It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir, and it is a pleasure to welcome the Minister for the Middle East, who is one of the few members of the Government who has made any sensible remarks on this subject for a very long time, as we heard when he was in Israel and Lebanon after the events there.
Many better people than I opposed that intervention. Indeed, many better people than I supported it. I voted against the war, principally because I did not believe the Prime Minister and his dossiers. I did not know that they were dodgy; they simply did not add up. President Bush's reason for invasion—regime change—was clear and honest, but the Prime Minister hid behind a smokescreen of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in an attempt to justify the invasion to Parliament. His key failures were in respect of securing the support of moderate Arab opinion and having a realistic post-invasion strategy. The result was to inflame the Arab world, to create division at home between Muslims and most other United Kingdom residents, to lose our reputation as an honest broker in the middle east, to drive the Arab in the bazaar into the arms of extremists, particularly in Palestine and Lebanon, and to damage domestic race relations, leading to the attacks on
Significantly, the Prime Minister committed our forces and their NATO supporters to the subjugation of Iraq, leaving the new democratic Afghan Government naked against a resurgent Taliban. He failed to provide adequate resources for our troops. They were left alone and unduly vulnerable on both fronts. Of course, despite that, they committed themselves to their allocated task with their customary resilience and fortitude. None of us is in any doubt as to their professionalism and skill, and attempts from the Prime Minister down to suggest that any criticism of the Ministry of Defence is designed to undermine our troops is a distortion that few are now taken in by.
"I have not, and nor have any of my predecessors, refused to provide anything that has been requested for our operations in Afghanistan."—[Hansard, 24 July 2006; Vol. 449, c. 596.]
However, the Scottish Sunday Herald reported on
Brigadier Butler is quoted as stating:
"Helicopters have always been...my priority."
The article goes on to state:
The article illustrates two points: first, commanders may be asking for more equipment but are not being provided with it, and secondly, the Prime Minister's attempt at spin. He described such criticism as "negative reporting" and stated:
"I think the morale of our troops carrying this out is high, but they get fed up—as does everyone else—when it's all presented in a negative light".
It is spin and the constant failure to respond to honest questions in an honest way that characterises the approach of many members of the Government to the problems of the middle east. I exempt the Minister present today from that statement.
To get back to the narrative, we had warnings of an attack by Muslim extremists in this country for many months—indeed, for years—and on
We were attacked on
Meanwhile, in Palestine, elections in 2006 returned a Hamas majority. I realise, of course, that the Palestinians have been guilty of the most vile attacks on civilians in Israel by means of suicide bombers, and I am prepared to believe that those attacks were organised by Hamas—that Hamas was the brain behind them, just as the brain behind the attacks on civilians in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was that of Sinn Fein. The response of our Government was to pretend that the elections had not happened, and to attempt to set aside the result of one of the first democratic elections ever held in Palestine on the grounds that we do not like the outcome.
Would the hon. Gentleman accept that a major obstacle is the explicit refusal of the Hamas-led Government in the Palestinian Authority ever to accept the existence of Israel, and that Hamas continues to commit itself to armed struggle that targets civilians?
Of course I recognise that. In exactly the same way, I felt that about Sinn Fein.
The fact is that Hamas expresses several contrary views at the same time and that the people supposedly in government in Palestine are stronger on rhetoric than on action. Of course I accept that they are not making things easy, but I do not believe that that gives us the right to set aside the democratic decision of the Palestinian people, in so far as such a decision can be reached when many parts of what we regard as Palestine remain occupied. I question how in the minds of Labour Members it is right to set it aside when it was so wrong to do the same 50 years ago in respect of Iran.
My hon. Friend is making a reasonable and well-informed case, but does not the approach to Hamas involve rather more than the British Government? The Quartet, the international community, the United States and Mr. Javier Solana have all told Hamas that it must recognise the state of Israel, renounce violence and accept the commitments that had already been entered into by the Palestinian Authority. That has been said to Hamas since the elections.
My hon. Friend says that there is some ambiguity, but the leader of Hamas early this week was completely unambiguous. He stated that Hamas would not recognise the state of Israel. If the international community were to alter its response to Hamas, having already said what it has, what sort of message does he think that would send to Hamas? Perhaps one with which students of the 1930s might be familiar.
I am grateful for the way in which my hon. Friend put that. He listed a range of things said by the Quartet, the United Nations and so on, and I agree with him. I do not agree with the presumption that because Hamas will not say certain words we are entitled to set aside the result of the Palestinian election. Let me remind the Chamber that until 1997 the Government of the Republic of Ireland did not accept the right of Northern Ireland to be part of the United Kingdom. That did not mean that we pretended that they were not the Government.
Of course I recognise that. I am asking what is so different; what entitles us to disregard the democratically expressed view—[Interruption.] Yes, to pretend that a Government do not exist and to set aside the democratically expressed view of the people of Palestine.
The election was followed first not by the matters in south Lebanon but by attacks on Gaza. The first pictures that most of us saw were of children being attacked on beaches. I am quite prepared to believe that they were concealing weapons or terrorists because that is the way in which the terrorists of Palestine behave. The attacks on the beaches, which I believe followed the capture of one Israeli soldier who was approaching the border of Gaza, were followed by attacks on power stations and civilian installations in Gaza.
Would the hon. Gentleman like to remind the Chamber that the Israelis correctly withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and that that was followed not by attempts to set up a peaceful administration in Gaza but by rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, including the town of Sderot, on numerous occasions? The reaction to that has unfortunately caused civilian deaths but those rocket attacks on Israeli civilians continue despite Israel's correct withdrawal from Gaza.
I am prepared to accept that, too. I am not trying to express the view that one side are the goodies and the others are the baddies in this conflict. There are serious errors on both sides, which it would have been better if our Government had been more equal in recognising. That is the failure of our Government that I so strongly criticise. There were, let us say, few words of condemnation from the Government. There had been plenty of words of condemnation of suicide bombers, but few on the Israeli attacks in Gaza, in particular the attacks on civilian installations, a matter on which our European colleagues, who helped to pay for those installations, were rather less reticent than our Government.
