I am glad to be able to tell the House that there have been no reports so far of any injuries to the remaining members of the British community in Lebanon during the heavy fighting in recent days. Damage to property has, of course, been very heavy, but we have no means of knowing at the present moment to what extent British property is involved.
Our ambassador in Beirut has over the past weeks repeatedly warned members of the British community in Lebanon that they should seriously consider leaving unless there is some overriding reason why they should stay. We shall continue to watch the situation extremely closely and take whatever steps are required to evacuate the remaining members of the British community should it prove necessary.
I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing our deep sympathy for all those who have suffered in the recent fighting. It is, however, difficult to see what practical steps outsiders, and particularly countries outside the Arab world, can take in an extremely complex and difficult situation without running the risk of making matters even worse than they are already.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that extremely delicate talks are taking place in Beirut between the Lebanese Government and representatives of the Syrian Government? I want to be careful what I say, and I shall fully understand if the Minister of State is cautious in his replies to my questions.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the so-called Palestinian forces that have entered the Lebanon from Syria the day before yesterday, yesterday and overnight are organised units which could not have come across the border without the connivance or agreement of the Syrian Government? Is it correct that they number several thousand? The BBC indicated that they now numbered 4,000 more than yesterday, but I do not know what the exact figure is.
Does the Minister of State agree that this invasion from Syria could, if it were pursued much further, have very serious implications for the free world if it led to the destruction of the Christian community and the pluralist society in the Lebanon? Will he consider urgently taking up discussions with our partners in the EEC to make it clear that we cannot remain indifferent to the break-up of the Lebanon, still less to its conversion into a Marxist State? Would it not be of some help to our American allies in their current discussions in Moscow if we did so?
As the right hon. Gentleman said, discussions are going on almost literally at this moment. Like him, I do not want to say anything to prejudice the chances of those discussions ending with a degree of success. I shall therefore answer his questions with some caution. No caution is necessary on one point. We have made absolutely clear and public, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister put it in his Christmas message to the Lebanese Prime Minister, that our commitment to the continued territorial integrity and independence of Lebanon is absolute. That remains our established policy, a policy we have tried to develop through consultations within the Community, with the United States of America and with the Governments of other countries whom we felt could help in these matters.
On the present military situation, I say only that on our evidence the Palestinian forces that have passed into the Lebanon are probably not as great as some reports have made out. If that is true, the first premise on which the right hon. Gentleman based his question—that they could not have passed over the border without the connivance of the Syrian authorities—does not necessarily stand. However, there would be grave implications if the conflict were to extend and to take on a wider rôle. I can give the assurance that the consultations we have carried on in recent months will be continued with the hope of our playing some part in bringing this issue to an end.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the question for this country is not whether the people of the Lebanon should decide to become a Marxist State or any other kind of State? That would be a matter for their own sovereignty. It is not our affair. For us the important issue is to insist in the United Nations that the Lebanon, like every other country in the Middle East and elsewhere, must remain free and independent and that no neighbouring Government or State should have the right to intervene with military formations. We should resist in the United Nations, and particularly in the Security Council, any attempt by Syria to do so.
I mentioned my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's message at Christmas which referred to territorial integrity and independence. That must mean that eventually the people of the Lebanon should have the right to choose the form of government they want, but I hope that they will be able to choose it in peace and in the shortest possible time.
I recognise the need for the right hon. Gentleman to be cautious in his replies. Is he, however, aware of the reports this afternoon of the massing of troops by both Israel and Syria on the Lebanese border? Will he consider instigating consultations immediately with our European partners with a view to raising this matter in the United Nations Security Council?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is, I think, at this moment considering what conversations should take place between the various members of the EEC. The consultations which go on at that level are often best carried on privately rather than in the glare of publicity, but I understand that the French Foreign Minister said something about this sort of process in public earlier today. As the right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) said, we must look initially to the delicate negotiations which are going on in Beirut and hope that they will bear some fruit.
To return to the Question, I believe that there are about 1,000-plus British citizens still in the Lebanon. Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that we have available the means of extracting anything like a largish proportion of them if their position became intolerable?
On the political issue, is it not a fact, if we are to get this whole matter into proportion, that on almost every occasion when the fighting has been renewed the provocations have been on the part of the Phalangists, whose behaviour has been anything but Christian, although they wear the emblazoned cross on their tunics? Is it not a fact that the right-wing leaders in Lebanon would barely have the competence to run the Battersea Dogs Home?
My hon. Friend is right in stating that about 1,000 British subjects are left in the Lebanon. That is about one-third of the total number there when my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary first suggested that they should come home if there were no pressing reasons for them not to do so. Even if the airport remains closed and there are difficulties in travelling overland, there is a contingency plan to enable us to get the British citizens out in time and, I hope, in safety.
Concerning the second part of my hon. Friend's question, in these delicate times—particularly when some hon. Members are calling for action to be taken by the Government—I do not think that it would be wise or prudent of me to make judgments about the intentions or competence of any of the parties.
I am sure that we should all like to pay tribute to the considerable efforts of the British diplomatic mission in Beirut. I was at Beirut airport last week. From what I heard from people there, it would appear that the scale of the fighting, the atrocities and the violence is even worse than reported. The embassy deserves some tribute.
I should like the Minister to be aware that we entirely support what he said about the integrity of the Lebanese territory. We also believe that nothing should he said or done that will prejudice the discussions taking place today. We believe that this is clearly a problem which is best solved by the Lebanese people and their Arab neighbours. If, however, any outside help should be required, will the Minister assure us that the countries of the European Economic Community will work together and not take separate and individual initiatives apart from each other?
Yes, of course the countries of the European Economic Community will certainly work together, and that means consulting each other. As is very often the case, however, not only in the Middle East but in other areas of the world, when the EEC is consulted it is often best for one member of the EEC with special associations or connections with a country or area to take the lead in these matters. I am not predicting it but am simply saying that that may be the kind of course to take this time.
I am grateful for the kind things the hon. Member said about the staff who remain in Beirut. I know that they will read his words with very great appreciation.