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27 Jun 2007 : Column 83WH—continued

Not surprisingly, there is considerable debate about the current situation in the Gaza strip and the resulting increased levels of tension, which make the ongoing negotiations for prisoner exchange even more difficult than they might have been. I ask also that the Minister
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gives us his Department’s up-to-date assessment of how the current situation in the Gaza strip affects the chances of Corporal Shalit being released in the near future.

In answer to a parliamentary question from Lord Turnberg in March of this year, Lord Triesman mentioned an unnamed facilitator working with all parties to secure the release of the two Israeli soldiers being held by Hezbollah. That facilitator was mentioned also in the UN Secretary-General’s report on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1701 in March 2007. I should be grateful if the Minister would advise the Chamber on what, if any, progress the facilitator has made and on what the UK Government are doing to help.

The report on Security Council resolution 1701 stated also that Hezbollah were not only stalling the release of prisoners but placing

In December 2006, The Independent reported that at least one of the Israeli soldiers had been injured during the cross-border attack on 12 July, but Hezbollah have refused to allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross or to the UN facilitator. It seems to me that the refusal of that basic humanitarian act by Hezbollah stands in marked contrast to the stance of Israel, which has allowed the Red Cross access to Lebanese citizens captured by the Israeli defence force and authorised that prisoners be allowed to write to their families. As other hon. Members have said, that makes a significant difference to the treatment of the respective captives. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell the Chamber whether any negotiations are taking place to encourage Hezbollah to allow the UN facilitator and the Red Cross access to the imprisoned Israeli soldiers, and whether he can report on any progress in those negotiations.

In addition to calling for the release of the captive soldiers, Security Council resolution 1701 calls for the disarming of militant groups such as Hezbollah. I understand that the stand-off in the refugee camp of Nahr El Bared between the Lebanese Government and the Fatah rebels continues. Although we respect the work of the Lebanese Government and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon to disarm militias, we of course join international aid agencies in calling for a temporary ceasefire so that civilians and those who are wounded can be evacuated from the camp.

With regard to the disarming of militias, the UN Secretary-General, in the report on resolution 1701, stated that he is still waiting for the Lebanese Government to define a political process by which Hezbollah and other militias should be disarmed. Perhaps the Minister would inform us whether, during recent discussions with the Lebanese Government, that issue was raised, and whether they are close to creating such a political process. Will he also give us his assessment of how the disarming of militias in Lebanon is progressing?

The Minister for Trade, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), in answer to a question on 5 July last year, stated:

However, for many Members on both sides of the House, it is a matter of great regret that, during the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last summer, the Government refused to join other European countries in calling for a ceasefire. In the light of the tragic loss of life and property that ensued, does the Minister still believe that military action was an appropriate step to take last summer? Does he agree that any attempts to free Israeli soldiers now should be made through wholly diplomatic and peaceful means, not through the use of force?

I sincerely hope that all three Israeli soldiers return safely in the near future and that the militant groups that abducted them are disbanded. The Government need to ensure that, through the UN and the EU, we play an active role in encouraging engagement between Israel and Palestine, because unless they continue talking, a peace settlement will be impossible. I look forward to the Minister’s reassurance that the Government will continue to do all that they can to secure the release of those prisoners and to work for a lasting peace in the middle east.

10.30 am

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am grateful to have caught your eye in this important debate, Mr. Gale. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for securing it and giving us the benefit of the first-hand knowledge that he and a number of my other hon. Friends have acquired from recent visits to Israel. In particular, they were able to meet and have discussions with the families of two of the kidnap victims and they have described poignantly the extreme anguish and hurt that their families are suffering. We urge all those close to Hezbollah and Hamas, which may be holding the three hostages and, indeed, Alan Johnston, to release them as quickly as possible. Many hon. Members have said that what is needed is at least some news of those four victims. It would provide huge reassurance if their families could be told that they are alive and well and being treated well. That would be a great step forward, and I urge all those holding them to do just that.

I am filling in for my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who, sadly, cannot be here today, although he normally deals with middle eastern affairs for the Opposition. The situation that we are discussing is particularly complicated, and this debate has been wholly constructive and almost completely unpartisan. The work of the House is often not viewed in that positive spirit.

