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29 Nov 2006 : Column 85WH—continued

The House of Commons Library, helpful as always, has provided a briefing note, which points out with historical accuracy that it was suspicion of Syrian involvement in the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri that increased pressure on Syria and forced it to withdraw from the Lebanon, leading to the recent period, in the months up to the summer, when we were able to have a degree of optimism for the future of Lebanon as tourism and the economy improved. However, we could be genuinely optimistic about the situation only if we ignored two things: first, the stockpiling of weapons by
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Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon and, secondly, the assassinations of politicians in the country.

The political unrest in the country follows Hezbollah’s demands, which we have been considering this morning, for a third of the Cabinet to be made up of either Hezbollah or Shi’a affiliates, which would give them the power of veto in the Government. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has threatened mass protests and efforts to topple the Government if his demands are not met.

Hezbollah continues to gain strength and rearm in southern Lebanon. The UNFIL commander, General Alain Pellegrini, has admitted to being unable to stop Hezbollah smuggling arms from Iran and Syria. UN resolution 1701 demands the disarmament of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, but the new powers mandated to UNFIL fall short of allowing it to use force to obstruct rearmament. We have the prospect, the potential danger, of conflict between the Israeli defence forces and the international forces of UNFIL if the Israelis attempt to secure their border. Recently, an overflying Israeli intelligence plane caused real concern and the French issued a warning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton is right: we should not conclude who was involved in the most recent event in Lebanon. However, there are certain truths that we can accept. We know that Hezbollah is funded by and its militia is trained and armed by Iran. If we conclude from the situation in Lebanon that the crisis has been brought about by foreign intervention—the presence of Israeli forces in the past and Syrian involvement—we must equally consider the involvement of Iran, how it is seeking to manipulate the situation and how it is using Hezbollah to attack the northern border of Israel.

I join my hon. Friends in welcoming the Prime Minister’s initiative. I agree that it is vital that we seek to build alliances across what are at present deep and critical divides between countries in the region, and anything that our Government can do to support the initiative is welcome. However, I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that the murderers of Lebanese politicians must be brought to account. All of us who love democracy must not stand by when democratically elected representatives in another country are assassinated.

10.30 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) for securing this debate. I share some history with him. In the 1997 general election, I was an unsuccessful candidate in Enfield, Southgate, a constituency that attracted a great deal of media attention. In the next-door constituency, the hon. Gentleman overturned the majority of his predecessor and was victorious, and I have followed his career closely ever since.

I am delighted that the Minister is in his place. In my experience, he always takes an interest in the debates and in his response tries to engage constructively with members of all parties. I shall speak briefly about the conflict in the summer, which has already been discussed by many hon. Members, and then make three points about the situation in Lebanon in the wake of it.

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On behalf of my party, I am unequivocal in my condemnation of the actions of Hezbollah in killing Israeli soldiers in advance of the conflict. As was mentioned earlier, Hezbollah also kidnapped soldiers. It is imperative that it releases them and recognises that that is a grossly inappropriate way to behave.

I also take the view that it was wrong for Hezbollah to launch rocket attacks on Israeli citizens from undercover positions within areas that are occupied by Lebanese civilians. That point has been made in this and previous debates by the right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy). Hezbollah’s approach is particularly cynical, and we ought to recognise it as wholly wrong.

Having said all that, and recognising that, in these debates, there are always caveats—I do not take the view that an entirely black-and-white analysis can be made of the situation in the middle east—I share the view represented by the word “disproportionate”, which is widely used to describe the Israeli response in the summer. Figures have been given in this and previous debates for the number of people who were killed and displaced, but it is particularly telling that so much damage was done by Israeli armed forces to the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon, which, inevitably, will take time to rebuild. The economic ambitions of the Lebanese people have been set back. In many cases—for example, bridges—it is obvious that major construction will be required. Such damage is an impediment to Lebanon’s progressing in the way we would all wish it to.

The use of cluster bombs was unnecessary in the circumstances. It has been mentioned that 90 per cent. of them were used in the last few days of the conflict. My party said recently that cluster bombs should not be used in any conflicts in future. The principle is an extension of the ban on land mines, as, obviously, the effect of cluster bombs on individuals is often as devastating.