The last act—the last act so far, I fear—has been the conflict in Lebanon and the Government's failure, in line with that of the United States and virtually no other nation, to call for an immediate ceasefire in Lebanon. Indeed, they blamed Hezbollah and the seizing of two soldiers for the conflict in Lebanon and Israel's reaction to the seizing of those soldiers. Human Rights Watch condemns both sides pretty unequivocally for breaches of international law and of internationally recognised human rights. It condemns Hezbollah for hostage taking and using the soldiers as pawns to negotiate the release of prisoners held in Israel, for its indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israel and for hiding military targets and personnel in civilian areas, and it condemns Israel over the lawfulness of its attacks on south Lebanon, for the extraordinarily high level of civilian casualties that followed, for its repeated attacks on infrastructure, on Beirut airport, roads and bridges, and for attacks on fleeing civilians. Those were the tactics of the Nazis in 1939 and 1940: attacking fleeing civilians from the air. I know that that offends Mrs. Ellman and I do not mean to do so, but I must tell the truth.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously comparing Israel's defending itself to the genocide of the holocaust and the Nazis? Is that a serious point that he is making rather than a criticism of Israel's policy?
What a stupid intervention, if I may say so. Of course I am not comparing it to the holocaust. If the hon. Lady was a little more careful in the way in which she listened to other hon. Members instead of parading her prejudices, she would have heard what I said, which was that Israel attacked fleeing civilians. That is all that I said.
I went to Lebanon two weeks ago and I have to say that my hon. Friend's central thesis, which is that the United Kingdom's policy has not been helpful, is certainly the case in Lebanon, where our Prime Minister is seen as personally responsible for the extension of the conflict beyond the second and third week and for the number of casualties that happened towards the end. I regret to say that my hon. Friend is correct that there are authenticated incidents, with witnesses, when children in pick-ups were machine-gunned by Israeli aircraft until they were apparently dead. That does not condone anything else that was done on the other side but I am afraid that we need to try to deal with the facts as they occurred on the ground and to move forward.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In a similar way I condemn the Palestinians and their supporters for using those children as human shields, as has also happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. There seems to be a significant difference of view of the value of human life between Muslims and Christians and Jews. That is a cultural difference with which we must cope. I am deeply and gravely concerned that the position of our country and the security of our people at home are being undermined because of the Government's incompetent management of that difficult crisis.
Let me remind hon. Members of what has happened at home. Some 200,000 Muslims supported the actions of the London bus and tube bombers and yet when Muslim leaders wrote a letter to The Times it was condemned by the Government as an excuse for terrorism. That letter warned that there are some people who would already be supporting terror and asked how anyone could believe that those attacks were nothing to do with the events in the wider middle east that had led up to them.
I am gravely concerned that we have a minority in this country who are becoming more extreme or have a significant number of extremists among them. I believe that whether they were born here or move here they should adopt our way of life, our customs and our democratic way of settling disputes. They should not fight foreign battles on our streets.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for being so patient in giving way twice. Before he moves off the point of what is happening in the middle east, will he find time to think a little about the position of Mr. Mahmoud Abbas and about what can be done practically to enhance the peace process from where we are now rather than going through the terrible things that have happened on both sides in the past? My hon. Friend has mentioned Hamas, but he has not mentioned Mr. Abbas, who is prepared to recognise Israel and to be constructive but is in a difficult position at the moment. Perhaps my hon. Friend might want to press the Government on what they can do to help.
The Minister will have heard what my hon. Friend has said, so I shall not prolong my speech. I was hoping to take a quarter of an hour, and have already taken 19 minutes.
Those who accept UK citizenship should leave their old loyalties behind and not fight for the state of Israel or for Arab nations in our country.
The hon. Gentleman talks about people accepting UK citizenship, as though those responsible for the London bombings came from overseas and had to adapt to our way of life. Does he not accept that those people were British born and bred?
As someone once said, to be a British citizen is to win first prize in the lottery of life, and certain obligations go with that citizenship.
When I came to the House, I realised that the Prime Minister was a fantasist, but I had not thought that he was a warmonger. I do not believe that he wilfully lies about such things, but I do believe that he is wilfully careless of the distinction between truth and fiction and intellectually too idle to do the homework necessary to justify the position that he has taken on the middle east. He believes that today's performance and tomorrow's legacy are more important than the long-term good of our country and its people.
Bluntly, I think that the Prime Minister saw the middle east in the same way as he has seen other overseas escapades: as an opportunity to parade on the world stage. He never thought that we would lose so many people or so much respect, or that the war would escalate to the extent that it has, and he is not capable of resolving the situation. It was interesting to hear this morning that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not want to go to war, although that is perhaps mischief put out by Mr. Blunkett.
In taking the approach that he has, the Prime Minister has done grave damage to the Labour party, to community relations in our country and to the peace of the wider world, and I fear that it will take a generation for hon. Members on both sides to remedy all that damage.
I will seek to be succinct, but I must respond to one or two of the comments that have been made. I must congratulate Mr. Turner on winning the debate, although I regret the rather intemperate tone of some of his comments. I would be prepared to concede his case that there is a connection between the extremists in the UK who engage in criminal acts of terrorism, and those who engage in such acts elsewhere in the world, but I would argue that that is precisely why it is vital that members of the international community stand together and that the UK work with the United States, the United Nations and Europe to ensure a united response to what is, in reality, a war that is being waged against our way of life. I agree with that element of what the hon. Gentleman said, but I hope that his hon. Friend who visited Lebanon—I hope that he will forgive me, but I have forgotten his constituency.
Of course. I should remember, having worked with the hon. Gentleman in Northern Ireland. I hope, however, that he will challenge people in Lebanon who say that our Prime Minister is personally responsible for the war having been prolonged for two or three months. Had there been a Conservative Prime Minister, and had I been in the hon. Gentleman's position, I would have challenged such an extreme depiction of what had happened. Those responsible for prolonging the war were the two sides in the conflict—Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Israel. We needed to find a solution to bring about a ceasefire.
The perception in Lebanon is that the Prime Minister is responsible, and the international community's failure to call for a ceasefire was seen very much as the responsibility of the British. One would have expected the United States not to call for a ceasefire, but the fact that the United Kingdom did not do so and did not lead the rest of the international community in putting pressure on Israel has properly fingered the Prime Minister as one of the leading actors in failing to put sufficient pressure on Israel to desist when it became clear that its action was not only criminal under international law, but a disastrous policy for the state of Israel and the people of the Lebanon.