We have repeatedly called for the release of the four hostages. I welcome the Minister’s statement in a press release of 25 June, remembering Gilad Shalit’s captivity. I join him when he states:

We would all totally agree with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) rightly said that kidnapping is beyond all the norms of international behaviour—all the norms that we would expect of a civilised society and under international law. We ourselves have taken prisoners in war situations, but we always treated them in accordance with the Geneva convention, and I urge all parties holding these people to do the same.

We deeply regret the recent attack on UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon, which killed six Spanish and Colombian soldiers. The attack underlines the difficulty and danger of the work undertaken by UNIFIL—the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. We must do everything that we can to ensure that Lebanon remains as stable as possible. We call on all parties to abide by UN Security Council resolution 1701, which, among other things, refers to

That refers to Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. We must give every possible encouragement to the Siniora Government to try to ensure that Lebanon remains as stable as possible.

In relation to all four cases, the Opposition urge the Government—perhaps the Minister is prepared to say something about this today—to keep all channels of communication open to all the parties. Those channels may be official or unofficial. We always did that in Northern Ireland and it produced results. Will the Minister say something about that? My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) made the particularly important point that Turkey has a role to play. Indeed, any other countries that may be interlocutors should also be involved in the process.

Hezbollah appears to have increased its activity recently, particularly after the soldiers were kidnapped. We have seen the disturbing rise of Islamic militantism in Lebanon in the form of the Fatah al-Islam group. What efforts has the Minister made, along with colleagues in government and our American allies and EU partners, to secure the release of Israeli soldiers held captive by Hezbollah, and for the full implementation of resolution 1701? In particular, what impact have UK efforts to rebuild Lebanese security forces had on their capability to keep order in that country, enforce resolution 1701 and uphold the authority of the Lebanese Government?

There are disturbing reports that Hezbollah is succeeding in rearming by way of shipments from Iran over Syrian territory. That is in direct contravention of resolution 1701, which both Iran and Syria signed. What is the Government’s latest assessment of Hezbollah’s military capability and what action is being taken to secure Lebanon’s border with Syria? What progress has been made in Government efforts, beginning with the visit by the Prime Minister’s envoy to Syria last year, to persuade the Syrian Government to clamp down on such activity? Will the British
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Government make further contact at a high level with the Syrian authorities? What representations has the Minister made to our EU partners about the kidnapped soldiers and what action is the EU taking to secure their release?

The Opposition’s view is that, to achieve real results and the release of the kidnap victims, we should open up all channels. I have asked the Minister a complex series of questions in that respect. We should also, as part of our complex relationship with Iran, bring pressure to bear on Iranian financial support for Hamas, which was estimated last year at a staggering $250 million. Indeed, former Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar was quoted telling a German news magazine that he had personally carried $42 million in cash from Iran across the Gaza-Egypt border—thereby increasing the instability in the area.

The Opposition support the Government’s efforts to ensure that the Sharm el Sheikh summit this week involving Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Mahmoud Abbas and leaders from the Palestinian Authority brings about a further settlement and, in particular, the release of the kidnap victims. What action have the Government taken to prevent further divisions between the differing groups in the Palestinian Authority?

The Opposition warmly welcome—if it is to happen—the Prime Minister’s appointment as an envoy to try to bring about further stability in the middle east. That is obviously critical. If the appointment comes about, we wish him well.

This debate has been very constructive. I hope that, in the very, very near future, the kidnap victims will be released. The Opposition call wholeheartedly for all those who have information that could in any way lead to their release to come forward and act now with the authorities to secure their release and stop the ongoing anguish of the families.

10.38 am

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I join hon. Members who have thanked the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for the opportunity to discuss this extremely important issue. He described vividly what happened in this troubled region a year ago and what continues to happen now. I also echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) in reminding us that that is one of the most important functions of these debates. Hon. Members have given eye-witness accounts and related to us accounts of discussions with people who are suffering and witnessing day to day the dreadful problems. The House should regard that as extremely valuable. I have enjoyed listening to hon. Members’ observations and I was struck by how important they are. The hon. Member for Cotswold is right that we as Front Benchers, and indeed the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), often do not get a chance to speak to people in that way, and I would like to have more systematic reports back from the many trips that right hon. and hon. Members make. That is very important.