I said that I would mention three features of the current situation in Lebanon, and I hope that the Minister will respond to them. First, I hope and believe that the British Government will continue robustly to support democracy, order, the rule of law and due process in Lebanon. That is an important principle for us, and it is an important rule of thumb for anybody who wants to make an objective assessment of how Lebanon can best progress. These issues are not always quite as simple and clear-cut as they may appear on first inspection. I believe that President Bush is meeting today with the King of Jordan, who is a politician for whom I have huge admiration, although he does not occupy his position as the result of any democratic process. In fact, strictly speaking, he is not even a clear-cut hereditary head of state. As I understand it, the King of Jordan is able to appoint or nominate his successor from among his offspring—it does not necessarily have to be the oldest son or child. None the less, he is an admirable figure in many ways. He has a constructive attitude towards engaging with countries in the middle east and also in the western world, although, as I said, he is not an elected politician. The basic principles of democracy that we wish to promote
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in Lebanon and the civic society that goes with them would be beneficial for the country.

My second point touches on one of the many tragedies of the conflict in the summer. This country and this Government must do everything possible to support ongoing rebuilding, economic restructuring and increased prosperity in Lebanon, as economic prosperity is always extremely helpful in underpinning any civic society. Lebanon had many bleak years when it fell behind where it might otherwise have been. Progress certainly was and is being made, and we do not wish it to be retarded by conflict.

I am aware that there is a great deal of claim and counter-claim in this area, but let me put my third point in these terms: it is not wise or appropriate for the Syrians to meddle in the affairs of the Lebanese. Any such involvement would represent a serious breach of the obligations of Security Council resolution 1701, which requires everyone to respect the territorial integrity and political independence of Lebanon. I hope that all of Lebanon’s neighbours will recognise the spirit of the resolution as well as the literal application.

The whole matter must be seen in the wider context of the middle east. I echo the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) that the rejectionists on all sides should not, in effect, have a veto on the process. Their views should not be taken to represent mainstream opinion on any side. It is interesting to note that the United States Administration have embarked on some fresh thinking about the middle east. I hope that support for the process in Lebanon and for a new chapter in middle eastern affairs will be advanced by fresh thinking in Washington and by the actions of the British Government in London.

10.38 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) and other colleagues who participated in the debate. As the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) pointed out, it went from a narrow perspective on Lebanon to consider the whole of the middle east.

May I begin by putting down a marker? I shall try to do it in the most non-partisan way, as I believe that the Minister may well agree, although he cannot say so. In the debate on the Queen’s Speech last week, the Foreign Secretary said that there had been many debates over the past year on the middle east. I want to put it on record that the overwhelming majority of debates held on the Floor of the House and in Westminster Hall, almost without exception, have come about as a consequence of hon. Members asking for them or Opposition parties calling for them and giving up their time, or because the Government were forced to come to the House to answer an urgent question. Given the seriousness of the situation in the middle east—I shall move on to that in a second—it is in the Government’s interest to table a debate in their time, without necessarily having a vote, on Government strategy on the middle east across the board.

My former pupil, King Abdullah of Jordan—it is not possible to have a better line than that—is among the many officer cadets who went through my hands.
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As I have said before, I have at one extreme one who is serving Her Majesty in jail, and at least one who has become a king. King Abdullah——I agree with the hon. Member for Taunton that he is a very shrewd man—said in a speech the other day that he feared that within the next few months we would see three civil wars in the middle east: one in Palestine, one in Lebanon and one in Iraq. I think that all hon. Members are only too conscious that there is a danger that a series of conflicts are about to morph into one major conflict that could break out in the middle east. The seriousness of the situation should not be underestimated and the challenges are enormous.

This is not necessarily an accurate analogy, but at times I despair that Lebanon, which has so much going for it in many respects—natural resources, an innovative population, a sophisticated society and, at its best, a society that is pluralistic, includes many ethnic groups and religions and has shown in periods of its history that it can work—is in danger of turning itself into the Weimar republic of the middle east, if it is not already in that position. I use that example because it shows a democracy that is slowly being destroyed by political groupings that participate in that democracy but have paramilitary forces that resort to violence and assassination and will use parliamentary democracy ultimately to destroy that state.

