HC Deb 13 June 1967 vol 748 cc316-26
The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement on the latest situation in the Middle East.

The main development in the Arab/Israel conflict since the Foreign Secretary's Statement in the House has been the achievement of a cease-fire on the Syrian front. The cease-fire is now being generally maintained. Today, we have heard that the Soviet Government intend to ask for the Middle East to be discussed at the Special Assembly of the United Nations.

It was to me encouraging that General Odd Bull, of the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organisation, played a key part in arranging the final and effective cease-fire and that the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organisation observers are now in position on both sides of the cease-fire line. This Government and indeed the House as a whole have expressed the view that, wherever there has been a United Nations presence on both sides of the borders, it has greatly helped in preventing conflict. I hope that this will become a key factor of all the border arrangements.

As an effective step towards making the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organisation as effective as possible during the present critical period, I hope that General Bull will be able to return to the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organisation headquarters in Jerusalem.

I now turn to some specific points on which the House, I know, would like to have some information. The first is the question of British subjects in the area. As the Foreign Secretary told the House in an earlier statement, emergency evacuation arrangements have been put into operation wherever the situation on the ground warranted it. British subjects have been evacuated overland from Syria into Turkey and from Iraq into Iran.

Over 300 British subjects were evacuated in American aircraft on Sunday morning from Amman to Tehran, where they were picked up by British aircraft to complete their journey to this country. I would like to express our gratitude to the United States Government for their generous assistance in this operation. I am glad to report that, as far as we know, in all these cases the evacution has been completed without any loss of life. Evacuation arrangements for British subjects in Egypt are in hand and over 300 left Alexandria this morning.

The Suez Canal remains closed to navigation. The Canal Authority has said that the canal is obstructed by small vessels sunk by Israeli action, but the Israeli authorities have denied taking any such action. The position seems to be in any case, that some vessels are sunk in the waterway.

Four British cargo ships are in the Great Bitter Lake in the canal, together with several ships of other nationalities. We are in close touch with the owners concerned and they, in turn, have had some limited radio contact with the ships themselves. Some food supplies are running short, but we understand that it is possible to obtain fresh supplies locally.

We have asked the Canadian Government who act for us in the absence of diplomatic relations with the United Arab Republic, to inquire urgently of the U.A.R. authorities what the prospects are for the early departure of the four ships and also to give the crews whatever help they can.

As regards oil, exports from Arab countries are still stopped or restricted. The readjustment of existing supplies and the high level of stocks in many importing countries including the United Kingdom, provided a breathing space during which it is hoped that the tensions which led to the supply interruptions will ease and more normal conditions will return.

It has been made clear to the Governments concerned that the allegations of British and American intervention, which were the immediate cause of the supply interruptions, are completely without foundations. In the meantime, the main importing countries and the other countries associated with them in the O.E.C.D. are at this moment consulting together on the supply question.

We are, naturally, very concerned about the human suffering emerging in the aftermath of the fighting. We are acutely disturbed about the danger of a new refugee problem being superimposed on the existing one. This is, in our view, a practical matter of human importance which concerns the whole international community, and to which the United Nations organisation should address itself urgently.

Meanwhile, we have information that large number of refugees have already crossed to the east bank of the River Jordan. It seems plain that a relief problem of major proportions is building up. The voluntary organisations in this country are considering what they can do. Her Majesty's Government have agreed to make financial provision for emergency relief in Jordan and we are urgently considering what we can provide from British Government stocks in Cyprus as a first step.

So much for the present. We must now look to the future. There will clearly be a long process of negotiations and bargaining ahead before the shape of a settlement emerges. It is our hope that the United Nations will be able to play a vigorous and realistic part in this process. Certainly, the United Kingdom delegation to the United Nations will do its utmost to contribute to achieving that outcome.

Lord Balniel

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement about the situation and the news that the cease-fire is being maintained and that, apparently, the interests of British subjects in the area are being effectively cared for.

