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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 29 November 2006

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Lebanon and the Middle East

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

9.30 am

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir. I want to draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests and to thank the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding and Medical Aid for Palestinians for facilitating a recent visit to Lebanon. I also thank the Speaker’s Office and the House authorities for making special arrangements for this debate today. It comes at a critical time, but one or two of my colleagues arrived thinking that we were having a debate on Punjabis so perhaps the publicity for my debate was not ideal, which may be why there are fewer of us here than such an important debate merits at such an important time.

This is an opportunity to debate issues arising from the 33 or 34-day invasion of Lebanon when more than 1,000 people died, 4,500 were injured, around 1 million were displaced, an estimated £4 billion of damage was done and, as we saw on our visit, many villages in the south particularly were almost erased from the ground. Indeed, I understand that only 70 per cent. of the people have been able to return to their villages in the south, which illustrates the damage that was done during that time.

There was also political damage. Lebanon is now more polarised and trust between politicians has evaporated. We hear continually about the possibility of street protests and a ratcheting up of issues that most of us believe are not to the benefit of Lebanon. Recent events have compounded those difficulties. The assassination of Minister Gemayel and the suicide bomb incident at the Lebanese-Syrian border yesterday will do nothing to calm nerves.

My starting point is that strong support for the elected Government of Prime Minister Siniora must be our goal. However, in giving that support, we must recognise the instability in Lebanon, which relates partly to the history of the country and partly to its weak institutions. People often ask me how things happen in that country. The complexities of the confessional system, particularly the Taif agreement, are difficult to understand, especially when there is no estimate of the overall population of the different communities, but a suspicion that the Shi’a community may be increasing rapidly at the expense of the other four or five communities.

In that regard and after the events in the summer, Hezbollah has been agitating for an end to the Government’s pro-western stance, citing its under-representation. The national dialogue that was a feature in that country has ended recently and Ministers who support Hezbollah’s position have
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recently withdrawn from the Government. There are deep divisions between the 14 March pro-Government supporters and Hezbollah and its supporters. However, we found that attitudes were tempered by the country’s historic experience, particularly the spectre of civil war. On our visit we met the Prime Minister, the President and many political figures, and all expressed some confidence that dialogue would continue with no decline into the sort of activities that took place in the past.

There is also a history of foreign power intervention in Lebanon, most recently by Israel, but for many years Syria was directly involved in Lebanon. That feeds Lebanese suspicions. I was interested that a recent poll suggested that 84 per cent. of Lebanese people thought that Israel’s intervention was premeditated by Israel and the United States. There is a general lack of trust in the international community which is particularly important in relation to the United Nations forces that are based there. The international community has failed in the past because not only were previous forces of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon not seen to deliver what had been promised, but the reconstruction aid promised in 2000 was never delivered.

The Lebanese see their country as a surrogate arena for the wider conflicts in the region and that perception was reinforced by the conflict in July. Particularly poignant was the long delay before cessation of the violence and the fact that not everyone in the international community condemned the activities of the Israeli authorities and the disproportionate nature of the invasion.

However, something changed the whole dynamic in the region: during the conflict Hezbollah challenged the invincibility of the Israeli forces. I am not here to say whether that succeeded in reality, but the perception in Lebanon and the wider middle east is that there was some success and I believe that that changed the dynamic, not particularly in Lebanon, interestingly, where polarisation of the two sides did not lead to a significant increase in support for Hezbollah, but undoubtedly in the middle east generally.

Taking all that together, I want to consider today what has happened, what the international community has done during the past three months and what it needs to do to ensure and safeguard peace not only in Lebanon but in the wider middle east.

First, on security there has been some progress in the implementation of UN resolutions 1559 and 1701. I am pleased that there were very few breaches in the cessation of hostilities, but we were constantly asked why there was no ceasefire. It took some time, but Israeli troops have been withdrawn entirely and that must be very welcome. We saw the deployment of Lebanese troops in the border areas and when we travelled there we saw regular contingents, although there is still some concern about the loyalty and quality of some of those troops. Most importantly in the circumstances, UNIFIL is beginning to deploy several European countries and others have been involved in that role. However, when we asked about terms of engagement there still seemed to be confusion or lack of clarity that could prove to be critical in any future difficulties.

The problem of cluster bombs is very much to the fore in Lebanon. It is estimated that there are 1 million unexploded cluster bombs in the south of the
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country—90 per cent. of them were dropped within the last three days of the conflict—and we were told that because of that two people are killed every day while they are trying to gather in the harvest. My first question to the Minister is: what representations have been made to Israel to help that situation? We must clear those cluster weapons at the earliest opportunity and Israel has an important role to play in that.