I am very sorry and disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman come out with that point of view. He is entitled to his view, but he is fundamentally wrong.
I want to talk about the situation in Lebanon because so much has happened since we last debated it elsewhere in this place, and it is a pleasure to be back in Westminster Hall debating it this morning. I also took the opportunity during September to visit Israel and Palestine, and I hope that those elsewhere in this place will note that September is an important month for those of us with other things to do than meet permanently in this place—the Leader of the House please note. I went there with Labour Friends of Israel as part of a large delegation, and we listened to people who were directly involved in what was going on, as Mr. Blunt and other hon. Members will have done. During September, there was much debate in this country about what had happened, and the Prime Minister himself said that the conflict in August
"was a war that should never have happened".
I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to consider why that is so and perhaps to give us his views on the issue.
It is important to remember that the north of Israel contains Israel's industrial zone, and Haifa university is extraordinarily important to Israel. The region is a centre for heavy industry and its development. Between May 2000, when Israel withdrew from Lebanon, and June 2006, Hezbollah carried out more than 217 attacks on the north of Israel. There were 111 anti-aircraft attacks and a long list of other types of attack, involving various missiles and shooting incidents.
If I am able to catch your eye later, Mr. Weir, I might expand on this point, but is my right hon. Friend aware of the statistics on Hezbollah attacks on northern Israel in the months leading up to the war, rather than in the period since 2000?
I do not have the exact statistics month by month, but I am sure that they will be available. None the less, many families in the north of Israel had to spend significant parts of their daily lives in bomb shelters during the conflict. Israel faced a serious problem that required it to respond, and I should like the Minister to concentrate on the way in which that problem developed. I say that because, in playing its future role, the UN will be crucial in helping to move forward positively with a progressive solution to that problem.
As a result of the blanket media coverage of the Lebanese side, we know of the huge number of victims of the war on that side. There were more than 1,000 dead, and many more were injured and maimed for life. We know less about the dead and injured on the Israeli side because there was not the same coverage, but there were dead and many hundreds of injured. More than 800 people suffered shock and 300,0000 were displaced from their homes in northern Israel. We therefore know that there was suffering on both sides, and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight acknowledged that.
Let us look at how the situation developed. We know the history of Hezbollah, how the organisation developed and what its purpose is, and we know that Israel withdrew in 2000. Organisations such as the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades have openly acknowledged, as late as March 2006, that they receive funding, arms, training and support from Hezbollah. If the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are not on the UK's list of proscribed terrorist organisations, why are they not? Are the Government considering proscribing them?
I turn now to the role of the UN in Lebanon. When it was created in 1978, its role was to confirm Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, restore international peace and security and assist the Lebanese Government in restoring their authority in southern Lebanon. In 2000, the UN was able to confirm that it had carried out the first of those three roles, but it failed singularly to carry out the other two. That failure enabled Hezbollah to grow and develop, and to take such a deep hold in the community in south Lebanon that it was effectively a state within a state, operating its own social security system and almost its own system of taxation. That was a problem for Lebanon as much as for Israel. We now have a United Nations force with a new mandate, which has been enhanced. The force has been enhanced, but the new mandate, which includes monitoring the cessation of hostilities, also includes accompanying and supporting Lebanese armed forces as they deploy into south Lebanon.
The delegation of which I was a member met officers of the Israel defence forces who were responsible for part of the border area and had been involved in the conflict. We were taken to see the border and we listened to both Palestinian and Israeli voices about the conflict. The officers told us that they could see the development of Hezbollah positions on the northern side of the Israeli border. They could see arms being cached in those positions and the training that was going on across the border. In some instances they could observe that with the naked eye, because the positions were only yards from the border. When they drew those things to the attention of the United Nations patrols they were told, "We know. We see it too, but there is nothing that we can do. All that we can do is watch and monitor."
It cannot be imagined that a British Government, in a similar situation, with a similar direct threat to their people, would not feel the same tremendous degree of threat that Israel felt in those circumstances. We have seen the conflict, and we all have our views about how it arose. We must accept that, the conflict having taken place, the best way forward now is to discuss how the UN role should develop. In future years will there be a UN force that performs a similar mandate? If that happens, it will lead to the risk of exactly the same circumstances developing in the future.
Would not my right hon. Friend also consider the necessity of de-escalating the level of armament in the region, and the fact that neighbouring countries feel concerned about the fact that Israel has such a vast army, such a huge arms industry, and nuclear weapons? Does she consider that that could be seen as intimidating to Israel's neighbours, also?
I am happy to accept that there is that concern. We need not only an understanding of why Israel feels that threat, but an appreciation of the role that the UN could play. I think that the international community is united in wanting progress in the region. We are looking for a role that the UN could play, through its forces on the ground, that would materially assist the Lebanese Government to step into the void that Hezbollah filled, and to take over and bring the rule of law to the area, so that Israel could feel confident that there was security to the north of Israel, which would allow its people there to live the kind of lives that we live here.
I shall be brief and discuss just four or five points. First, as to our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, although I was not a Member of the House when it was decided that our troops should go to war, I believe that we should fully support everything that our troops do, because we sent them there. We must remember who sent our troops to war, and give them our utmost support. That should be the loud message that goes out from here today. I believe that most hon. Members, if not all, would agree with that.
I now want to move on to discuss Hamas. As I pointed out earlier, it is quite unusual when Hamas, Hezbollah and, indeed, Iran call for the destruction of the sovereign state of Israel. That must be put in context. The people who are in fear are, indeed, the Israelis. On many visits to the middle east, I have not once heard Israel make threats to destroy another country, or about that country not existing. That is not reciprocated. The soldiers who were kidnapped are still being held illegally. Governments of any political persuasion are duty bound to protect their people. In response to thousands of missiles—and we can argue about how many, but I do not think that there is any dispute about hundreds of missiles landing on Merom Hagalil, northern Israel, Haifa and beyond—the Prime Minister is duty bound to protect his people, regardless of political persuasion.