First, as it is likely that the Egyptian story of British participation in the war will be perpetuated to the detriment of long-term British interests, what steps are the Government taking to implement their offer that an impartial body should inspect the British aircraft carriers in the area, so as to make it clear to the world that this story is not correct?

Second, as the right hon. Gentleman says that the Suez Canal is closed to navigation, and as four British ships are apparently marooned in the Great Bitter Lake, is there any indication that the Egyptians intend to open the canal to navigation? If not, what steps are the maritime nations thinking of taking to open this important international highway?

Third, would the right hon. Gentleman agree that probably the most constructive step which the United Nations can take in contributing to the long-term stability of the area lies in trying to solve the refugee problem rather than in imposing any international settlement of the territorial disputes?

Mr. Thomson

With regard to the lies which were put out by Cairo Radio about British and American involvement in the fighting, Her Majesty's Government are using every available resource to try to pin that lie down. In particular, of course, we are working hard with those countries in the Arab world with which we have always had good and friendly relations to convince them that they have been misled in this matter. We are, of course, pursuing this with the United Nations and, in consultation with the United States, discussing what is the most effective way to get a proper United Nations investigation of these malicious and utterly unfounded charges.

With regard to the reopening of the Suez Canal, the most urgent matter is to concentrate on getting the stranded ships moving, but we are, of course, in consultation with other countries about the general question of maritime passage through the canal.

Finally, I made some mention of the refugee problem in my statement, which I hope will reassure the noble Lord that Her Majesty's Government feel that the most urgent matter for the international community to apply itself to is to use the United Nations not for power politics, as seems to be the temptation on the part of the Soviet Union, but to tackle the problems of human suffering in this region in the aftermath of war.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about a contribution to the maintenance of the refugees' immediate relief. Will he propose the setting up of an international fund of sufficient size to enable the refugee problem to be liquidated by the settlement of these refugees in other countries where they can find profitable jobs?

Mr. Thomson

We should bear in mind that, next to the United States, Her Majesty's Government have always been the biggest contributor to the U.N.R.R.A. operation. Naturally, we are anxious to ensure that the existing refugee problem is not greatly enlarged by the present events in the Middle East. In looking at the best means of dealing with the problem of the aftermath of war, I shall, of course, bear in mind my right hon. Friend's suggestion.

Mr. Ian Lloyd

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the House will be greatly relieved to hear that the Government are at last taking seriously the plight of the five ships in the Great Bitter Lake? Are they now seriously considering any contingency planning to deal with all the eventualities which may arise before the ships emerge from the canal, which may well be two weeks?

Mr. Thomson

We are taking every possible step to ensure the welfare of the people on these ships and their swiftest possible passage out of the canal. I cannot, of course, accept the hon. Gentleman's use of the phrase "at last". This matter has been the subject of urgent attention from the moment the problem arose.

Mr. Shinwell

In view of the allegation about British intervention on the side of the State of Israel, made by the United Arab Republic and by some representatives of the other Arab States, has any inquiry been made into the statement which has appeared in several newspapers, and which apparently emanates from the State of Israel, that, during hostilities in Syria, several Russian Army officers were captured, which seems to indicate Russian intervention on the other side of the fence? Have the Government made any inquiries about this?

Mr. Thomson

I have seen the newspaper reports and the photographs. However, in the absence of diplomatic relations in the country concerned, there is no direct confirmation of what happened on the Syrian side.

Mr. Heath

In view of the importance of this inquiry, may I press the right hon. Gentleman further? Did Lord Caradon make this offer to the Security Council? If not, when was the offer of an independent inquiry made? If the United Nations is not prepared to undertake it, could not Her Majesty's Government arrange it directly with the countries concerned? And if individual Governments do not send representatives could not the Government make these observations available to the world's Press so that they may judge for themselves?