There remain significant challenges for the international community to overcome in Lebanon. Although the air and sea blockade has been lifted, Lebanese sovereignty has not been respected, and Israeli air incursions continue regularly. They include mock raids, which are provocative and meant to terrorise the local population. When we were in the country, political leaders from all sides told us that the international community must do more. Have the Government protested publicly about the incursions? Will the Minister take up that issue with the Israeli authorities? There can be no military or security reason for the incursions, and taking up the issue would help enormously to reduce tension between the two countries.

There is little movement on border disputes. I am talking specifically about Shebaa farms. We understand that the United Nations has started mapping, but Prime Minister Olmert on behalf of the Israelis says that no way will they give back the Shebaa farms either to the United Nations or to anyone else. In reality, the farms will remain a flashpoint and a source of friction between the two countries.

In many ways, Hezbollah’s protection of the border, which it believes includes Shebaa farms, is its raison d’ĂȘtre. Again, have representations been made? It would seem eminently sensible, and the Lebanese told us that the land should be handed over to the United Nations. Before anything is done with it, the decision might perhaps be subject to final Israeli approval. Undoubtedly, that issue must be resolved at the earliest opportunity.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said, and I endorse what he says about Shebaa farms. Is it not true that when Prime Minister Siniora was in the United Kingdom in May, before the Israeli incursions last summer, he emphasised that the single biggest thing that the international community could do to relieve tension in Lebanon and promote a peaceful future in the country was to secure movement on the Shebaa farms?

Mr. Love: That is absolutely correct. The farms issue predates all recent issues, and it is undoubtedly a source of friction not only in Lebanon, but between those two countries. It seems impossible to imagine long-term peace not only between Lebanon and Israel, but in the wider region, without a resolution to the Shebaa farms issue. It would go a long way to building confidence between the two countries.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman also agree that a source of tension would be removed if UN resolutions were adhered to and
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Hezbollah released its Israeli prisoners, the taking of whom started the conflict? Hezbollah has admitted that it was a mistake to capture them in the first place.

Mr. Love: I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing up that point. I was just about to come to it, because it represents the other side of the border dispute issue. As he rightly says, originally, Israel invaded Lebanon on behalf of its two captured soldiers, and the issue remains unresolved. Almost everyone in Lebanon told us that there are secret ongoing negotiations to find a resolution, and that attempts were being made to exchange prisoners. Shebaa farms might form part of an overall agreement that resulted in the release of those prisoners. However, again, I urge the Minister to do whatever he can on behalf of the British Government to secure at the earliest possible opportunity a prisoner exchange or some other final settlement.

Smuggling of arms continues unabated, and we are told that Hezbollah rejects any calls to disarm. If we are to implement UN resolution 1701, we must address those issues. Sadly, inside Lebanon, they are contentious and a stalemate remains. It is therefore critical for the international community to play a more prominent role. Internationally, the key to both issues is dialogue with Syria—with Iran, too, but primarily, with Syria. I welcome the British Government’s overtures to the Syrians, and I hope that the Government draw Syria into a dialogue that leads to improvements in Lebanon and the implementation of resolution 1701.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s interesting speech, and I apologise for arriving in the Chamber one minute late. On Syria, what is his view about the international tribunal and inquiry into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, which has been followed, as the hon. Gentleman briefly mentioned, by the assassination of Pierre Gemayel?

Mr. Love: The inquiry is an important development, which I support 100 per cent. That view is not universally held in Lebanon, and it certainly is not in Syria. However, its consideration is important, and we must clear up those assassinations. The inquiry is an internationally approved mechanism for achieving clarity, and I want the Government to continue to support those moves.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I was with my hon. Friend in Lebanon a couple of weeks ago, and I am sure that he would wish to confirm to the Chamber that the Prime Minister’s initiative to engage with Syria and Iran was welcomed across the political spectrum. They all wish for a practical and concrete initiative that gets under way as soon as possible.

Mr. Love: I was pleased that there seemed to be unanimity in Lebanon towards the Prime Minister’s approach. He has been—if I may put it as delicately as possible—a somewhat controversial character in Lebanon and in the region, and it was heartening to see his latest initiatives universally welcomed in that country.

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Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): Does not my hon. Friend agree that although discussions with Syria would be beneficial, there are serious concerns about that regime’s alleged involvement in assassinations? The sooner the allegations are cleared up the better, because if the Syrian Government were believed to be engaged in such activity, it would be an impediment to discussions for our Government.

Mr. Love: That is why I welcome the UN tribunal. It is primarily intended to clear up the matter and provide evidence that will prove one way or another who was responsible, and whether they were sponsored by one or other states in the region. However, I am concerned by the assumptions that some countries’ major spokesmen have made in different forums. We must await the evidence before we accuse individuals or countries of guilt.

