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29 Nov 2006 : Column 79WH—continued

9.56 am

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on securing the debate. I am a co-chairman of CAABU along with the hon. Members for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) and for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) and I am delighted that CAABU facilitated the visit of the hon. Member for Edmonton.

I went to Lebanon slightly earlier, with the Conservative Middle East Council, and I disagree with almost none of the analysis that the hon. Gentleman has presented. I have to say, however, that it was rather easier going there as a member of the Conservative Middle East Council than as a supporter of the Government. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Prime Minister has an enormous amount of ground to make up in Lebanon, where he is seen as significantly responsible for the extension of the Israeli assault on the country.

Like the hon. Gentleman, however, I see some grounds for hope, despite all the awful stories coming out of Lebanon and Gaza and despite the seeming paralysis of the Syrian position. My instinct tells me that the Prime Minister is now investing considerable effort in the issue. Following the disasters of the recent few months, the situation is now potentially much more fluid than it has been for some time, although it could, of course, get much worse, rather than better.

I invite the Minister to comment on two things. One, about which I was concerned during my visit to Lebanon, is the role of UNIFIL. It seems to have a chapter 61/2 mandate for its deployment, and it is not clear quite how that will play out in its relations with Hezbollah. More serious, perhaps, is the prediction made to us by Robert Fisk—it comes with all the knowledge and authority that he brings to such matters, although he is not always right—that one potential threat to UNIFIL comes not from Hezbollah, but from Sunni militants. He said that we could expect UNIFIL to be attacked by Sunni militants in Lebanon. UNIFIL, I think, does not have a very clear mandate and that is a particular challenge for it; I should be grateful for the Minister’s view about how he sees things developing.

What is clear, however, is that both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine are now necessary players if we are to extricate ourselves in a positive
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fashion from the challenges faced by the region. Will the Minister ensure that channels are available and open to Hamas and Hezbollah to encourage them to take a statesmanlike and constructive role?

There are some good signs coming out of Gaza. The ceasefire in Gaza is very much to be welcomed. I particularly welcome the attitude of the Israeli Government in making certain allowance for the fact that there will be Palestinian rejectionists, determined, as Israeli rejectionists are, to avoid the possibility of a final settlement in the west bank and Gaza; those people exist in both communities. There appears to be some give by the Olmert Government, and a recognition of the reality that the Palestinian Authority are not in a position to bring all Palestinian violence against Israelis to a complete conclusion or full stop, with no violation of the ceasefire.

If the ceasefire is agreed by Hamas, Fatah and the other major elements of Palestinian representatives, it will not enjoy 100 per cent. support among the Palestinian population. We need to understand how radicalised that population has become. There will continue to be people around who take a fundamentalist position of total rejection of the existence of the state of Israel. When those people turn to violence, they will have to be policed by every responsible representative. The challenge is to police and control them; to expect 100 per cent. control is unreasonable and puts the whole peace process in the hands of rejectionists on both sides. That is not a position that Palestinian or Israeli representatives should be in if they are trying to pursue the interests of their entire communities.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on Syria. I see the Syrian Government, or regime, or however one wants to describe them, as stuck in a historical position as a nominally secular, socialist party—the Ba’ath party regime. They have faced down Islamic movements in the past 20 or 30 years, sometimes with extreme severity. There is potential, if we can find a way forward for the Government in Syria, for them to play a constructive role in finding a wider solution in the middle east and a way forward in the new politics of the middle east—perhaps as an ally—with liberal, secular, European values on the one hand, against fundamentalist Islamic values on the other. Somehow we need to find a way to extricate the Syrian Government from the necessity of using authoritarian measures to sustain themselves in office, and enable them to find a way of establishing institutions in Syria that will allow the people of Syria to become sovereign and make a choice about their future Governments.

