Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

– in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 24 April 2002.

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Photo of The Bishop of Bradford The Bishop of Bradford Bishop 3:07, 24 April 2002

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice; namely:

Whether Her Majesty's Government, in view of the extreme shortage of food and medical supplies and the emergence of gangrene among the wounded in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, will make the strongest possible representations to the Government of Israel to allow these supplies and a medical team into the church immediately.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, we are deeply concerned about the situation in and around the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We believe that conditions inside the church have deteriorated seriously although it is not possible to establish a clear picture. We believe that food, water and other supplies are running very low. Negotiations are under way to resolve the stand-off and on access for humanitarian workers and supplies to the church. The United States continues to press both parties to compromise and the EU security adviser is involved. Her Majesty's Government have also made representations to the Israeli Government to express our serious concerns at the highest level. We shall continue to do so. We have repeatedly called for both sides to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1402 which includes the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Palestinian cities.

Photo of The Bishop of Bradford The Bishop of Bradford Bishop

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and express my gratitude for the opportunity to put this Question. Having been able to get information through those sources connected with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Roman Catholic bishops and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, I understand that the food ran out yesterday and that gangrene is increasing. The Government of Israel have remained non-committal on the provision of food and non-committal on allowing medical supplies and teams to go in to the church. I understand that there are two dead bodies; one has been there for 11 days and one for nine. One of those bodies is that of a Muslim. The body cannot be buried because if it was, the church would become a holy place for Islam, and the difficulties that would arise from that are easy to understand.

I also understand that there are now increasing rumours of the possibility of a mass suicide by those in the church who are known as "warriors". There is increasing concern among those in this country who work among Jewish people, Muslim people, Hindus and Sikhs, that what happens in the Middle East will have an unfortunate effect in this country.

Does the Minister agree that this situation is appalling and totally unacceptable? Will Her Majesty's Government make the strongest representations to the Government of Israel to take appropriate steps to relieve the suffering, and to do so without delay?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, of course I agree that the situation is truly appalling and that a very serious humanitarian situation is developing within the church. We certainly know that food and water are running out. The right reverend Prelate believes that the food has entirely run out; he may well be right.

We also know that there are injured in the church who are dying. The right reverend Prelate is quite right to say that the bodies of the dead are decomposing in the church, thereby creating a further health hazard. Her Majesty's Ambassador in Tel Aviv was in contact yesterday evening about this matter, as my noble friend Lady Amos said he would be. He spoke to the foreign policy adviser and directly expressed the concerns that the Prime Minister had about the situation in Bethlehem. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary plans to be in touch with Mr Shimon Peres later today, and I heard as I came into the Chamber that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be in touch with Mr Sharon.

I understand that negotiations on this issue, which began yesterday, fell apart but that they are due to resume at 4 o'clock local time today. Although the situation is very serious, it looks as though both sides, far apart as they are, recognise the need to resolve the issue.

Photo of Baroness Williams of Crosby Baroness Williams of Crosby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, we are all grateful to the Minister for the very serious way in which she is treating the situation. The international community is gradually allowing a hell to be created in the holiest place of Christendom.

Does the Minister agree that 238 people are locked up in the Church of the Nativity, of whom about 20 or 30 at most have been accused by Israel of terrorist crimes? Can she tell us what steps are being taken to make it possible for the people to be detained in some other place, possibly under the guard of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees? Does she agree that no forward steps can be taken in the negotiations to bring about a more lasting ceasefire and peace between the Palestinian territory and the Government of Israel until this desperate issue has been resolved?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I certainly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that for many it is a matter of particular distress that such terrible events are taking place in a church that has a very particular significance for many of us. I cannot confirm the numbers of people in the Church of the Nativity, which the noble Baroness gave. Her Majesty's Government believe that there are around 200 people, although that figure may not be right—there may be more or less than that. We are also not clear about the number of people in the church who the Israelis believe are Palestinian fighters. Numbers of between 20 and 30 are fairly commonplace—I recognise them—but I cannot confirm them to the noble Baroness. However, I can tell her that a number of alternatives are being discussed at the moment about the ways in which those people should be treated. That very issue caused the breakdown of the negotiations, to which I referred, yesterday evening. Those negotiations involve some Palestinian dignitaries, the Mayor of Bethlehem and the Israeli defence forces. However, I am very sorry to say that there has been no meeting of minds as yet about how those who the Israelis believe have been perpetrating terror acts should be treated, but a number of issues are being discussed.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right to say that it is hard to make any judgments while the facts are so uncertain and there is so much propaganda. I hope that she accepts that we on this side totally share the concern of the right reverend Prelate about the Church of the Nativity, as all Christians must do. Is not the position that inside the church there are an unknown number of armed Palestinians, as we have been reminded, and a hard core of 35 to 40 terrorist gunmen from Hamas, Al Fatah and other organisations? In a more sane world than we have out there, would it not have been the right course—and would it not in history have been the right course—for the non-combatants to be allowed to leave and for the remainder to lay down their arms, which they should not have in a sanctuary in the first place, and to come out? Is that not the quickest course to end this horrific situation? Would that not be the sensible and fair way to proceed?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I could not agree more with the noble Lord. What he says is entirely sensible and right. The problem is that common sense is not prevailing in this situation. If it was up to noble Lords or most sensible people, we would be able to find a way through the situation, but the problem is that very entrenched positions have been taken on both sides. There was hope yesterday, when the negotiations began. There was a feeling that a solution was going to be found involving those whom the Israelis believe are responsible for very serious terrorist acts. No one underestimates the importance of ensuring that such people are dealt with properly. There was a hope that that could be negotiated. Sadly, the various means of doing that were not acceptable, on the one side, to the Israeli defence forces, and the propositions that they put forward were not acceptable, on the other side, to the Palestinians involved.

All that we can do is to hope that the common sense to which the noble Lord referred prevails when the negotiations are resumed later today.

Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour

My Lords, does the Minister agree that despite all that has been said and the fact that the negotiations have not been concluded, if the Israeli Government allow people in the church to starve to death, their cause can never be advanced? That should be made known to the Israeli Government.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO), Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am sure that the Israeli Government are only too aware of the importance of not allowing that situation to develop. It would be terrible for it to happen anywhere but, as noble Lords have acknowledged, in this particular place it would be peculiarly repugnant. However, there are a number of issues that we all know urgently need to be resolved. This situation is most urgent at the moment because of the immediacy of the possibility of the further loss of lives in the church. Indeed, I learnt as I came into the Chamber—just as we began business this afternoon—of a further shooting. We also very much hope that more progress will be made on the issue of looking at what happened in Jenin. One of the real problems with making judgments about this matter at the moment is the lack of reliable information. There is a lack reliable information about what went on in Jenin and there is a lack reliable information about what is really going on in the Church of the Nativity.

Noble Lords:

Order.