading Iraq the Government created a moral obligation and strategic imperative to work towards the reconstruction and stabilisation of Iraq. I and my party support that process, but we cannot hand on heart say that the current strategy of the British Government or the United States Government is an unequivocal success, so we now need to consider how we can build on it and put in place a strategy to take us from where we currently are to a more successful resolution.

At the moment, the very survival of the state of Iraq is in jeopardy, and if Iraq is allowed to become a failed state, the economic and security implications for both the region and the western world will be devastating. Civil war in Iraq would clearly risk drawing in neighbouring states and making the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territory even worse, as well as having implications for our nuclear negotiations with Iran. I know that other hon. Members who have been unable to speak wished to touch on that subject. Therefore, it is of great importance, as I think everyone would agree, that we have a successful strategy in place for Iraq.

I do not have time to go into great detail, but as features of that strategy we should be considering internationalisation of the forces in Iraq, greater strengthening of the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Iraqi Government and their being able to demonstrate that they can deliver essential services to their people, and strengthening the rule of law and human rights in
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that country. I hope that the Government can work towards that. I suspect that, at the moment, we are carrying on and hoping that matters will improve without necessarily having a firm enough plan in mind for how we can reach a satisfactory conclusion.

The second issue is Lebanon and I shall start by reminding hon. Members of the bare facts of the events that took place a few months ago. One million people—a quarter of Lebanon’s population—were displaced by the fighting. More than 1,000 people—mainly civilians—were killed in Lebanon during that brief war. It is worth noting that, on the other side, about 150 Israelis—mainly soldiers—were also killed. The total estimate of the cost of repairing the damage done during the brief conflict was in the range of $5 billion.

I want to make something clear straight away, because I want to correct a misconception that I sometimes hear. The Liberal Democrat party is not an anti-Israel party. We recognise the threat that Israel faces and we strongly support the continued existence of a viable, secure and prosperous Israeli state. We are unequivocal in our condemnation of the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and much of the action undertaken by Hezbollah in the recent conflict, but—this is a reasonable “but”; I have not come here to argue the case for one side or the other, although I know that many hon. Members in this debate regard themselves as representatives of one side or the other—it is wholly appropriate to recognise that the response of the Israelis was disproportionate.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight spoke about this in graphic terms, and I would not necessarily choose to use those terms myself, but the bombing of infrastructure such as bridges and civic buildings demonstrated a recklessness that was not in Israel’s interests, that led to considerable loss of human life and an even greater loss, possibly, of political good will, and that obviously was extremely expensive in financial terms. Someone will have to pay the bill for the reconstruction. The use of, for example, cluster bombs was, in my view, entirely inappropriate in that context, but we are where we are. I hope that a more secure future can be found and that the prosecution of that case by the United Nations will be advantageous.

I shall finish with a slightly party political point. When this situation arose, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party was, I think, the first to urge restraint and the use of diplomacy and to urge that the response be internationalised. That was a significant moment in terms of our view in this House about the situation. The leader of the Conservative party had nothing to say for several weeks and waited to see which way the wind was blowing, which I suspect was a cause for concern for people in his party who hold views on both sides of the argument. The leader of the Labour party, the leader of the Government, isolated himself and chose to support the United States in giving what appeared to be tacit approval to the Israelis to carry on their attacks in Lebanon. I regard that as a huge error of his, which has confirmed in the minds of many people in the middle east his inability to resolve the conflicts in that region. I fear that, while he remains Prime Minister, we will make less progress than we otherwise would.

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10.39 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) on securing this broad-brush debate on developments in the middle east. In applying for it before the summer recess, he was shrewd enough to recognise that events might have moved on and that if he had concentrated on just one area, he might have found the issue resolved. Unfortunately, it was not. However, he opened up a debate in which, as is usual in these debates on the middle east, there is a tremendous amount of passion, and we have advocates speaking on both sides, particularly about Israel and Palestine, and strongly articulating their views. I suppose that I must say that the Liberal Democrat spokesman lived up to the highest reputation of the Liberal Democrats that many of us are used to in these kinds of debates.

I shall comment in broad terms on developments in the middle east. When the House adjourned for the summer recess in July, there was great concern across the board about the conflict involving Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah, which had dragged Lebanon in, and about wider issues such as the situation in Iraq and the open defiance of Iran. It is impossible for us not to see that those situations are, at different levels, connected, and that Britain has a role to play, although I suspect that that role is limited. There was a feeling in the House—I choose my words carefully—that there appeared to be some drift on the Government’s behalf in July. Indeed, many of us felt that they were reluctant to have the middle east debated on the Floor of the House, and some pressure had to be brought to bear to get such a debate.

Over the summer, there have been efforts from the international community to set up some form of stability in southern Lebanon, there has been a lot of commentary about what continues to be a deteriorating situation in Iraq, and there has, of course, been an attempt to persuade the Iranians not to go ahead with the development of nuclear weapons, but that international commitment appears to have been half-hearted, to say the least, and often counter-productive. The question that we must ask about the overarching problem in the middle east is: what role can the British Government play? It is always embarrassing to any British Government, but particularly so to this Government, that while we stand always four-square alongside our major ally, the United States of America, we are the junior partner. There is nothing wrong with being the junior partner, but it would be nice if at times we were told what we are supposed to do before reading about it in the press or hearing about it in the media.

Mr. Clappison rose—

Mr. Simpson: I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me; I have only a limited amount of time.

There is no doubt, as far as the situation between Israel and Hezbollah is concerned, that it was absolutely intolerable that Israeli civilians came under direct rocket attacks. Somebody said to me, “You Brits have never experienced that,” but actually we did in 1944 and 1945, when there were probably as many British civilians killed by V1s and V2s as by conventional airpower. That was pretty frightening.

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