No sane person wants human life to be lost. It is precious, whether it is Palestinian or Israeli. However, the matter must be taken in context and we must look at what happened. I am delighted that there is a ceasefire. I hope and pray that peace can come to that troubled region. Visiting the House today is my brother-in-law, who lives in Israel, where there is a call-up every year into the army. For him, his children and my relatives, I hope that there is peace for everyone.
I want to pose my hon. Friend a question about what he called the destruction of the state of Israel. He implies that that means the destruction of all the people of Israel. The Iranian leader was pressed on precisely what he meant, and he was talking about the political end of the state of Israel. Are Hamas or Palestinian representatives allowed to have a negotiating position that holds that the state of Israel, as a political entity, should cease to exist? Obviously, if we are talking about people and the consequences for people, that is a different issue, but are they entitled to that as a negotiating position?
If the context and the text of what the Iranian Prime Minister said is read, it referred to the people of Israel—not the state of Israel or a political system: he referred to Jews and Israel. That was in his speech and was published in many middle eastern newspapers, so I do not think that there is any right in that. Anyone can, as a negotiating position, disagree with a political entity, but not recognising the state of Israel—if it is not allowed even to exist in school atlases that are given to children—is heading for trouble. That, in my view, is to call for the destruction of the state and people of Israel. Perhaps there is the interpretation that my hon. Friend gave, but the words that were published in English are not quite the same as what was said in some middle eastern newspapers.
I want to move on to talk about terrorism. I have worked closely for many years with the Muslim community of this country, and I passionately believe that most Muslim people in our country want peaceful co-existence with us. I think that in my constituency we are a beacon of light. We work together. We have a joint Christmas, Eid, Diwali and Hanukkah party every year and have worked in that way for many years. I pray that we shall do so for years to come, and I honour what Muslims have done for our community, but I do not believe that, whatever the figure for how many Muslims in Britain support terrorism, this country's foreign policy should be dictated by terrorists. It is not the way forward for anyone. Appeasement has never worked in the past and it will not work in the future. The way to overcome it is to look at some of the difficulties.
It is easy to say that all the problems derive from the middle east, but I do not believe that to be the only issue. Many other social and economic issues are at stake, which drive people to certain ways. We must also look closely at indoctrination, and at what people are being told. However, I reiterate that I have not experienced any problem with most, if not all, of the Muslim people with whom I have personally come into contact, who, I believe, do not have a bad thought in them. It is always a minority who spoil it for the majority. That should not be forgotten.
I want briefly to mention one thing that my hon. Friend Mr. Turner said. I accept that when he spoke about the Nazis, he was not referring to Israel as doing anything equivalent to the holocaust. However, linking the word "Nazi" to Israel is unfortunately offensive. I have to say it openly: I have a personal difficulty with that on the ground that Israel has never and would never have concentration camps and would never do everything else that the Nazis did. I know that he did not mean that, but it can be interpreted in that way, and I would not want that to happen.
Finally, I turn to Iran. The biggest threat to the middle east, whether Israel or the other middle eastern countries, is Iran. I am not convinced that the daily sabre-rattling and the stage-managed street protests of hatred, not only for Israel but for Britain and America, would be any different if other regimes were in place in those other countries. We must be mindful of the real threat; perhaps others in this debate will talk of some of the other issues regarding Iran.
I too was able to spend a little time in Israel and Palestine in September. I shall speak on three subjects—first, a couple of reflections on the Lebanon war; secondly, on the situation of Arab communities within Israel; and, thirdly, some observations on where the peace process is going.
I said quite a lot over the summer condemning what Israel did in Lebanon, and I do not resile from that. Israel's action there was immoral, illegal and unacceptable. Although I understood that, I thought it was important for me to go to northern Israel to see what was being and had been experienced there. I went to a village called Shlomi, and I have seen the communities living there; it is unacceptable for families to have to live in bomb shelters for extended periods.
Deaths are unacceptable, on whichever side. It is important that we all acknowledge it. If we are to draw conclusions for the future, however, it is important that we understand what happened and cut though some of the spin, some of which we have heard today. The impression has been given here, and I know it is given over there that somehow, before the conflict started, as Mr. Turner said, hundreds of Hezbollah rockets were raining down on Israel.
The Sunday Times said in its editorial of
"Whatever the rights and wrongs of Israel's military engagement in Lebanon and Gaza, for instance, nobody can deny that it began with the near daily bombardment which Northern Israel has suffered from Hezbollah terrorists in the past few years."
If we go back to 2000 to the present day, we find about 200 rockets coming down. It is difficult to find evidence of that in the period leading up to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In July, I tabled questions to the Foreign Secretary asking how many incidents there were, and when and where, in the year leading up to the Lebanon war. I am still waiting for a reply.
I asked the Library to investigate; it checked in journals such as those on the Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. As far as I can tell, in August last year there was one mortar attack on a northern Israeli town, which caused no injury and it is thought that Hezbollah may not have been responsible. There also appear to have been two attacks from Lebanon on Israeli military positions in the Shebaa farms area. There is disagreement about whether that territory is Lebanese or Syrian, but it is not part of Israel. However, it has been under Israeli military occupation for decades. A couple of Hezbollah attacks have been made with small arms on Israeli military positions. In all, however, there were two Israeli military fatalities and no civilian ones.
The death of anyone from armed conflict is tragic, whether soldier or civilian, but it tells a rather different story from what we sometimes hear, so I went to Shlomi and asked the villagers how many attacks there had been. They said that there had been loads, and that they had presented evidence. They said that since 2004 there have been a couple of Katyusha rocket attacks on an industrial area, but no casualties were suffered.
I cite the evidence given by the town council of Shlomi. On
"There was an attempted Syrian invasion;—
I thought that that was pretty serious, but I had not heard about it—
"the culprit was captured while trying to enter Israeli territory via Sholmi. He is trying to obtain political asylum."
I do not know who that was, but to describe it as an attempted Syrian invasion is pushing it a bit.
I do not say that the fear of those living in Shlomi is anything other than real; of course it is. If there are armed people over the fence from you in Lebanon, you are going to be scared. And those who live in southern Lebanon, who have the Israeli Defence Forces over the fence from them will be pretty scared as well. The only invasion that has happened in recent years has been the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; it was not the other way around. The fear on both sides is real, but I raise the matter because we need some rigour in understanding what happened in the run-up to the Lebanon war.