The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire described how Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit remains in captivity a year on from his abduction by Palestinian armed factions on 25 June 2006. Similarly, the fate of
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Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were captured by Hezbollah on 12 July 2006, remains unknown. The hon. Gentleman and colleagues met the families of some of those soldiers in Israel, and I extend the Government’s sympathy to them—our thoughts are with them at what must be a particularly difficult time. I also condemn Monday’s release of an audio tape of Gilad Shalit, which can only add to his family’s distress.

We have heard about many of the other grave issues. We know all too well of the litany of appalling incidents that have occurred in the region—Palestinians being held without charge, houses being demolished, rockets being fired at civilians and intimidating overflights. We also heard specifically about the kidnappings and their terrible consequences not only for those who are kidnapped, but for their families, who are denied any knowledge of the welfare of their loved ones. Kidnapping is a vile crime, as Alan Johnston’s family and friends will testify all too readily.

The Government utterly condemn the abduction of the three Israeli soldiers, and I take this opportunity to reiterate our call for their immediate and unconditional release. I fully underline my support for the efforts of those who have been working hard to secure the soldiers’ release, and particularly the UN. Acts such as these kidnappings are counter-productive wherever they occur, and drive a cycle of violence and retribution. This is a particularly difficult time in the middle east, and abductions serve only further to increase the tension and to frustrate efforts to promote peace and stability in the region through dialogue.

I am glad that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire raised the case of Alan Johnston, and many hon. Members have asked exactly what is going on. I would very much like to be able to tell everyone about the efforts that are being made, but much of what is being done must remain confidential. I can say, however, that the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli authorities have worked closely with our superb diplomatic representatives in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, our contacts in Ramallah and the Egyptians, who have played an important role in trying to secure Alan Johnston’s release, and I shall try to say a little more about that in a moment or two.

We especially condemn the release of Monday’s video, which can only add to the distress of Alan Johnston’s family and friends. Those holding Alan should release him. I cannot remember which of our colleagues said a moment ago that Alan has been a very fine reporter, and he certainly has. I find his kidnapping particularly perplexing because the Palestinian people cannot have had anybody who reported on events in such a vivid and clear way. Hamas is a repulsive organisation—a very nasty bunch of people—but even it recognises that Alan Johnston’s kidnapping sets the Palestinian people’s cause back considerably.

We understand some of the problems that beset the region, and they are not just ideological or religious; there is also that cloud of criminality. I saw that clearly in Belfast—not so far from home—where terrorist organisations began funding themselves through drugs, smuggling petrol, protection rackets and kidnapping. The members of the clan that is holding Alan Johnston
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are well known as guns for hire and kidnappers, and they have a nice little sideline in kidnapping. These are terrible people, and this is a terrible crime, and we are working hard to secure the release of Alan Johnston.

Let me now address the substantive part of the debate and answer some of the questions that have been raised about the soldiers who were abducted in Gaza and, separately, in northern Israel. Let me start with those who were abducted by Hezbollah in northern Israel. Securing the release of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev remains a high priority for the United Kingdom and the international community. Since they were captured last summer, we have called consistently for their unconditional and immediate release and we have strongly supported international efforts aimed at securing it.

As part of the mandate set out in UN Security Council resolution 1701, the UN is leading negotiations to secure the release of Regev and Goldwasser. On 1 December 2006, the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, reported that he continued to make the unconditional release of the captured Israeli soldiers and the issue of the Lebanese prisoners detained in Israel a top priority, and I am glad to say that the current UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, reiterated that on 14 March 2007.

The hon. Member for Cheadle asked some specific questions about the UN facilitator. The facilitator was appointed by Kofi Annan as part of resolution 1701, and his/her identity has been kept secret. I can, however, say that the facilitator has had a range of contacts with Hezbollah since his appointment by Kofi Annan. He has met the Hezbollah leadership and emphasised the need for humanitarian access to the soldiers and for their release. So far, Hezbollah has—publicly at least—rejected his request, demanding instead the release of large numbers of prisoners held in Israeli jails, which goes beyond the framework of UN Security Council resolution 1701. Negotiations continue, and the facilitator continues to urge compassion in Hezbollah’s demands; in other words, he is trying to inject not only some humanitarian considerations and compassion, but some realism. We very much support the facilitator’s work.

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