Mr. Thomson

The offer was first made in the United Nations at the moment, almost immediately, after the lie was originally broadcast. What we are now actively considering must be an effective way to propose a United Nations inquiry. The important thing, as the right hon. Gentleman said, is to nail the lie; and we would not rule out any particular means of making it plain to as many countries in the world as possible that this was a quite unfounded allegation.

Mr. Heath

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the urgency of this matter—that it is a week since it was first broadcast over Middle Eastern radios? Still to be trying to arrange something is surely not the way of nailing the lie.

Mr. Thomson

The Leader of the Opposition is less than just in this case to the constant efforts that have been made day by day by every means at our disposal to make sure that the truth is known throughout the world.

Mr. Park

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that any lasting settlement of the Middle Eastern crisis can be brought about only under the auspices of the United Nations and that it will not come as a result of harsh and humiliating terms being offered by the victor to the vanquished, which can only have the effect of renewing antagonisms?

Mr. Thomson

If my hon. Friend studies my statement he will find that in my closing sentences I directed my remarks to that point.

Mr. Tapsell

Would the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether Her Majesty's Government are taking any initiative to bring the Israeli and Arab Governments to the conference table? May I repeat a question which I put to his right hon. Friend a week ago: that if the Security Council is not united in its approach to this problem, would not it be wise to find a suitable small neutral country which is prepared to take the chair at the conference table?

Mr. Thomson

We have not forgotten the hon. Gentleman's suggestion in that respect. However, I think that the first thing is to see what can be done in the Security Council and through the United Nations machinery.

Perhaps I should remind the House that this problem, as far as Britain is concerned, is not simply one related to the Arab-Israel conflict, but is -related to the Middle East as a whole. Our most direct interests and responsibilities lie not in the area of the Arab-Israel conflict, but in Southern Arabia and the Gulf. We must remember this.

Mr. James Davidson

Although the right hon. Gentleman partly answered this question, will he give the view of Her Majesty's Government on the prospect of direct negotiations between the Israeli and Arab nations? Do the Government support the view that the Israelis should maintain the present cease-fire lines pending the outcome of a final settlement?

Mr. Thomson

I do not think that one can look too far into the future in considering this question at the moment. It is a very early stage at which to speculate. I said that, in the first place, we must work through the United Nations. I also believe that we must see what happens there during the next day or two.

Mr. Michael Foot

While I am extremely grateful for my right hon. Friend's statement about the part which the United Nations has played, or has helped to play, in the securing of a cease-fire, and in helping the refugees, may I ask whether he would reply more specifically to the question about the frontiers? Does he not agree that the question of the frontiers which are to prevail between the State of Israel and the Arab States is not one to be settled solely by the countries directly concerned, but by the whole international community, remembering that otherwise the whole basis of the United Nations will be undermined?

Mr. Thomson

I am sorry if I failed to explain myself sufficiently clearly. I thought that I had laid great emphasis on our belief that progress in this matter should be made through the United Nations. Clearly, as my hon. Friend says, the question of the frontiers—of withdrawal from land gained by, for example, military conquest—is central to this problem.

Sir A. V. Harvey

Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that while the Suez Canal is closed aid to the refugees and other Arab countries may be delayed? Has he seen the latest reports from Egypt, that the canal may be closed for two to six months? What steps can Her Majesty's Government take, either in the United Nations or elsewhere, to get the canal opened, remembering that we are informed that only two or three vessels are sunk in the canal and would have to be removed to reopen it, as Egypt was obliged to do under international law? What are the Government doing? Are they treating this as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Thomson

I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the question of opening the canal and freeing the British ships, as well as the ships of many other nationalities, is being treated by us and other countries with the greatest urgency?

Mr. Colin Jackson

Can my right hon. Friend give any further information about the refugees on the west bank of the Jordan? There seems to be a conflict of evidence, some of it that 100,000 refugees have gone east across the Jordan and some of it that the Israeli local authorities had asked them to stay? Would Her Majesty's Government consider raising this subject in the Security Council with a view to getting United Nations' observers there on the spot?

