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27 Jun 2007 : Column 77WH—continued

9.56 am

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) on securing the debate. For once, I find myself in total agreement with what he says. It is a unique occasion. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), because I agree with him, as I have on other occasions. I also agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) said.

I have the honour of representing the constituency with the largest Jewish population of any in the country, and the matter is of great concern to them. The fat file in front of me contains just some of the correspondence that I have received on the issue from my constituents. Indeed, it was one of the first issues that was raised with me after I was elected. I see from my file that within weeks of the 1997 election I was receiving correspondence on the matter and took it up with the late Derek Fatchett, who was the Minister responsible in the summer of 1997.

As far as I can see, the Government have engaged with the issue from the very beginning. Derek Fatchett told me that he had participated in a link-up with members of the Knesset on 20 May to mark Ron Arad’s 40th birthday and raised the issue on his visit to Damascus on 28 May, within a month of the 1997 election. It is important to recognise that while the debate has focused on the recent hostages, some people have been missing for well over 20 years with no information about their fate. Derek Fatchett wrote to me in February 1998 to say that he had met the families of some of those people when he visited Israel a few weeks earlier.

On the first day after the 2001 election I tabled parliamentary questions on the matter. By then, of course, we were trying to track down information on other hostages. In March 2002 we had a debate on the 500th day that Elchanan Tenenboim had been held by Hezbollah, and we should not forget his name or what happened to him and the others kidnapped at that time.

So it went on. Throughout the years we have had debates and parliamentary questions on the issue. I have raised it with a succession of Ministers: the late Derek Fatchett, as I have mentioned; Brian Wilson, when he was the Minister responsible; my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O’Brien), and of course I and many others have raised it with the present incumbent. When
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President Bashar al-Assad visited the UK soon after he took office, it was raised with him by the Government. Unfortunately, that has all been to no avail. As has been said, we have had no information to speak of about any of the people involved, going back well over 20 years. It is important to recognise that some kidnappings go way back, not just to Ron Arad but before. Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz have been missing since 1982, 25 years ago. So I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some comfort that pressure is being put on not just Hezbollah and Hamas, with whom we may have little influence, but on other Governments in the area, particularly Syria and Iran.

Mr. Gale, you will know from your own work on Cyprus how distressing it is for relatives simply not to know the fate of people who are missing. In Cyprus, the situation has gone on for longer and a greater number of people have been involved, but the pain of Israeli families is no less than that of those who suffered in Cyprus. Since I was elected 10 years ago, I have met various relatives and families on many occasions. Their pain does not lessen with the length of time that they have waited for news. In fact, if anything, it gets worse.

What is absolutely cruel about the situation is the lack of information. It may well be that some of those who are missing—some for up to 25 years—are dead, but the relatives should at least be told that that is the case: give them closure. The lack of information is the worst part of all of this—the cruellest thing. Hezbollah knows what has happened to those people, and the Iranians probably know as well, yet they are using the lack of information about what has happened to loved ones as a weapon of terror, not against Israel, although the whole of Israel sympathises with the families, but against individual mothers, fathers and siblings. To focus the problems of the middle east on a small handful of people is utterly cruel, inhumane and wrong. If Hezbollah has a conscience—I very much doubt that it does—it ought to reflect on that fact.

As has been said, Israel has a large number of Palestinians in detention for whatever reason, and we can argue about the rights and wrongs of that, but at least the prisoners’ relatives know what has happened to them. They know that they are safe, and that they are being looked after and fed. The relatives are not subject to a lack of information about what is happening.

There is no doubt that this is hostage taking—there is no question about that. Hostage taking is a feature of modern conflict, but this is hostage taking of the worst kind. Alan Johnston is very much in the news. The BBC—quite rightly, as he is a BBC employee—nearly every day and certainly every week runs stories about the efforts being made by our Government, the BBC and non-governmental organisations to free him. We do not hear every day or every week about the fate of the missing Israeli service personnel. I suspect that our media have quietly forgotten about them, but they have not been forgotten in Israel or in my constituency, and they certainly have not been forgotten by their families.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what efforts we are making at least to get some news of what is happening to these individuals, even if we cannot secure their release, which obviously we would want to
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do. When I met the Prime Minister last autumn, he was optimistic that we might at least be able to make some progress in respect of Corporal Shalit. Unfortunately, those efforts seem to have run into the sand. Let us hope that now, after what has been happening in Gaza, we will see some progress in his case. I very much hope that intervention by other states such as Egypt will result in progress being made, but something must be done to give closure, comfort and hope to the families.

10.3 am

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for securing this debate.

I would like to offer my thanks to the Minister, because I know from public and private meetings that he is indeed doing everything that he can to secure the release of the hostages. Following a question that I put to the Prime Minister, I know that he, too, is doing that. Indeed, if the rumours are correct and his new job will be middle east peace envoy, I wish him every success in that venture.

More than one third of the electorate in my constituency are Jewish. In fact, I thought that I had the largest number of Jewish constituents, but that is for another day.

Mr. Dismore: I do, according to the census.

Mr. Scott: We must have looked at different censuses.