I do not want to conclude without discussing our fact-finding mission to determine the impact of the conflict and what has been done to address it. The good news is that immediately after the conflict, the emergency relief operation was successful. Medicines, food, water and temporary accommodation were all delivered. When we were there, food was available at affordable prices, and the emergency relief operation was running relatively smoothly. However, more than $900 million was promised at the Stockholm conference, and it is critical for the image and the reality of the international community that several things happen in Lebanon. First, those pledges must be met. They were not met in 2000, and they must be met now; otherwise, we will be totally undermined. Secondly, I mentioned bomb clearances, and I am talking primarily about cluster bombs, although there are also land mines. Until we clear those cluster bombs, we will not really get the reconstruction process under way.

Sadly, we found that the resources that had been promised for the south were not getting through. We were unable to find out exactly why that was; it is a source of great political controversy in the south, and accusations are regularly made. We understand the need for transparency and for the international community to be assured that money does not go into the pockets of local bigwigs, but that money needs to get through.

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): That is an important point, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend could just tease it out a little for us. He has a good instinct for these things and he is very perceptive on this issue, so could he give us some idea of why the money and resources are not getting through as they should?

Mr. Love: First, I should affirm that we are talking about reconstruction, rather than the aid process. The answer depends on whom one speaks to. The local elected officials, who are mainly sympathetic to Hezbollah, blame the Government; they say that Prime Minister Siniora is responsible because he has delayed the money that is going to southern towns and villages. When we spoke to those in the Government, they said that there was an internal dispute between Hezbollah and Amal over who got the political glory for delivering the international resources. However, one
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thing is absolutely clear: the resources are not getting through. Although I understand that the international community wants to set up mechanisms to monitor the funding and introduce a transparent process, it is becoming critical that we deliver some of the funds and get the reconstruction process under way. Currently, the only group that is helping in the south is Hezbollah, which is using its funding from Iran, and that cannot be good in the longer term.

What next? What do we need to do? First, we need to kick-start the regional dialogue. There is no point trying solve Lebanon’s problems in Lebanon; they can be solved only through wider dialogue. I welcome the Prime Minister’s first visit to Lebanon, although it perhaps did not go according to plan. I hope that he will be able to return to the region before the end of the year, because we need a concerted effort to draw Syria and, I hope, Iran into a dialogue, although I understand from recent statements that the Americans continue to resist that. Without such a dialogue, we will be unable to find a way forward in dealing with the wider conflict in the region.

Secondly, I deprecate all the accusations of foreign plots to overthrow the Government of Lebanon and of Syrian complicity in assassinations, which are made without any evidence. We have set up the UN tribunal, so we should let it do its work. We should wait for some evidence before suggesting that the assassination of Minister Gemayel, which was carried out in a Christian area and in an entirely different fashion from previous assassinations, must somehow automatically be Syria’s responsibility. Let us wait and see. The process is sound, and we need to look to the UN tribunal to answer our questions.

Mr. Clappison: Given that the assassination of Pierre Gemayel took place on the day on which the tribunal that will look into the assassination of Rafik Hariri was announced, does the hon. Gentleman agree that nothing should stand in the way either of the pursuit of justice on this issue or of bringing relief to Lebanon’s beleaguered political community?

Mr. Love: Yes. It would not seem to be beyond the ability of the international community or the Lebanese authorities to ensure that the tribunal also looks into the assassination of Minister Gemayel. That would be welcome, including, I am sure, in Lebanon. However, we have to await the evidence. All that I am saying is that we have to deprecate those who jump the gun and who have made accusations without any evidence to back them up.

We await the recommendations of the Baker commission. I was watching television last night, and I gather that they will be out next week. I hope that the commission will, if nothing else, resolve the ambivalent attitude of the United States authorities to Syria and Iran. Yesterday, the President of the United States said that the Iranians were beyond the pale, but other spokesmen say different things. If it does nothing else, therefore, the Baker commission could at least resolve the question of whether there will be a dialogue. That would help enormously to resolve some of the problems that exist, particularly in relation to the arming of Hezbollah and the border incursions, which, if yesterday’s events involving a suicide bomber at the border are anything to go by, are still very much under way.

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The good news is that Lebanon is beginning to get back on its feet, and the international community can do a great deal to re-establish a better image of itself in Lebanon by helping those involved in that process. However, we need to do that publicly, because the Lebanese are looking for our Government to put pressure on the other states in the region, to stand up for Lebanon and the Lebanese Government and to try to bring peace to their beleaguered country.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. I intend to take the winding-up speeches from about 10.30 am, so I appeal for brevity from speakers.

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