HC Deb 29 March 1955 vol 539 cc336-42

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

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Charles Fletcher-Cooke (Darwen)

In December, 1917, General Allenby captured the city of Jerusalem, and in so doing became the first Christian commander to capture the Holy City by force of arms for 980 years. He did not leave so many memorials as the Crusaders, but he left a large and beautiful cemetery to the British dead who had fallen in that campaign. It lies to the north-east of the city, near, if not on, Mount Scopus, and throughout the period of the Mandate it was well tended and a credit to us.

I fear that since the mandate came to an end it has fallen into a state of decay, it has not become a wilderness, through no immediate fault of ours. Since the troubles in Palestine between the Israelis and the Arabs, and since the line between them was crystalised so many years ago, this cemetery has been, if not in " NoMan's-Land," at least so near it that it is apparently dangerous for the British to tend it as it should be tended. I was in Jerusalem this January, and many people of all nations and religions commented to me upon this sorry state of affairs and wondered why it was that in an area where there were so many religions the Christians seemed to care so little about their fallen dead that they were apparently not prepared to make their will felt both against the Jewish and Arab contenders.

One of the tests of a nation, and even of a religion—at least in the eyes of strangers or foreigners—is the way that it looks after its fallen dead. If this cemetery, which was something of a showpiece for so many years, is allowed to remain in what I am informed is its present condition—I admit that my information may be out of date, because it is two or three months old—it is inevitable that both Jews and Arabs will feel that we do not care, particularly as we adhere to the United Nations Resolution that Jerusalem is, for many purposes and certainly for this sort of purpose, an International City and that the Christians have rights. This should be said more often than it is said in arguments about the Holy Land. If we do not enforce our rights, other religions will think that we do not care. In a sense, it is not only Britain but Christianity that is on trial.

I would first ask my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if I was right in what I said, that this large and famous cemetery, bearing in it the dead of our great and glorious campaign, is in this state of neglect and decay and, if that is so, what it is proposed to do about it. It is not quite enough to say that we cannot do anything because we are no longer the mandatory Power and have no status there. The resolution of the United Nations is clear to all the world that Jerusalem is, in its language and in the language used in that part of the world, a tertium quid; it is in our view neither Arab nor Israeli. Therefore we have a legal, and certainly a moral, right to see that the plot of land is preserved against the sort of outrage of neglect from which I am told it is at present suffering.

I am told that we have well-wishers in Jerusalem and that at some risk to life and limb boys and men who have served with the British Government when we were the mandatory Power, or have served in the R.A.F., or were trained under the British in one way or another, creep up to the cemetery and put a few flowers there and do what they can in that way. They break in almost against all corners, and with the possibility of being sniped at from one side or the other.

We have a position there which we must maintain, and I seriously suggest that we should consider mounting some sort of guard while the plots and graves are being tended and put into decent condition. I dare say the international legal and political complications would be very great—I do not know—but I should think we might get some agreement from both sides. Perhaps General Burns, United States head of the Armistice Commission, might be asked whether he could proceed under the protection of his authority. It may be outside the scope of his authority, but he has great moral power.

I should have thought that something might be arranged, but even if it cannot be arranged by agreement, I seriously suggest we should consider doing it without agreement. We should, if necessary, go in there with some volunteers—because I feel that we have been rather shamed by those boys and men who have gone in at the risk of their own skins—to protect our people while they are trying to put the cemetery in order, and then withdraw in an orderly way.

The position of the cemetery is very unfortunate in that it is in the most strategic place on the frontier between the two sides—but so is almost every other place on that frontier. I do not think that that excuse is good enough. It is information and encouragement that I seek. I do not wish to attack the Government. Obviously I could not do that —the Government are in a position of great difficulty—but I would end by urging, with all the sincerity I can summon, that this is a matter of very great comment in Jerusalem, in Israel and in Jordan.

This matter is being watched. The people there do not understand why Britain has neglected something of which she was very proud. They regard our actions in this regard as something of a test of our position, and indeed of our belief in the sincerity of the cause in which our men fought, and of our position generally, down indeed to the point of our belief in our own faith.

10.27 p.m.

Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

This is a lugubrious subject and one on which I do not wish to speak for long. If, in fact, conditions at the cemetery are as my hon. Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) states, he has done a public service in raising this matter tonight. I remember that when fighting was going on out there one of the British graveyards was actually fought over. I do not know whether the one at Jerusalem is the one. If so, it is very regrettable, but I do not wish to say anything to exacerbate feelings between Israel and Jordan and the other neighbouring Arab States which, we know, is not the best.