Mr. Thomson

It is impossible to give any accurate estimate of the numbers of refugees leaving the west bank of the Jordan for the east bank. People are too busy in the present situation to count heads accurately. I hope that my statement made it clear that we were intending to approach this problem through the United Nations.

Mr. Hogg

The House will have read that thousands of soldiers are walking across the desert without water at this present hour. Will the right hon. Gentleman impress on the victors the desirability that they should not, if possible, be allowed to die of thirst?

Mr. Thomson

Everybody who has read the stories and seen some of the pictures of the destruction must have been moved by this as one of the most heart-rending examples of the aftermath of war. I understand that the International Red Cross is operating in the area and I hope that it can do something to help. I certainly endorse the right hon. and learned Gentleman's appeal.

Mr. Orme

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that if a permanent peace is to be achieved in the Middle East—a peace acceptable to both the Israeli and the Arab States—we do not want to see a further escalation of the refugee problem? What specific steps do Her Majesty's Government intend to take to raise this matter, along with the other problems involved, in the United Nations, the only place where I and many of my hon. Friends agree this matter can be resolved?

Mr. Thomson

The main immediate step is to give some help, and this we are doing by sending emergency supplies. After that, it is a matter for discussion in the United Nations.

Mr. Maude

Whatever form of United Nations presence is ultimately established on the frontiers or cease-fire lines, will the Government do everything in their power to ensure that it cannot be removed except by the Assembly or Security Council and not by the Secretary General at the request of only one side?

Mr. Thomson

The hon. Gentleman has raised one of the very important problems and terms of any final settlement in this conflict. Clearly, that final settlement is a long way ahead yet and it would be rash for me to speculate at this moment about exactly what form it might take.

Mr. Abse

In view of the fact that the intervention of all outside parties in the Middle East has hitherto been so disastrous, and the basic cause of the trouble has been the non-recognition of Israel by the Arab States, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the folly and dangers of attempting to impose a peace if there is not, as a preliminary, a recognition of the State of Israel at the negotiating table by all the Arab States?

Mr. Thomson

I do not believe that this is a matter which can be isolated or divorced from the international community as a whole. They have a legitimate interest in what sort of settlement emerges here, though, naturally, the first responsibility lies on the immediate contestants.

Sir J. Langford-Holt

Ls the right hon. Gentleman aware, in respect of the allegation about British intervention, that there are people throughout the world who still believe it and that nothing he has said in answer to questions today gives us any comfort? Is he aware that what is required now is something urgently to be done by Her Majesty's Government? Otherwise, if this goes on for another week, it will be easy for people who started this lie to say that we have had time to destroy the evidence?

Mr. Thomson

I assure the House that everything possible is being done, with the greatest possible urgency. However, it should be remembered that a lie like this is easily put out but is difficult to erase. With all deference to the hon. Gentleman, may I say that it would be easier to erase this lie if there was not an historic precedent which was not a lie.

Sir B. Janner

Will my right hon. Friend be realistic in this matter? Is not he aware that time after time the Israeli Government have asked the Arabs to come to the conference table? Is he not aware that these two peoples, who understand the mentality of each other, would be able to settle the differences between themselves rather than by the imposition of any outside influences, which have let them down very badly in the past? Will he please direct his attention towards a settlement between the Arabs and Israelis at a peace conference of their own, so that there will be no misunderstanding in future?

Mr. Thomson

I admire my hon. Friend's optimism in this matter, but I am afraid that one of the things which has made this an intractable international problem has been the difficulty of getting the two sides round the conference table to discuss peace constructively between each other. It is, therefore, legitimate to believe that the United Nations has a rôle to play in dealing with this problem.

Sir R. Cary

In view of the comforting remarks that have been made about the high level of oil stocks as distinct from supplies, will the right hon. Gentleman deny the suggestion made in the newspapers this morning that we will be under petrol rationing within six weeks?

Mr. Thomson

That is primarily a question for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power. I have certainly seen no evidence to support that particular story in the Press.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.