We know what we are talking about. It is the fear of any secular Muslim in the middle east and elsewhere; there is an undoubted aim to establish an Islamic fundamentalist state in Lebanon, and not only in Lebanon but in Iraq, Egypt and elsewhere. That is not in the interests not only of the millions of Arabs who are domiciled in the middle east but of those of the Islamic faith elsewhere in the world. That is the challenge for us all. I do not have an easy answer for how to cope with political parties that participate in the parliamentary process but, at the same time, have armed militias and are prepared to assassinate. That will be the challenge not only for our Government but for the American Government as well. We should try to work out what we should not do as much as what we should.

I want, too, to emphasise the fact that there are no quick fixes. I do not think that any hon. Members have suggested that. The idea that the President of the United States of America, our Prime Minister and others could have come up with a quick fix this summer is from cloud cuckoo land. Also from cloud cuckoo land is the idea that within the next couple of months, as we wait for the Iraq study group to report, it will somehow come up with a single brilliant answer that will resolve the situation in Iraq. Frankly, when this morning’s sitting is over, I would be happy to buy all my colleagues who are in the Chamber a cup of coffee and give them all half an hour and a sheet of paper to come up with some suggestions, and they will more or less mirror whatever the Iraq study group comes up with. I do not say that in a light-hearted way, but we end up building false hope. We are going to be in for the long haul.

In terms of the debate that we have had so far, I agree that much of the problem in Lebanon has been caused by external forces, whether they are Israel, Syria, Iranian support for Hezbollah or the failures of the so-called great powers in one way or another. However, in many respects, part of the solution is in the
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hands of the people living in Lebanon. There is always the danger when one goes to the middle east and talks to the people that the excuse is that it is somebody else’s fault. That is partly true, and by expecting the international community and individual countries to bail them out they may put off the evil day, but much of the solution is in their hands.

I believe that what our Government do and can do over the next few months will be important. There will be no quick fixes. I think that the Prime Minister is genuine in what he wants to do in the middle east. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), I suspect, sadly, that, because the Prime Minister has announced that he is going, with the best will in the world his influence will obviously be less than we would hope for a British Prime Minister. The one thought that allows me some optimism—sadly we are about to go through a period of great change—is that realism has broken out in Washington and we are about to see a reversion to a more sophisticated approach not only to the middle east but to the kinds of things that the US Government might do to use something other than fairly blunt instruments.

It is easy to load a lot of the blame for the situation in Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority on the Israeli Government. There is no doubt that the Israeli Government have made serious errors, but I want to conclude by saying two things about Israel. First, despite its many faults, it is a democracy in an area where there are few democracies. It is possible to criticise the Israeli Government and go into opposition. Secondly, it would be unwise to underestimate the ability of the Israeli Government to respond after a recent operational defeat, which Lebanon undoubtedly was. We need Israel to participate fully in any wider middle east peace settlement. Without the Israelis, there will be no peace.

10.47 am

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) on giving us the opportunity to discuss this vital and timely subject. I am sure that everybody in the Chamber will agree that my hon. Friend has painted for us a vivid picture of a country that has experienced several recent catastrophes and is staring another right in the eye. His report to this House on his recent visit and the way in which he shared with us his analysis of the continuing political crisis in Lebanon is, I am sure, something that we all value. We value, too, the insights given to us this morning by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), who knows the territory well, and the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who gave us the benefit of his insight into the situation and, I was glad to hear, the prospects for the future in Syria. I always assume that an hour and a half will give us lots of time, but my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) and for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) and the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who always brings refreshing insight to these debates, have not had an opportunity to contribute. I hope that they will in the future.

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The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) gave us the benefit of his insights, and I think that they are wise. I enjoyed his speech very much, although some of it was chilling. His analogy with Weimar Germany is one that we have to think hard about. It is one of those conundrums right at the heart of the principle of democracy that we believe in. I know that he has taken part in discussions in Egypt and many other countries where people have said, “We are in favour of democracy, but what about when the Muslim brotherhood wins its majority?” In Algeria, there were 160,000 deaths during the 1990s as a consequence of one country trying to come to terms with that conundrum.