Those statistics indicate that the Shebaa farms issue is a major source of tension in the area. It is the pretext for Hezbollah retaining its arms in Lebanon. In practical terms, that is where progress is needed. Resolving that is the key. I caution any Government who want to put preconditions on resolving the issue of the Shebaa farms, because getting that sorted will allow so many other things.
I shall now speak about Arab communities in Israel. Much attention has been given to the fears of Israel's Jewish communities—and rightly so. I noted a huge polarisation of Israeli society, and the Palestinian communities, particular in northern Israel, feel utterly alienated from the state of which they are citizens. Long-standing matters such as nationality laws that discriminate against them, or regulate who they can live with or marry are a problem. That alienation was brought to the fore by the fact that when Hezbollah attacks were coming—after the war had started and not before—Arab communities were not given the same protection as others. They were not given bomb shelters or the early warning systems that other communities in Israel had. That increased the sense of alienation.
Israel talks about the need to withdraw from certain areas of the occupied territories—which I would like to see—in order to solve the demographic problem; it means that Israel should not be ruling over territories where the non-Jewish minority might one day become a majority. What signal, what message, does that send to Israel's Palestinian and Arab citizens? The message is that they are tolerated, so long as they know their place and never become a majority. They now feel that they are regarded as a sort of fifth column in the state of which they are citizens. The international community needs to bear that in mind.
I turn to the peace process. When I was on the plane going to Israel, there was every hope of a national unity Government between Hamas and Fatah. By the time we landed, it seemed that those hopes had gone. I hope that it was nothing to do with my journey. Hamas and Fatah have real issues to deal with in order to go forward. Hamas needs to deal with what the international community says about violence, about accepting Israel as part of a long-term settlement and about abiding by existing agreements.
The international community, too, needs to make a few decisions. Do we want to encourage Hamas down that political route, or do we want to issue fog-horn demands that are not made of the other side? Should we insist on every dot and comma of the most inflexible interpretation of the preconditions, so that when they do not accept that we can say, "We told you so. There is no chance of progress. There is no partner for peace. We have a choice. I want to go down the first route. Sadly, diplomacy from the United States and sometimes from our country, seems to be going down the second route.
It is important to remember that actions speak louder than words. There was violence from Palestinian groups during the latter part of 2005. My right hon. Friend Jane Kennedy was right to say that. Hamas was on ceasefire for the best part of a year, and it then entered elections for the first time. I wish that that was sometimes acknowledged. Hamas has never said that it recognises Israel or that it will renounce violence, but in practical terms it had a ceasefire for a year. Israel said that it accepted existing agreements and says that it wants to support a Palestinian state, yet 3,000 Palestinians have died since the start of the intifada, settlement building has continued in defiance of international agreements, and the wall is being built which closes in many ways many of the chances of there being a viable Palestinian state.
If we want to make progress, it is important that we look at the actions of the parties involved, not just what they say. In order to ensure that Hamas moves towards a political route and accepting a two-state solution, it is absolutely vital that we understand the dynamics. That includes recognising the levels of poverty and deprivation in Gaza and increasingly in the west bank, where there are 160,000 public servants—refuse collectors, teachers and health workers—who have not been paid for months. That is causing real hardship, and it is a problem when those people hear all the demands apparently coming to one side and polite reminders going to the other.
The whole international community is asking Hamas to recognise Israel; it is a United Nations request. It is not one small thing, but a significant thing that would allow the sovereign Governments of other nations to say that this is now a Government with whom we can deal.
The international community is saying that it wants Hamas to recognise Israel. I would like Hamas to recognise Israel. However, I want to find ways to make it happen, rather than simply saying that Hamas has not done it so there will be no talking and the conflict will continue. The international community has also said clearly to Israel that it should discontinue building settlements and that it does not agree with the wall in occupied territory, and rightly so. Do we ever hear the international community saying to Israel, "We won't talk to you unless you change your policy."? Do we ever hear the United States Agency for International Development saying that the huge financial support they give to Israel for development should be cut off until Israel abides by international agreements and recognises in practice, not in theory, how to achieve a Palestinian state?
I am not suggesting that the international community should stop talking to Israel. However, considering the approach we take with Israel, simply saying that we will not even engage in a dialogue with Hamas and ignoring its ceasefires and the fact that it has been democratically elected, we have a problem. We should not ignore what President Abbas, who has no love of Hamas, has said about encouraging dialogue and moving Palestinian society forward.
I welcome our Prime Minister's commitment to do everything he can to move the peace process on, but that requires movement from both sides. I would like to draw attention one more time to an issue repeatedly brought up by Palestinian communities and people in the Lebanon: that the west, and all too often Britain, displays double standards. If we give the impression that we have double standards, our credibility will be reduced, as will our chances of promoting peace with justice for all peoples in the region.
I commend the speech of Richard Burden and the enormous amount of work he has done over a prolonged period to advance the understanding of the situation in the occupied territories as chairman of the Britain-Palestine all-party group. It is a pleasure to work with him on that group as vice-chairman.
One of the purposes of these debates should be to advance our understanding of the region, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Turner on obtaining this debate and on his speech. I do not necessarily agree with every dot and comma, but I agree with his general thesis.
The past five years have been a disaster for the British national interest in the middle east. There has been constant debate about how we arrived at that position, but whatever the reasons, the reputation of the United Kingdom has taken a heavy hit, and the war in Lebanon has made that position even worse.
Jane Kennedy said that we are engaged in a war against our way of life. I urge caution in the use of such rhetoric. There is a conflict, but much of it is about the future and shape of Islam, and we are in many ways witnesses to it. When we take part in that conflict and try to act on the side of the people who want a rational interpretation of Islam consistent with liberal western values, often the consequence of our policy is precisely the opposite of what we intended. Direct foreign intervention in a number of countries has in fact helped the people who really do have very different values from ours.