That is extremely difficult, because in all likelihood if there were a popularly chosen Government in Syria, the first one would be formed by the Muslim Brotherhood and would be likely to be an Islamic Government. We must find a way to develop political processes—in Syria, in particular, but it applies to other Arab states as well—without arriving at the situation that came about in Iran, where there was an Islamic revolution that established a position in which people could not be candidates for office unless they supported an Islamic Government. That is not my idea of democracy. We must find a way to enable Syria to have institutions that will allow a change of Government to happen without its being the last election that ever takes place there.

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Dr. Howells: I know that the hon. Gentleman knows Syria well. Can he tell us whether he detects any appetite in the Syrian Government for developing institutions of that kind?

Mr. Blunt: Not at the moment. I think that the Syrian Government feel that they are fixed in position; they see the potential for the entire thing to collapse if they begin to release the controls that have kept them in office, under the President and his father. Of course, there are people in the regime, as there are in many other Governments in the region, including the state of Israel, whose actions in trying to sustain the interests of their Governments do not bear very much examination according to the standards by which we should expect our Government to proceed, and by which we hold them to account through the courts. That is part of the challenge facing us—to extract people from positions in which their record of behaviour does not bear examination. We need a form of truth and reconciliation process for all the different communities; there are many different communities in Lebanon, for example, with a record of the most brutal and violent internecine conflict. Looking back over a century, the record of those communities’ interaction is a tragic and ugly story.

Any attempt to use British influence to make progress means talking to all representative groups that have widespread support in their communities, even if we do not like their present politics and methods. The only way we can begin to pull standards forward is to engage with them. My instinct is that that is the position of the Prime Minister now, and it is a shame that it is happening at the end of his term of office, and that he is focusing on the issue when he is politically at his weakest. Indeed, that rather mirrors what seems to happen with American Administrations; Presidents at the end of their time in office always focus on the middle east as their authority and their ability to deliver wane.

I believe that there are signs of hope, but hope will come only if we can engage with elements that we see at the moment as radical and rejectionist. Where they enjoy significant support in their populations, we need to guide, coax and encourage them into a much more constructive path. I hope that our Government can play, and are playing, a role in that.

10.8 am

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on securing the debate. He and I, with my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) and for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) and the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) were in the delegation in Lebanon a couple of weeks ago. As chairman of the all-party group on Lebanon, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton was the de facto leader of the group, and he led us with good spirits through 15-hour days and the Beirut traffic, keeping our spirits up as far as was possible in the circumstances. I am also pleased to welcome my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East. Three times in the past 12 months I have come back from areas of conflict, and three times I have debated with him in this Chamber. It is a good relationship so far.

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Like my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, I was profoundly moved and distressed by the images that we saw in Beirut and the south of Lebanon. There is no doubt that the killing of the eight Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two on the Lebanese border was wholly unnecessary and wrong, and the kidnapping should be remedied as soon as possible. The same applies to what is happening in Gaza as well.

However, the way in which the Israelis responded to that situation, with the desolation and damage that we saw, was wholly disproportionate. We went to the village of Ait al-Chab, where virtually every house had been destroyed. According to Christian Aid, 54,000 homes were damaged or destroyed overall by Israeli attacks over 33 days, with 140 schools damaged. Why target schools? We visited a school for children with learning disabilities that was on a hill above the village. It had been bombed and destroyed, so 93 children from 23 different villages were being educated elsewhere, in just one room. We saw bridges that had been clinically taken out. Every single bridge on the motorway between Beirut and the south of the country had been taken out with precision bombing. We also saw places in Beirut where clinical attacks had removed blocks of flats with such precision as to leave scars like missing teeth in the fabric of the city.

As well as that, 1.2 million cluster bombs were used, as my hon. Friend said. We saw several of them first hand in olive groves, which has made it impossible for the harvest to be taken in this year and for people to get their businesses and livelihoods back together. Every day since the war ended, two people—mostly children—have died because of unexploded bombs. Those bombs have a 40 per cent. failure rate, which makes it inevitable that they will be dangerous and life threatening for a long time to come. Indeed, we were told that some of those munitions were already 30 years old. They were probably ex-Vietnam stock, and were rusted up and looked pretty lethal. The impact on us of what we saw will probably last a lifetime.