I would like to associate myself with some of the words spoken by my friend, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman). We must consider the situation from several different angles. The conflict last year did not start because hostages were taken. It started because terrorists were firing rockets into Israel on a daily basis, harming and killing civilians, and any Prime Minister of any country is duty bound to protect his citizens. The hostage taking was coupled with that.

I reiterate that I do not accept any comparison between prisoners in Israeli jails and the hostages. Israel has never released videos like the one that the terrorists released of Alan Johnston with bombs attached to his waist. There is no comparison, and we should not allow any comparison to be made. No sane-minded person wants war, but unfortunately we are dealing with a situation—I have said this quite recently—that involves Hamas, which has shown in recent weeks by staging a coup d’état that it is and always has been a terrorist organisation. Likewise, Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation. It has no regard for human life, whether it be Jewish, Palestinian or any other. In recent weeks, it has killed its own people.

Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and Gilad Shalit have been held hostage for nearly a year. We heard an audio tape this week on which Gilad Shalit asked for medical attention. The distress to their families and to anyone who knows them is apparent. I, too, visited Israel recently. Although I was on a private visit, I joined colleagues on some parts of their visit. We met Members of the Israeli Parliament from all spheres, including Arab Members. All that I heard was that if there is to be any gesture, sign or route to peace, hostage taking must stop, and the Israeli hostages—not just the three I mentioned but going right back to Ron
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Arad—must be released, or at the least their families must be told whether they are still alive.

The situation is intolerable, and no family should be put through it. The only thing I can say to the Minister is that I appreciate the efforts that he has made but I ask that they be redoubled, and perhaps involve other countries, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) said. We must try to secure the release of the hostages for everyone’s sake.

The situation is no different from when our naval personnel were taken hostage by Iran a few weeks ago. Iran and Syria have questions to answer in that regard. If they want to be better thought of by the world, perhaps they should press for the release of the Israeli hostages. I hope and believe that everyone in the House prays for the safe return of the hostages.

10.7 am

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I, too, join in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for securing this debate. We might have been expected to seek a debate to draw attention to the situation of Alan Johnston. Indeed, my hon. Friend took particular care to mention his abduction on 12 March—more than 100 days ago—by the Army of Islam, and an enormous amount of attention has rightly been focused on his continuing captivity. The video that we were subjected to two days ago was a particularly grotesque example of what other hon. Members have described as the cruelty of such abductions.

There is a double crime in abducting a journalist. First, abducting anyone in this manner and holding them must be wrong, but to do that to the BBC’s Gaza correspondent—a journalist who works for an organisation that is committed to reporting impartially the events in the middle east—challenges the essential importance of the freedom of the press, and severely undermines the Palestinian cause. It is not surprising that journalistic organisations from around the world have united in condemning the abduction and mistreatment of Mr. Johnston.

This debate was called because the abductions of the three Israeli soldiers have not commanded the continuing attention in this country that the fate of Mr. Johnston has. That is partly because the time period has been longer. The three soldiers were abducted nearly a year ago—in fact, in Gilad Shalit’s case, over a year ago. I joined my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire on a visit to Israel about a month ago and, like him, I met the parents of the abducted soldiers. I was struck by the fact that as time has moved on in this country the attention given to their plight has inevitably faded away. That is why it is so important that hon. Members discuss these issues and why I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate.

It could be argued that soldiers are in a different position from journalists, who seek to report news impartially in a country, or from other civilians, and that they are legitimate casualties of conflict. I believe that that is entirely wrong and that abducting people in such a manner involves a special kind of cruelty. Throughout the history of conflict in the middle east there has been enormous loss of life and suffering on
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both sides—no one can deny that—but to remove soldiers or any individual in such a manner, not to inform their parents or relatives about what has happened to them, and to hold the families in a state where they simply do not know whether their sons are alive or dead, involves a special kind of cruelty. Indeed, in a sense, it is a form of torture.

It was immensely moving to meet the parents involved and to be reminded that the parents of two of these young men still do not know whether they are alive or dead. We now have information about the fate of Gilad Shalit and know that he is alive, but we should remind ourselves that this young man is only 20 years old. The anguish of those parents was particularly difficult to confront.

Mrs. Ellman: Does the hon. Gentleman recall the case of Yossi Fink? He was the son of British citizens who lived in Israel—his parents still live in Israel—and was abducted across the Lebanese border some years ago. Nothing was heard about him until eventually, sadly, his remains were returned to his parents many years after he had been kidnapped. The grief of his parents is still paramount.

Nick Herbert: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me of that. As has been mentioned, we should not forget that many other Israeli soldiers have also been abducted and their fates are still not known.