A week ago, I returned from a day in Syria and four days in the Lebanon with the Conservative Middle East Council. We had an outstanding visit, and I am grateful to the ambassadors of both countries for helping us to arrange it. We did not ask our embassy in Syria to assist, because it is Government policy that we should not talk to the Syrians—which I think is a mistake. I understand why the Government wish to isolate and punish Syria for its activities, some of which, in the light of the Hariri inquiry, look deeply unattractive. However, Syria is governed by a secular, socialist party—in name—and we have driven Syria into the arms of Iran. When we ask Syrian politicians how that has happened, with two Governments with very different attitudes now in almost formal alliance, we find that they feel that my enemy's enemy is my friend.
Following the sense of hope that accompanied the arrival in office of President Bashar al-Assad, we should continue to work at reinforcing what we believe and understand to be his policy to aim at modernising Syria and breaking it away from its past record, particularly under his father.
One of the encouraging parts of my visit to Syria was to meet Deputy Prime Minister al-Dardari, who is in charge of economic affairs and is a most impressive figure. He has a clear idea of the economic challenge faced by Syria and the need to liberalise and modernise its economy. When we engaged with him about the capacity of Syria to do that in terms of its administrative structure and ability to find the entrepreneurs to deliver economic modernisation, he had a clear idea of the difficulties that he faced, but it was very clear to us that he enjoys the unqualified support of the President in the effort to modernise the economy. If the system is open and liberalised and can bring benefits by, for example, providing transit routes from port facilities to Iraq, there is an opportunity for the Syrian economy to develop, and that can only be a good thing.
The right hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree said that we know the history of Hezbollah. I am not sure that we do. Lebanese politics is horrendously complicated: the Lebanese ambassador once said that if one had begun to think that one understood it, it was a clear demonstration that one had not. The history of conflict in the Lebanon between all the different groups that make up Lebanese society is long and involved and goes back many hundreds of years.
For example, we went to the Shatila refugee camp. We had all heard of the massacre of the Palestinians in 1982 when the Israeli armed forces surrounded the camp and enabled the Phalange to carry out the massacre. What I was not aware of was that the camp was entirely flattened between 1985 and 1987 as an extension of a row between President al-Assad of Syria and Yasser Arafat of the PLO. Although the camp that we saw had been completely rebuilt since 1987, it still looked as if it came out of one of the worst parts of mediaeval London with buildings on top of each other, very narrow streets, poor light and frankly appalling conditions. One goes from there to the wealthy side of Lebanon, the success of entrepreneurs and the amazing renaissance of Beirut.
In trying to understand Hezbollah, we should avoid characterising its supporters too simply. One example will suffice. I spent some time talking to a young Shi'a Muslim man who was a convinced Hezbollah supporter, but when I tell hon. Members that his occupation of choice was clubbing and his drink of choice was vodka, they can see that to characterise Hezbollah as some fundamentalist Islamic organisation might be slightly wide of the mark. Hezbollah enjoys enormous public support in southern Lebanon from the Shi'a Muslims, because it is seen as the liberator of most of Lebanon in 2000.
Lebanon remains to be fully liberated. The issue of the Shebaa farms continues to exist and to give Hezbollah a cause and a reason to remain armed as a militia. If nothing else, it is essential that Israel deals with that excuse for Hezbollah to remain armed. One beneficial consequence of the war—there are not many—is that the Lebanese army is now deployed right down to the border in southern Lebanon, and there will be a substantial United Nations force, but we need to remove as far as possible any excuses that Hezbollah has to remain an armed organisation within a state, and the continued occupation of part of Lebanon is one of those reasons.
Thank you for calling me to make the first of the winding-up speeches, Mr. Weir. I start by congratulating Mr. Turner on securing the debate. It is interesting to follow Mr. Blunt, who I suspect laid out in very concise and interesting terms the advice that the Foreign Office has been providing for the Prime Minister and that the Prime Minister has continued to ignore over recent months and years.
This is a wide-ranging subject for debate and because time is limited I propose to concentrate on two issues. One is taking stock of the position in which we find ourselves in Iraq, and the other is the issue that came before the House prominently before the summer recess and that has continued to be prominent over the summer—the situation in Lebanon.
I shall start with Iraq. As hon. Members will recall, the Liberal Democrats, before I was elected, vigorously opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We regarded it as a war not of necessity but of political choice on a flawed prospectus and a fabricated threat, and that has proved to be the case. The war should never have been fought. It has led to the deaths of approximately 40,000 civilians and the figure for coalition soldiers is approaching 3,000, and it has not delivered the benefits that the Iraqi people were promised in advance would be a consequence of it. In addition, it has certainly not decreased the terrorist threat in Britain. It has caused widespread resentment against western states, particularly from within the Muslim and Arab world, and it has undermined the international authority both of the United Nations and of Britain and its allies.
However, as I think most people would agree, by invading Iraq the Government created a moral obligation and strategic imperative to work towards the reconstruction and stabilisation of Iraq. I and my party support that process, but we cannot hand on heart say that the current strategy of the British Government or the United States Government is an unequivocal success, so we now need to consider how we can build on it and put in place a strategy to take us from where we currently are to a more successful resolution.
At the moment, the very survival of the state of Iraq is in jeopardy, and if Iraq is allowed to become a failed state, the economic and security implications for both the region and the western world will be devastating. Civil war in Iraq would clearly risk drawing in neighbouring states and making the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territory even worse, as well as having implications for our nuclear negotiations with Iran. I know that other hon. Members who have been unable to speak wished to touch on that subject. Therefore, it is of great importance, as I think everyone would agree, that we have a successful strategy in place for Iraq.
I do not have time to go into great detail, but as features of that strategy we should be considering internationalisation of the forces in Iraq, greater strengthening of the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Iraqi Government and their being able to demonstrate that they can deliver essential services to their people, and strengthening the rule of law and human rights in that country. I hope that the Government can work towards that. I suspect that, at the moment, we are carrying on and hoping that matters will improve without necessarily having a firm enough plan in mind for how we can reach a satisfactory conclusion.
The second issue is Lebanon and I shall start by reminding hon. Members of the bare facts of the events that took place a few months ago. One million people—a quarter of Lebanon's population—were displaced by the fighting. More than 1,000 people—mainly civilians—were killed in Lebanon during that brief war. It is worth noting that, on the other side, about 150 Israelis—mainly soldiers—were also killed. The total estimate of the cost of repairing the damage done during the brief conflict was in the range of $5 billion.