Perhaps the most moving moment for me was when my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury and I visited the site at Qana where a block of flats had, I think, been taken out on the last day of the war. Some 29 people were killed, 17 of whom were children. Completely fortuitously and unplanned, we met an elderly man who had lost his brother, his son and his daughter-in-law, and three grandsons in the destruction of those flats. As far as we knew, there was no military reason for taking out that building. It was miles from anywhere and was not even particularly close to the border. I do not think that a satisfactory explanation for such wanton and wholly disproportionate destruction can ever be given.

The good news is that there has been a cessation of hostilities since the middle of August—people were anxious that we regarded it as a cessation of hostilities, not as a ceasefire. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton said, there are still factors that bring into question whether a real ceasefire and withdrawal of forces is in operation. Those factors include the Shebaa farms and the over-flying—that is, the threatening use—of military aircraft, not to drop bombs, but simply to remind people of their presence and the nearby Israeli border. All those issues are yet to be resolved.

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I agree with the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on many things to do with the middle east. However, we had to wait 33 days for a ceasefire and, although I was one of those who called for early words from all sorts of sources to try to resolve the conflict, if words had been sufficient, I am sure that they would have been used. But words were never going to be sufficient, and it was always going to be more important to have a sustainable cessation of hostilities. That sustainability was always going to take longer to achieve than simply waving a magic wand. Therefore, although it is wholly regrettable that the war continued for 33 days, and although the Israelis could have stopped it at any time—having got compensation, as they saw it, for the attacks on their land—the fact that British people were at the United Nations, negotiating, talking and relating to other players in the field, and the fact that what has happened subsequently has proved to be 99.99 per cent. sustainable meant that it was worth going that extra mile and waiting those extra few days. Some of the politicians whom we met in Lebanon accepted that. They accepted that a worse solution would have been a ceasefire that broke down every few days.

There are legitimate political arguments taking place in Lebanon. Although I am no expert on it, Lebanon has an interesting constitution, because it maintains that there should be statutory representation at the highest level for the Christian, Sunni and Shi’ite communities. That is under attack now, partly because of the political ascendancy of Hezbollah, partly because of a strong feeling that the one-to-one-to-one relationship in the constitution is 50 years out of date, and partly because of controversies around issues such as the United Nations investigation into the Hariri assassination. Although all parties superficially supported the UN investigation, it is clear that the pro-Syrian ones perhaps did not have their hearts in it. Indeed, the day before we arrived, five members of the Lebanese Cabinet walked out, bringing about a political crisis that was being dealt with as we were there.

There have been other assassinations besides that of Hariri. We met the father of Mr. Tueni, who was killed a year ago, and there has been the killing of Gemayel since then. There has also been a rearrangement of some of the political alliances in Lebanon, with General Aoun’s party occupying a different position on the political spectrum than in the past.

There are 128 members of the Lebanese Parliament, of whom 14 are Hezbollah’s elected representatives. The view that Hezbollah politicians put forward within the democratic context must be acknowledged as a genuinely legitimate part of the Lebanese political spectrum. We met Hezbollah politicians who were committed to democracy and the parliamentary route, but who were nevertheless using the present lack of clarity in Lebanese politics precipitated by the war to push home what they saw as their political ascendancy. That has been caused by the feeling, particularly in the south of the country, that Hezbollah’s military wing successfully resisted the Israeli incursion—that is not my interpretation, but my feeling of what people were thinking in that part of the country. When an organisation such as Hezbollah is not only seen to be
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actively defending people’s interests and delivering aid to them—by providing cash directly to homeless families, for example—but seen to be a legitimate political force, that organisation will be in the ascendancy.