I particularly disagree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) who has now left the Chamber. He intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire to suggest that the release of Palestinian prisoners held by the Israeli Government would in some way help to secure some forward momentum in the stalled peace process. I utterly reject what seems to me to be the sentiment behind his intervention, which suggested some kind of moral equivalence between what has happened to these Israeli soldiers and the people who are being held by the Israeli Government. These soldiers are being held contrary to the principles of international law, no access has been granted to them—the Red Cross and other international organisations have not been allowed to see them—and the UN has explicitly condemned the action. Those who suggest that there is some kind of moral equivalence are as wrong-headed as those who, for example, believe that Hamas should be rewarded for its recent seizure of positions in Gaza with immediate recognition by the west. Those are precisely the wrong conclusions to draw from such terrorist acts. In the words of Henry V, we must continue to emphasise that the abduction of soldiers in such a manner is

We should not resile from that position.

During our visit to Israel—where we met not just Israeli members of Parliament but the chief negotiator for the PLO—I was struck by the extent to which there is a remarkable consensus of support building up among Israeli politicians and opinion formers for a two-state solution, and a desire to find a partner for peace. What is worrying is that the long dispute that we are all witnessing seems to have moved away from just a
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dispute over territory to a dispute over ideology. We must understand that some of the groups that lie behind these abductions do not have any desire to settle for territory but are pursuing an ideological war. Those groups must be dealt with accordingly.

This week it is fashionable to talk about red lines, but the one fundamental red line that we in the west and people in any part of the world who subscribe to democratic values should draw, is that terrorism will not stand. The manner of the abduction of Alan Johnston and of these three soldiers will not stand. I understand that that attitude may make negotiations difficult and raise all sorts of questions about the extent to which the Government can legitimately get involved in essential negotiations, particularly through third parties. Nevertheless, it is important that we in the House stand united and say that whoever the people concerned are—whether they are soldiers or journalists—it is totally unacceptable to remove them forcibly, deny them access to humanitarian organisations, refuse to answer questions about their welfare, parade them in front of the media in the way that has happened with Alan Johnston, and use them for the purposes of promoting terrorism.

10.18 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I thank the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for calling this important debate, which is particularly important in the context of recent events in the Gaza strip. I welcome the opportunity to discuss efforts to secure the release of the captured Israeli soldiers and the aftermath of events surrounding those captures. I wish to put it on the record that, as have other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the courage of Alan Johnston, the captured BBC journalist, and that the bravery of our correspondents abroad should never be forgotten by the House. I am sure that the Minister will want to bring us up to speed on efforts to secure his release.

Hon. Members will understand, however, why I want to concentrate on the subject of debate, which is the abduction of the soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser by Hezbollah, and of Corporal Gilad Shalit by the Popular Resistance Committee, which includes members of Fatah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Of course, that is totally unacceptable and in breach of international law. The seizure of those men, of course, is condemned by all parties in this House and by other national Governments and international organisations. We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of those men and call on all parties to abide by UN Security Council resolution 1701.

I was struck by the comments of hon. and right hon. Members so far that it is impossible for Members of this House to place themselves in that situation and to imagine the mental and physical strain of being held in captivity without any indication from the captors of when one might be released. I am sure that it goes without saying that we hope that the captives are being well treated and respected by their kidnappers, and of course our hearts go out to them and their families as international efforts to secure their release continue.

We must remember, however, that those Israeli soldiers are not the only individuals being held captive as part of continuing hostilities. It has to be said that Israel itself
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continues to detain a number of elected representatives of the Palestinian people. As democratically elected individuals, whatever we might think of their politics, they have a role in the efforts to find peace. I would therefore support pressure being put on Israel to set in motion negotiations for their release.

Mrs. Ellman: I listened carefully to the point that the hon. Gentleman just made about Israelis taking prisoners and putting them in jail. Is he making an equivalent to the abduction of soldiers, such as those being discussed this morning?

Mark Hunter: No, of course not. I am simply saying that this debate is not best served by pretending that the wrong lies entirely with one side. I think that other Members have accepted already that activities have been undertaken by both sides of this complex conflict that, quite frankly, have done neither of them any credit. In what I hope is a sensible and constructive debate, it would be wrong not to allude to the fact that some people feel equally passionately on the other side of the argument. If I have the opportunity to develop my argument, it will become a little clearer in a moment or two.

Mr. Scott: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a very big difference between the taking of hostages, and people being held where their families can visit them, being fed, not being harmed and not being in distress—such as that caused by having suicide bombs attached to their waist and being paraded on television?

Mark Hunter: Of course I do. The debate is specifically about the three Israeli soldiers, as the Order Paper shows clearly. Although I think that it is right, as I said, to refer to the situation affecting the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, I am certainly not planning in the short time that I have available to concentrate more on that than on the subject raised by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire—that of the Israeli soldiers. However, of course I accept that difference, and I think that I have explained the context in which I made my earlier point.

I want to mention the Egyptians. The Egyptian Government have been working to negotiate the release of Corporal Shalit and in late October of last year the Popular Resistance Committee announced that an agreement for prisoner exchange had been reached, under which Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, including women and children, will be released in stages, and Israeli soldiers handed over to the Egyptians. In fact, in December, Egypt’s President Mubarak declared that a deal was in its final stages. Reports now state that the names of specific prisoners to be swapped are yet to be finalised. I should be grateful if the Minister would inform the Chamber on how those Egyptian-led negotiations are progressing and perhaps on what the UK Government are doing to facilitate those negotiations.

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