HC Deb 13 May 1948 vol 450 cc2409-16

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Joseph Henderson.]

10.7 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

This is a melancholy occasion. Tonight, for the last time, it will be possible to raise with the Colonial Secretary in this House any question as to the well-being of Jerusalem, or, indeed, relating to the civil administration in Palestine. Tomorrow night we lay down our Mandate. The High Commissioner will leave Jerusalem tomorrow and will sail from Haifa at midnight.

The wisdom and the necessity of our decision to leave Palestine are no longer in question. I am not concerned tonight to speculate on what the immediate future may hold in store for the inhabitants of Palestine; how long it will be before, and after how much or how little bloodshed, the Jews and the Arabs will compose their differences, or on what basis. The responsibility ceases to be ours. The Mandate we assumed in 1922 is determined at our own request, and regrettable though it be to terminate it in such conditions of racial feud and uncertainty, I feel that future generations will pay a tribute to all that we have attempted and all that we have achieved in Palestine during the last 26 years.

But whatever unhappy battles may have to be fought between Jew and Arab for the future of the Holy Land—and we hope they will arrive at an early settlement—it would be the wish of all in this House to make a last and earnest appeal to both sides to respect and protect the City of Jerusalem. Man's conscience in the last generation has become accustomed to many horrors, but it must fill millions in many lands with extreme horror to contemplate the danger that will exist after tomorrow to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to the Wailing Wall, and to the sacred places in Jerusalem—sacred to Jew, Christian and Moslem alike, sacred indeed to all mankind. There are some places which are the shrines not of one race or creed, but of humanity. One such is the Acropolis, another is Jerusalem, despite its chequered history. Can we forget the symbolic joy which was felt when Allenby entered Jerusalem not so long ago? If indeed Jerusalem with its sacred places is buried in general ruin, then too late will the cry of shame arise throughout Christendom, and indeed throughout the world. I hope, therefore, that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us the latest position.

The news as we got in the Press during the last few days has been meagre and confusing. A truce of Jerusalem has been proposed by the High Commissioner. According to today's "Times" it provides for the cessation of hostilities, the entry of supplies under impartial control, free access to Jews to the Old City and the Wailing Wall and the evacuation of Katamon by the Jews. I wish to ask if the truce has been accepted by either side. Has any reply been received from the Arabs or from the Jews? I read that the Red Cross have offered their assistance in preserving Jerusalem as a hospital precinct. Is that so? Has the Red Crescent been asked to co-operate? Are they willing to do so? Can my hon. Friend, at this the last hour, give any precise information about the deliberations which have been going on at Lake Success? What is the position today of the Jerusalem Truce Commission? There is a sinister paragraph in the report in "The Times" today from their correspondent at Lake Success which reads: At the end of a long sitting of the Security Council the president was authorised to instruct the Jerusalem Truce Commission to use any local assistance available for bringing a truce into being, Mr. Gromyko having expressed suspicion of proposals to use the Red Cross. But apart from anything the United Nations may do, may we in this House ask my hon. Friend on behalf of His Majesty's Government to endorse the appeal, which I am sure all Members of the House will support, to both sides, Jews and Arabs, to spare and honour the City of Jerusalem which to so many millions who have never seen it, and perhaps cannot visualise it, remains a vivid symbol of deep significance and venera- tion. Can my hon. Friend go further and say that even after tomorrow night when the Mandate expires, we will, either through our military representatives or otherwise, lend any assistance if requested by both sides in helping to preserve a truce for Jerusalem until the dispute is resolved. Time is limited on these Adjournment Debates and others will wish to speak. I am glad to have had this the last opportunity of raising this subject tonight. Let us on the eve of Whit-sun, before we part for the Recess, in the words of the Psalmist: pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

10.14 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Thomas (Keighley)

I am sure the House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher) for his moving words at the last hour before the Mandate ends. It was my privilege to be in Jerusalem and to study these venerated places on the spot. These Holy Places are sacred not only to Christians but to Moslems and to Jews. For Christians and for Jews Jerusalem is indeed the holiest place in the world. For Moslems it is hardly less sacred than Mecca and Medina, and the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of Aqsa are the loveliest things in all the lovely city of Jerusalem.

The emotions of Christians can hardly be expressed when we contemplate the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, to name but the two most famous of many shrines. There in Bethlehem is the very church which Justinian built about 540 A.D.; and when certain flags in the floor are taken up they reveal the mosaics of Constantine's church built about 330 A.D.—and almost without doubt on the very site where the greatest event in history took place. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is built over that very sepulchre which was unearthed by Saint Helena about 33o A.D. and which, despite all the vicissitudes of history and nature, survives to this day. The building enshrining it, the edicule, is not worthy of what it contains, but the Sepulchre itself, beyond doubt the actual tomb where Our Lord was laid, is quite the most wonderful thing in this world; and it would be a tragedy if this Holy Sepulchre, having survived so many vicissitudes, should now in this twentieth century suffer the disasters of war.

Many suggestions could have been made, and indeed were made, in the months that have now gone by, but at this time there is no other way to ensure the security of these places except by obtaining a truce between the contending parties. Surely it is not too much to hope that both Jews and Arabs will agree to a truce for this Holy City of Jerusalem and will put it above the conflict because they have an equal interest in its preservation.