The international community’s response to the humanitarian crisis in the wake of the July 2006 conflict was rapid, and complete disaster on this occasion was probably averted. But, as we have heard from hon. Members, there were many thousands of personal and communal disasters. Life is still extremely hard for many Lebanese who have been left homeless by the destruction. Reconstruction and economic recovery is a pressing need and the international community’s response to that has been impressive, with pledges from donors totalling $940 million—far exceeding the Government of Lebanon’s initial request for $530 million. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton, that is far short of the $4 billion or $5 billion that is probably required to rebuild Lebanon.

The Lebanese will not relish it, but as a measure of the catastrophe that has hit them, statistics show that per capita it is now the most subsidised place on the face of the earth and that it has overtaken Palestine. It says something about the nature of conflicts in the middle east that, despite the huge amount of money pouring in, the catastrophe continues. The need for international involvement also continues and one hopes that, as the hon. Gentleman told us, the Lebanese will be able to take care of their own business.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said, all too often the sovereign territory of Lebanon has been used by others to fight wars by proxy. She made a plea, as did the hon. Gentleman, for people to stop meddling in the affairs of Lebanon, whether that is an appalling sequence of political assassinations or an attempt by some countries, and the blame is shared by all sides, to try to cling to power and influence.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development attended the international conference in Stockholm on 31 August to consider Lebanon's early recovery plan. A further conference is planned in Paris in January. We welcome the Lebanese Government’s initiative in seeking to maintain momentum on Lebanon's longer-term needs, and also welcome President Chirac’s willingness to host that important event.

For reconstruction and economic recovery to proceed effectively, stability is the key requirement. The United Nations Security Council resolution 1701 of 11 August, which established the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah, provides a sound basis for stability. I thought the description provided by the hon.
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Member for Reigate of the mandate as chapter 61/2 was a very good one—I could not think of a better description myself.

The ceasefire, at least until this morning, continues to hold, apart from an occupation in part of the Lebanese town of Ghajar through which the blue line runs. As my hon. Friend said, Israeli forces have withdrawn from Lebanon and the Lebanese armed forces are deployed across the country—including the south where they have not ventured for many years. The expansion of UNIFIL has proceeded well and nearly 10,000 military personnel are now deployed on land and sea in support of the Lebanese authorities and Security Council resolution 1701. I am sure that hon. Members will have been as shocked as I was to hear the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend that the money and resources set aside for reconstruction may not have been deployed properly in the south. That is an extremely important observation and is something I will undertake to gather more intelligence on so that I can tell my hon. Friend what we know.

As well as paying our full share of the United Nations operation, the UK committed HMS York in support of initial efforts to secure the maritime borders. HMS York has been re-deployed as the full UN maritime operation, led by Germany, and that came into effect in mid-October. The Lebanese security sector—the armed forces and internal agencies—needs assistance to exert the Government's authority effectively. The UK has been playing its part here too. We have allocated £2.5 million to support the security sector and the provision of vehicles to the armed forces to assist with mobility is under way. We are discussing with the Lebanese authorities what training needs we might be able to meet, and we are also working closely with other donors to try to ensure a co-ordinated and effective response to Lebanese needs.

Richard Burden: There is never enough time in these debates to cover everything, but before the Minister finishes, could he perhaps address the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) made about the Shebaa farms? Given the centrality of that issue to a long-term settlement in that part of the world, what are the Government doing to move that issue forward?

Dr. Howells: I am very glad to respond to that because when I was in Beirut in the middle of the bombardment Prime Minister Siniora stressed to me that the Shebaa farms were, in many ways, the most potent motivation expressed by Hezbollah. He said, “Sort that out and a big weapon will be taken away from them.” I do not know if that is true or the effect that Shebaa farms has on Hezbollah. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk hinted, Hezbollah has a much wider agenda than that, but the problem of the Shebaa farms does not help and there is no question about that. We have pressed the United Nations to ensure that the right resources are allocated to delineate those borders properly in order to prevent an argument between Syria and Lebanon about how the Shebaa farms situation should be resolved.

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