Putting the war aside for a moment, I am sure that the reason for Hezbollah’s ascendancy is exactly the reason Hamas was so successful in Palestine earlier in the year, as the hon. Member for Reigate said. The reason is to do with the effects on the economy, and therefore the self-confidence of the countries that are directly affected by the way in which Israel has undermined the operation of their economies. The Lebanese economy in the south of the country is non-existent in exactly the same way as the economy of the west bank is made non-functional by the network of roads, settlements, roadblocks and occupation there.

Lebanon is at a historic crossroads, as it has always been in 1,000 years of history. Its democratic tradition is under threat—it is certainly wobbly—and we need to support its democratic institutions such as its Parliament. We need to support its President, its Prime Minister and all those committed to the democratic way. We must ensure that they are not undermined by the threat of war and its effect on the economy, society and civilisation of Lebanon.

At present in Lebanon, there are 1.2 million unexploded cluster bombs, which threaten people’s lives daily, and 500,000 land mines, some of which have been there for more than 20 years. Such a country cannot function as we would hope and expect.

Mr. Shahid Malik (Dewsbury) (Lab): My hon. Friend rightly said that two or three children a day were dying as a result of cluster bombs. Does he agree that it would be helpful if the Israelis gave the grid maps for those bombs? That could save lives; the fact that the Israelis are not yet doing that is nothing short of shameful.

Tom Levitt: There are many ways in which Israel could help to correct the problems caused by the deliberate and direct military actions taken earlier this year, and it would be in its best political interest to be seen to be doing so. I am not sure how useful some of the information that my hon. Friend mentioned would be. I believe that some of it is available. When one cluster bomb dropped from an aeroplane explodes in the air, the 644 bomblets that come out can cover an area of 200 sq m. That means that specific grid references, although I am sure that they exist, are not necessarily that helpful.

Mr. Malik: My hon. Friend may recollect that the Mines Advisory Group, which works in Lebanon to deal with cluster bombs and wider mines issues, specifically said that the grids would help it do its very difficult job. The group anticipates that it would take 60 weeks. Given the feeling of the group, with its expertise, and the fact that up to three children a day are dying, our Government should push to save some of the lives that are being lost unnecessarily.

Tom Levitt: Everything that we can do on a diplomatic front, including trying to obtain such information, should be done. I am sure that my colleagues wish to pay tribute to the people whom we
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met from the British-led Mines Advisory Group for their incredible bravery and commitment. Indeed, I understand that since we came back, a member of the mines clearance teams has, for the first time, suffered a serious injury from a cluster bomb.

My hon. Friend rather anticipated the end of my speech. I simply reiterate that Lebanon has real issues. We need to play our part in addressing them and do what we can to address the whole middle east situation. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to involving Syria and Iran as we look for that regional solution. I am sure that Lebanon and the democratic forces there would want to participate in that—for the future not only of Lebanon, but of the whole middle east.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), I should remind her that I intend the winding-up speech to start at about half-past 10.

10.24 am

Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): Thank you for that reminder, Mr. Weir. I am conscious of that fact and shall keep to the brief few minutes available.

It is a pleasure to rejoin this debate, and I look forward to the contribution from the Front Bench. It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt). It is right that we should debate the use of cluster bombs. I hope that he accepts that the issue is as hotly debated in Israel as elsewhere; in fact, there is a parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of the conflict in the summer, and we await the outcome of that. The fact that a democracy in the middle east can have such a public, open inquiry when the issues surrounding it are full of such anguish, which has been described this morning, is testament to the quality of that democracy, which we should and must support.

The assassination of Pierre Gemayel on 21 November, only a week ago, has exacerbated the crisis in the region. It followed six resignations from the Lebanese Cabinet last month. If only one more Cabinet member goes, the Government will collapse and a new election will be forced.

I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on the timeliness of his debate. He urged us not to jump to conclusions about who was involved in the assassination. Many in Lebanon believe that Syria was involved, although obviously it has denied all involvement. However, it is important to remember that it was the fifth political assassination since the killing of Prime Minister Hariri in February 2005.

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