I want to make something clear straight away, because I want to correct a misconception that I sometimes hear. The Liberal Democrat party is not an anti-Israel party. We recognise the threat that Israel faces and we strongly support the continued existence of a viable, secure and prosperous Israeli state. We are unequivocal in our condemnation of the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and much of the action undertaken by Hezbollah in the recent conflict, but—this is a reasonable "but"; I have not come here to argue the case for one side or the other, although I know that many hon. Members in this debate regard themselves as representatives of one side or the other—it is wholly appropriate to recognise that the response of the Israelis was disproportionate.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight spoke about this in graphic terms, and I would not necessarily choose to use those terms myself, but the bombing of infrastructure such as bridges and civic buildings demonstrated a recklessness that was not in Israel's interests, that led to considerable loss of human life and an even greater loss, possibly, of political good will, and that obviously was extremely expensive in financial terms. Someone will have to pay the bill for the reconstruction. The use of, for example, cluster bombs was, in my view, entirely inappropriate in that context, but we are where we are. I hope that a more secure future can be found and that the prosecution of that case by the United Nations will be advantageous.
I shall finish with a slightly party political point. When this situation arose, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party was, I think, the first to urge restraint and the use of diplomacy and to urge that the response be internationalised. That was a significant moment in terms of our view in this House about the situation. The leader of the Conservative party had nothing to say for several weeks and waited to see which way the wind was blowing, which I suspect was a cause for concern for people in his party who hold views on both sides of the argument. The leader of the Labour party, the leader of the Government, isolated himself and chose to support the United States in giving what appeared to be tacit approval to the Israelis to carry on their attacks in Lebanon. I regard that as a huge error of his, which has confirmed in the minds of many people in the middle east his inability to resolve the conflicts in that region. I fear that, while he remains Prime Minister, we will make less progress than we otherwise would.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Turner on securing this broad-brush debate on developments in the middle east. In applying for it before the summer recess, he was shrewd enough to recognise that events might have moved on and that if he had concentrated on just one area, he might have found the issue resolved. Unfortunately, it was not. However, he opened up a debate in which, as is usual in these debates on the middle east, there is a tremendous amount of passion, and we have advocates speaking on both sides, particularly about Israel and Palestine, and strongly articulating their views. I suppose that I must say that the Liberal Democrat spokesman lived up to the highest reputation of the Liberal Democrats that many of us are used to in these kinds of debates.
I shall comment in broad terms on developments in the middle east. When the House adjourned for the summer recess in July, there was great concern across the board about the conflict involving Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah, which had dragged Lebanon in, and about wider issues such as the situation in Iraq and the open defiance of Iran. It is impossible for us not to see that those situations are, at different levels, connected, and that Britain has a role to play, although I suspect that that role is limited. There was a feeling in the House—I choose my words carefully—that there appeared to be some drift on the Government's behalf in July. Indeed, many of us felt that they were reluctant to have the middle east debated on the Floor of the House, and some pressure had to be brought to bear to get such a debate.
Over the summer, there have been efforts from the international community to set up some form of stability in southern Lebanon, there has been a lot of commentary about what continues to be a deteriorating situation in Iraq, and there has, of course, been an attempt to persuade the Iranians not to go ahead with the development of nuclear weapons, but that international commitment appears to have been half-hearted, to say the least, and often counter-productive. The question that we must ask about the overarching problem in the middle east is: what role can the British Government play? It is always embarrassing to any British Government, but particularly so to this Government, that while we stand always four-square alongside our major ally, the United States of America, we are the junior partner. There is nothing wrong with being the junior partner, but it would be nice if at times we were told what we are supposed to do before reading about it in the press or hearing about it in the media.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me; I have only a limited amount of time.
There is no doubt, as far as the situation between Israel and Hezbollah is concerned, that it was absolutely intolerable that Israeli civilians came under direct rocket attacks. Somebody said to me, "You Brits have never experienced that," but actually we did in 1944 and 1945, when there were probably as many British civilians killed by V1s and V2s as by conventional airpower. That was pretty frightening.
As we have said in previous debates, the problem for Israel was that, sadly, the Israeli military got it wrong. As always, what airpower can deliver was overestimated: everyone a coconut; no collateral damage. Many Israelis, both civilians and those in the military, would recognise that one of Israel's problems in dealing with Hezbollah—its rocket attacks and hiding among civilians—was that the very nature of its strategy meant that there would be collateral damage, to use that awful expression, and that large numbers of civilians would be killed. That was equally unacceptable, including to many Israelis.
A number of hon. Members talked about Hamas and Fatah. We are restrained on this issue. Whatever the problems with Israel and its negotiating strategy with its Arab neighbours, the Arabs have been utterly incompetent in coming up with any strategy, tactic or negotiating position that would, given that they are in the majority surrounding Israel, persuade the Israelis to come to any form of negotiation.
No; I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me, but I have only a couple of minutes left.
Fatah and Hamas have been at each other's throats and have killed each other's people. Time and time again, Fatah, certainly, has failed to take the opportunities it was given by the international community.
Syria and Iran have played an inflammatory role, to say the least, in the situation in the middle east in the past few years. Iran is now in a position almost like—I hate to use historical analogies, but I shall use one here—revolutionary France in the 1790s. We should bear in mind what happened there with the ancien régime countries that surrounded Iran and the kind of revolutionary export that took place.
I turn to Iran. I should be grateful if the Minister would give his thoughts on the fact that many people are beginning to think that there is an almost inevitability to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The Iranians are playing for time, and the United Nations Security Council seems unable to produce any form of sanctions that are likely to persuade them not to acquire them. Russia and China are, to say the least, equivocal. We face a similar problem in trying to restrain and constrain North Korea on the other side of the globe.
It is impossible to disentangle the situation between Israel, the Palestinians and Lebanon from those in Iraq and Iran. I would like to think that, having sat through the summer, the Government now have a strategic path to deal with these interconnecting problems, because, as many hon. Members have said, they lead directly back here. It is in no way acceptable that British citizens should believe that the activities of the British Government and their foreign policy, even if one fundamentally disagrees with them, give one the right to commit atrocities in this country or abroad. There are other ways of doing things. Many of us have deep disagreements, and other minority groups in the UK have held such views.