Jerusalem means something to people of so many religions. Those of us who have been there perhaps feel more deeply than those who have not. This matter should not be regarded purely as one of British prestige. The important thing is that we should try to regard the final resting place of our glorious dead in the same light as we should expect other nations to regard theirs. I should have thought that the right approach was not, as my hon. Friend seemed to suggest, a matter simply of upholding British prestige—although that is involved—but rather to say to both Israelis and Arabs, " You would not like your dead treated in this way; we do not like the resting place of our dead treated like this either. Will you co-operate to the extent of allowing this resting place to be put in order again?"

10.29 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. R. H. Turton)

This is a shameful matter. I confirm all the facts which my hon. Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) mentioned in describing the condition of this cemetery. I am grateful to him for raising this and to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) for supporting what has been said.

In this cemetery there lie the graves of about 2,500 men killed in the First World War; and the names of 3,400 other men whose graves have never been found are recorded there. The vast majority of those 6,000 men came from the United Kingdom, although there are graves and names of men from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the British West Indies. It is, therefore, a Commonwealth concern that this cemetery should be cared for in a proper manner, and that it should be a thing of beauty, as the British war cemeteries are throughout the world, in all the battlefields of the last two wars.

Unfortunately, that is not the case with the Mount Scopus cemetery. The cemetery lies in the Mount Scopus demilitarised zone. Under an agreement between the Arab and Jewish commanding officers of 7th July, 1948, it was assigned to United Nations protection, and was to be policed by Israeli and Jordanian police, both responsible to the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation. The cemetery itself is in the part assigned to the Israeli policing.

During the fighting that has taken place mines were laid by both sides. In the case of the Israelis, mines were laid by them in the cemetery itself, in the case of the Jordanians, just outside the cemetery, but neither side has removed those mines since the fighting stopped. In consequence of that the Imperial War Graves Commission has been unable to maintain the cemetery, and both Her Majesty's representative and the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation have failed in their attempts to persuade the two sides to allow workmen to go into the cemetery and carry out repairs. For six years the state of tension between Israel and Jordan has prevented any improvement in the situation.

In July of last year, Her Majesty's consul and the Israeli officer commanding the Israeli area of Mount Scopus inspected the cemetery. The Israeli officer noted the condition of the cemetery, the damage to the chapel, and the dilapidation inside the chapel, and seemed at that time prepared to give orders for his men to tidy up the cemetery and to clear the minefield. Then the Imperial War Graves Commission sent two representatives to Jerusalem, and it was then hoped to arrange an agreement between the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation, the Imperial War Graves Commission and the Israelis for the repair and maintenance of the cemetery.

In January of this year, however, the Israeli Government announced that they would be prepared to negotiate only an agreement covering all British war cemeteries in Israel, including Mount Scopus. As I have explained to the House, this cemetery does not lie in Israeli territory. It lies in United Nations protected territory, and any agreement affecting the cemetery must be negotiated with the Jordanians as well as the Israelis, and must be dealt with quite separately from other cemeteries in Israeli territory. The Jordan Government, in February, 1955, sent General Burns a reply which expressly refused to allow any Jews or Jewish relatives of the dead commemorated in that cemetery to have access to it. I hope the House will realise that, bearing in mind that those men died to obtain freedom for the Arab world.

We are, naturally, very dissatisfied with this position, and I am indeed surprised that two States which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Darwen said, are both deeply religious and have great respect for their own dead, do not feel that this situation reflects great discredit upon them. Her Majesty's Government intend to approach the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation and the Israeli and Jordan Governments with further proposals for the clearance of the mines and the repair and maintenance of the cemetery. I hope very much that all the Commonwealth countries represented in Israel and Jordan will join in this approach, which affects them as well as us.

This is a United Nations zone. Therefore, we must—and, indeed, we gladly do —use the United Nations machinery to deal with this problem. That is my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Darwen. Let me say again how grateful this country is for the persevering efforts that General Burns has made to try to resolve the problems that lie in this area arising out of the bitter tension between the two sides. I hope that this debate will serve a useful purpose and will have brought home to the Israeli and Jordan Governments that if they desire friendly relations with the Governments of this country and the Commonwealth they must show due reverence to our dead soldiers who are commemorated in the cemetery at Mount Scopus.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty three minutes to Eleven o'clock.