I hope that the religious leaders of all the faiths represented in Jerusalem will take part in this effort. When I was out, there an attempt was being made to get an appeal from all the religious leaders. I do not know why that joint appeal has not been made. It would indeed be melancholy if it were not possible to get the religious leaders in Jerusalem to agree on such an appeal to the contending parties. I hope that what little differences divide the religious faiths in Jerusalem will he subordinated to this great aim. It would truly be melancholy if we had to repeat the words, which I hope I may quote without irreverence: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets, and stonest them that are sent unto thee; how often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen doth gather her brood under her wings, and ye would not!

10.18 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Rees-Williams)

I am sure we all welcome the raising of this subject by my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington (Mr. E. Fletcher), and the moving way in which he has spoken on a subject on which we all feel deeply. I should also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Ivor Thomas) for supporting him and giving us such an interesting insight into the associations of some of the ancient buildings in Jerusalem. This is an ancient city and a Holy City to three religions. Tomorrow at midnight the High Commissioner leaves. I am sure we would all like to say, with Isaiah: Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished. In order to answer the question which has been put to me it will be necessary to go back for a few moments into the past, not the remote past but the immediate past, so that we can see the present in the light of the events which have taken place.

In the first place, I intend to go back to the time when the Trusteeship Council was asked to prepare a statute for Jerusalem and did so. Before the statute had an opportunity of coming into effect, it was laid aside and the Special Assembly was convened on the United States proposals. Thereafter, the General Assembly asked the Trusteeship Council to study suitable measures for a truce with the interested parties. The Trusteeship Council did so, and as a result the "cease fire" in the Old City of Jerusalem came into effect. Hon. Members will no doubt realise that the Old City of Jerusalem is a comparatively small part of the area which now is known as the municipal area of Jerusalem.

In addition to the "cease fire" certain undertakings were given by both sides with respect to safeguarding the Holy Places. His Majesty's Government, in addition, agreed to appoint before 15th May a person as a special Municipal Commissioner, if such a person were found who would be acceptable to both Arabs and Jews. The special Municipal Commissioner would then undertake the duties which in a normal way would fall upon the Municipal Commission itself. I must go back a moment to 17th April, when the Security Council called on all parties to observe a truce throughout the whole of Palestine, and on 23rd April the Security Council appointed a Truce Commission consisting of three Consuls in Jerusalem belonging to Belgium, France and the United States. Their duties would be to supervise the implementation of the truce to the whole of Palestine.

About the same time the International Red Cross were exploring the possibility of making Jerusalem a Red Cross City; that is to say a hospital city in which no armed men other than the police would be permitted. So at the same time, as it were, these three cross currents of endeavour were operating in Jerusalem to achieve what was highly desirable. The High Commissioner met the representatives of both Arabs and Jews about the Jerusalem truce. He later presented the terms to the Arabs and Jews with regard to Jerusalem and invited the Jews to come into Jerusalem to discuss those terms. They have not yet accepted that invitation, so that if the truce is not completed tomorrow night when the High Commissioner leaves, the Truce Commission will take over in Jerusalem and continue the truce negotiations. Our interests will be safeguarded by Mr. Beaumont, our Consul.

Hon. Members might like to know the proposals for a truce which the High Commissioner put to the two parties. They are: First, all hostilities to cease and no fire to he directed into Jerusalem or from it. Second, no arms or warlike stores to he permitted to enter Jerusalem. Third, supplies essential to the civilian life of the population to be allowed to be brought into Jerusalem subject to a check by an impartial body acceptable to both Arabs and Jews to ensure that supplies other than such essential supplies do not pass into Jerusalem. Fourth, the routes into Jerusalem to be open for the transport of essential supplies, subject to a check by an impartial body, and for the movement of unarmed persons, provided that no movement shall take place leading to any substantial increase in the Arab or Jewish population of Jerusalem or to the exchange of any persons calculated to increase Arab or Jewish military strength in the City Fifth, Jews will have the right of free entry and exit to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and from there to the Wailing Wall by the Zion Gate. For the purpose of ensuring that no arms are brought into the City, control by an impartial body will be set up at the Zion Gate. Sixth, Jews to evacuate Arab Quarter of Katamon now occupied by them. Seventh, disputes regarding the meaning or application of these terms to be decided by the impartial body. Those are the terms of truce which the High Commissioner put to both parties I am glad to say that only this afternoon I received a message from Damascus saying that the Political Committee of the Arab League has accepted these terms I have also another piece of good news. A representative of a United States, religious body has accepted the appointment as special Municipal Commissioner for Jerusalem, subject to the approval of his religious organisation being obtained. Furthermore, both Arabs and Jews have agreed to his appointment. I think that all sides of the House will welcome these two pieces of news, the first bright ray of hone that we have seen in the Palestine scene for many a day.

Mr. E. Fletcher

Would the hon. Gentleman say whether any reply has yet been received from the Jews to the proposals for a truce?

Mr. Rees-Williams

Not that I am aware of. A reply may have gone to the High Commissioner but I have not received any notification of such a reply at the Colonial Office. I can only hope that such is the case, but I do not know.

There is the position at the moment. We in this House can only hope and pray that the truce may take place in Jerusalem, that the special Municipal Commissioner may be available to discharge the duties formerly discharged by the Municipal Commission; and finally, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Islington has said, that peace may descend on the ancient City of Jerusalem.

Mr. A. R. W. Low (Blackpool, North)

If the hon. Gentleman receives any further news, in particular as to a reply from the Jews to the truce proposals which have already been accepted by the Arabs, will he see that this House is informed tomorrow, perhaps by the Secretary of State for War when he replies to me in another connection.

Mr. Rees-Williams


Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes past Ten o'Clock.

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