Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:19 pm on 17th July 2006.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Leader, Parliament, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:19 pm, 17th July 2006

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating this important and somewhat gloomy Statement. This is a sombre moment, not just for the Middle East peace process and the road map but for the wider stability of the whole region and, indeed, of the world and for all of us. As the fighting expands, it can obviously have an impact far beyond either Lebanon or Gaza. It can have an impact on global stability, on oil prices—we remain far too dependent on oil—and on financial markets. Indeed, it is already doing so.

In the face of the immediate crisis, I am sure that the Minister will agree that there is little point in spending time finger-pointing about who started this particular round of horror and for what reason and so on, but there is every need to halt the spiralling cycle of killing, rocketing, bombing and kidnapping that has been going on.

We need to ask, first, about British nationals who want to leave. The Minister gave the position very fully in the Statement. Can British nationals get easy access with their travel documents to the authorities who can arrange departure by sea? Have the Israelis given a specific all-clear that there will be no molesting or interference? Are further helicopter airlifts possible, given the obvious danger of the Hezbollah operatives, who are all over Lebanon—not just in the south—and could inflict damage?

Is the Minister aware that Hezbollah has been planning this attack for five months, as confirmed by comment in Beirut, and that it has been shipping in huge volumes of weapons? I gather from the latest estimate from both sides and not just the Israeli side that those weapons include 12,000 Katyusha missiles, which have a range of about 20 to 25 kilometres, and other missiles which, in some cases, have a considerably longer range? In all this, Hezbollah is getting full personnel support from Iran's Revolutionary Guard, who appear to be present in southern Lebanon in some numbers. The aim of this whole operation, planned many months ago, is to raise tension and kill Israel's citizens, which it is succeeding in doing.

Does the Minister also agree that, whether or not one says that it is provoked, the immediate Israeli response not only is inclined to be—indeed, is—disproportionate but can also be said to be flawed? It is very difficult to understand. Can the Minister explain how bombing the life out of Beirut, closing the airport, frightening the lives out of Lebanese citizens as they flee and, in some appalling cases, even gunning them down as they flee can possibly make it easier for the elected Lebanese Government—a young Government struggling to do their best—to grapple with Hezbollah, the serpent in Lebanon's midst? Those Lebanese citizens might be said to have been on the same side as Israel, or at least to have had the same enemy—namely, Hezbollah. Lebanon has been trying for a year to handle the state within a state, and the bombing will make that much harder. I hope that, in our discussions with the parties, we will point out that fact.

Is not one very serious conclusion from the past few days—it is an ominous conclusion for the very future of Israel—that, when it comes to weapons technology, the Israelis may have lost their famed and hitherto unchallengeable superiority? There has been a colossal miniaturisation of very powerful weapons, combined with vast cash resources from oil-rich Iran flowing into weapons and support for Hezbollah. If it has not already done so, that will have an equalising military impact, as the Israeli military is now finding out to its dismay. Does that not suggest that, in the end, the Israelis will have to talk and negotiate and perhaps discuss the release of prisoners and detainees, rather than fruitlessly bombing and shelling?

As to the Gaza situation—the other ugly pattern of development—here we have a major humanitarian crisis. As in all modern advanced societies, but in developing ones as well, the effect of cutting off electricity by bombing the generating stations is to cut off the water supplies, medical supplies, traffic controls and, indeed, the entire pattern on which an urban existence depends. What can we do to ensure that assistance continues to get through to the Palestinians and that the electricity supplies are further restored? I gather that there has been some restoration and I hope that there can be more.

Meanwhile, in St Petersburg, the G8 leaders are broadly saying—I do not want to reduce it to a cliché—that they hope that better counsel will prevail. They have talked about an international force returning to the Lebanon or expanding in the Lebanon/Israel border area. One has to ask: what on earth can that do while the fighting and the missile firing continues? The answer is, of course, very little. The time for that may come, but it is not the solution to the immediate killing and destruction.

Is the prime, direct task now for our Government and other Governments to tell the Israelis that overreaction will be counterproductive and that if they make enemies of Lebanon, their neighbour and the only other democracy in the region, that will lead nowhere, although it may already be too late for that? Should not we tell Damascus and Tehran that their aid to aggression will lead to their own destruction and must be halted? In the end, their people will suffer. Should we not also urge Israel and the whole international community, including Russia, which is a key player in this, to give maximum and continuing support to the lawful and elected Governments in Beirut and in Gaza and, through them, to the people? Should we not all also support the right of Israel to exist without constant, murderous attacks, which it finds now, even though it believed that they would cease when it withdrew from Gaza and the Lebanon? Of course, above all, Governments should support the right of Palestinians to have back their lands and country and to live there in peace. Perhaps we could have an early debate to mobilise the considerable knowledge and expertise in your Lordships' House and to analyse what is possibly the beginning of a far greater crisis.