Finally, the Minister may not agree, but it is unfortunate—I am again being careful with my words here—that in a time in which the situation in the middle east appears to be deteriorating, the Prime Minister has for some time given the impression that he intends to stand down. There is a hiatus, and if one goes to the middle east and talks to people there, one will find that they are aware of it. There is an uncertainty about who is to succeed as Prime Minister. The ongoing hustings—I put it no stronger than that—within the party in government, such as the revelations in diaries and elsewhere, do not help to resolve a deteriorating situation in which there appears to be no overarching strategy from the British Government.
I do not have time to keep a diary, but I should have done.
I have enjoyed this morning's debate. This issue has certainly generated passion, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, as it has in every such debate that I have been to. I know that hon. Friends of mine who contribute regularly to such debates, such as my hon. Friend Dr. Starkey, would have liked to speak in this debate.
We quite properly have many debates on the middle east, although perhaps not enough, in some people's opinion. The issue is certainly a key concern for the Government, and much of our energy is devoted to gaining visible evidence of some progress in achieving a stable, secure and prosperous region. We have heard this morning that that is in the interests of everyone, not just those who live in the region, because of the centrality to the issue of world peace of the middle east conflict.
We have heard some interesting contributions this morning. The debate must centre itself on certain assumptions. The one that I hold is that, in different ways, we must arrive at a situation where there are two viable states alongside each other—the Palestinian state and the Israeli state—both of which can live in peace and prosperity. I am unsure whether all hon. Members present agree with me; I know that some believe that that can never be achieved, and that there must be another arrangement in that area that would allow some other political entity to be created. I do not agree with that. During the past 60 years we have examined many ideas about what could evolve in that area, but I cannot see a better target than the one that we have at present, to which the road map is designed to try to allow us to get somewhere close. We must keep that in mind.
We are working to support the emergence of a dynamic region at peace with itself and its neighbours. Our policy focuses on creating the conditions necessary for stability and security. It tackles the obstacles preventing progress, and promotes the opportunities and freedoms that are universally agreed and which we enjoy in the UK. We want the youth of the region to grow up with optimism in environments that reflect international standards of governance and the rule of law, where they can express freely their opinions, be free from repression and terror, obtain a good education, have the prospect of meaningful employment, and benefit from globalisation. The significant amount of humanitarian and development assistance that we provide to the people of the region is helping to achieve those objectives, but it is not doing so quickly enough.
I have said before that I fear the consequences of another generation of children in Gaza not receiving an adequate education. I have seen for myself in many countries the effect of an entire generation of young people receiving virtually no education. I am thinking of some of the appalling madrassahs that I have visited in many countries in the eastern part of what is rather frivolously called the "middle east". We began by mentioning Afghanistan, and as a child at Mountain Ash grammar school I would have been surprised if I had heard Afghanistan described as part of the middle east; it might have been described as being in south or central Asia. I think that we still have a rather imperialist attitude in the way in which we use these terms. I have seen the effects there of a lack of education and a complete lack of health care, and we must address ourselves to such things.
That is an enormously important issue. I was in Nepal last week, where I saw the effects that a small literacy and health care project that the embassy is running had on women's lives in a little village. The situation was extraordinary: people were speaking up with confidence about how they could alter their lives. I want to say something about that because it is so important. These are the goals that terrorists and extremists fear; they do not want people liberated in that way or for people to feel that they can speak with openness, freedom and impunity about matters that affect them so much. That is why terrorists want to provoke instability and why our objective of creating the conditions for lasting stability is such a threat to them.
Will the Minister address how our current policies and those of the international community towards Gaza—the cutting off of aid, the colluding with the Israeli siege of Gaza, which has led to a total breakdown of law and order and a humanitarian crisis to which the UN is drawing our attention—are contributing to stability?
That is a good rhetorical question and I am sure that my hon. Friend knows what answer I shall give: we very much believe that the Palestinian people must be aided in all kinds of ways. Per head of population they have probably received more aid than any other country that we assist in the entire world, and we are the second largest contributors to the Palestinian people. I must also draw her attention to points that have been made by the hon. Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), and others. I could not commit a Government to giving money to a regime that has, and will in the future, give that money to suicide bombers to attack and murder innocent people in another country—that is no way for a democratic Government to behave. We need to find a settlement in the middle east.
I remember recently, being in Ramallah and meeting Abu Mazen and his Cabinet in the middle of the night. They want a Government of national unity and I believe that they can achieve one, but they will not do so, and they will not achieve a dialogue with Israel, if the Israelis believe that all that will result from a relaxation of the situation is more suicide bombers.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I do not think that Members of Parliament should be arrested and held. We are not entirely free of a history of parliamentarians being involved in nefarious activities, so I would not like to see them being above the law, but I do not think it sends out good messages when elected Members of Parliament are arrested.
In the few moments that I have left I should say that I was taken with some of the comments made by Mr. Blunt. I was glad to hear that he had been to Syria and had discussions with its Deputy Prime Minister—
I hope that Syria realises that its future does not lie with the present regime in Iran, which is not a popular regime inside Iran. It is involved in some pretty despicable activities, of which the arming of Hezbollah is just one. I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that Syria is examining its position carefully, as it should be doing so. It is a difficult position and has always been so. Part of the reason for all of these disputes is probably a weekend in Cairo in 1921 when Winston Churchill, along with his so-called "experts", drew up the borders in the first place, but we have to live with that.
I have many friends back home in Wales, here in London and in all parts of the country who disagree profoundly and fundamentally with the Government's foreign policy. Throughout my life, I have many times disagreed with the foreign policy that has been followed by our Government, but I do not strap explosives to my chest, go to the underground and murder 52 people. There can be no rationalisation for doing such a thing and to suggest one is nonsense. We cannot live with the idea that where someone feels passionately about something, they can have some kind of religious compunction to go out to murder people, whether on the streets of Kabul, Haifa, Karachi, Mumbai, Buenos Aires or Istanbul. We are a democratic society. It has taken many long, hard years of struggle to create the democratic institutions that we have in this country. The idea that we should back down and say, "They are very passionate about this, therefore they should be allowed to murder other people" is completely beyond me and we should resist it—