HC Deb 18 January 1991 vol 183 cc1113-22

11 am

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

Earlier this morning, seven Scud missiles, fired from mobile launchers in Iraq, struck Israel. They are reported to have landed at or near Tel Aviv, in Haifa and near Nazareth. The missiles carried conventional warheads.

The Israeli Government have shown great restraint over the past five and a half months, restraint which we warmly applaud. Earlier this morning, the Prime Minister issued a statement saying that he was appalled at the Iraqi attack. The House will want to join the Prime Minister and myself in condemning this outrageous attack on Israel's civilian population. It will be seen in all parts of the world as a reckless ploy to widen the conflict. The House will note that the attack was wholly indiscriminate, and it is a miracle that no one was killed.

During the night we were in close touch with the United States Administration and with the Governments of Israel and certain Arab countries. I have spoken this morning to the Israeli Foreign Minister and to the Egyptian Foreign Minister.

We understand fully the anger of the Israeli Government and people and their responsibility for the defence of their own country. We have asked them to understand in turn the need to retain the greatest possible support for the military action being undertaken against Iraq, including among the Arab nations who have joined us in that action or who support it. Israel has the right of self-defence, and no one can take that decision from them; but we believe that restraint by Israel at this time would be interpreted as strength not weakness, given the powerful military operation now under way against Iraq in pursuit of the objectives laid down by the United Nations.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his statement. The House would appreciate it if the right hon. Gentleman or a relevant colleague would continue to provide statements to the House whenever appropriate.

The Opposition totally condemn the missile attack on Israel, an attack entirely without provocation on a country which is in no way involved either in the Gulf dispute or the current hostilities. It is a wanton act of aggression, based on vicious prejudice. I share the relief that there were no serious casualties.

While I understand completely the sense of outrage of the Israelis at the deliberate provocation, I trust that they will not be provoked. Their restraint so far has been exemplary. Saddam Hussein has taken this action cynically to set a trap for the Israelis. I hope that the Israelis will not fall into that trap by making a military response. The cause of ending Saddam Hussein's aggression will more likely be damaged than enhanced by an Israeli military response.

This action emphasises the basic evil of the Iraqi regime, from which the Iraqi people, the Kurds and, most recently, the Kuwaitis, have suffered. Now that military action by the coalition, under United Nations authority, is under way, it is more essential than ever that it be brought to a speedy and successful conclusion.

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) for what he said, which suggests that there is widespread agreement on the subject in the House.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the statements appearing to emanate from the Israeli Government that they are prepared not to take action in retaliation are one of the most hopeful signs that have emerged from the conflict so far? Does he agree that, if they are seen to follow the precept set out by Shakespeare in Act 4 of "The Merchant of Venice"—that The quality of mercy is not strained"— they will materially contribute to a successful conclusion to many of the problems in the Gulf?

Mr. Hurd

When I spoke to Mr. Levi, this morning, the meeting of the Israeli Cabinet was still proceeding, and he courteously came out to speak to me, so I cannot confirm what my hon. Friend said. I laid before Mr. Levi certain considerations. The Israelis have a difficult decision to make, and we understand fully the difficulty in which they are placed.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this happening underlines the luck in war, because there could have been hundreds of dead instead of seven slightly injured? We pay tribute to the restraint that the Israelis have shown.

A rumour is circulating: will the Foreign Secretary assure us that despite the fact that to avoid hitting civilian targets, 20 per cent. of our attacks are being aborted, there will be no loosening of the excellent precision bombing that is a yardstick of the battle plan? Does he agree that, while many in the House have not, as we have, accepted the necessity of hostilities, in these circumstances those people should also recognise that, even had there been no hostilities, at some not-too-distant time, those Scud missiles would have landed in Israel in any event? That is a fact.

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman makes a shrewd point. As regards his first question, I certainly say—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is sitting beside me—that there is no question of the operation being loosened. It is tightly controlled. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, instructions are given to minimise the civilian causalties wherever possible, and the targets that our forces have been instructed to attack are, without exception, military targets or targets of strategic importance.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

The attack on Israel is an unwelcome development which the whole country will totally deplore, but is not it clear that, however difficult, restraint from Israel is not only in the international interest but in the national interest of Israel?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I shall add a piece of information that the House may have already had from other sources—it appeared that Israel was not the only country to be attacked by Scud missiles last night. Apparently, there was also an attempted but frustrated missile attack on Dhahran in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Does the Foreign Secretary not accept that, while the Israelis will listen with respect to the views that he and others have expressed about restraint, it is for their Government, as the democratically elected Government of the country, to take such steps as they regard as necessary to protect their citizens? In recognising that that is an anguished decision, does he not see that it is far easier to urge restraint from here than to accept it after a citizen, his family and friends—innocent civilians—have been bombed, and when restraint may be taken by Saddam Hussein as an indication of something else?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, I think that I recognised that fully in the answer that I gave, as we have in everything that we have said to the Israelis who have a difficult decision. Their pressures and anxieties are immediate and strong. The account that I was given by Mr. Levi of the anxieties and fears of the night, when people felt that they might well be under chemical attack, are perfectly understandable. We must understand that as the background against which the Israelis have to take their decision.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his wise and extremely appropriate statement on this new and dangerous development? Will he confirm that five Arab countries are supporting the coalition with military means, and that the vast majority of the 22 Arab countries support the coalition? Does he agree that the allies have at their disposal all the weapons required to deal with the problem?

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend is right on his first point. In relation to his second point, it will come as a surprise to no one that the allied commanders are well aware of that particular problem and are anxious to deal with it.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary's well-judged statement has the support of everyone in the House, and I do not wish to add to it. However, will he consider how we counter Saddam Hussein's propaganda, and in particular how we use every possible mechanism to show the world that this is still essentially an inter-Arab conflict?

Mr. Hurd

I quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and we have spent a lot of time on that. As he said, it is essentially for Arabs to put their point of view forward, as it comes convincingly from them. That is why the Egyptian Government and all our friends in the coalition have done a great deal—we have done our best to help them do a great deal—to make that point. The idea that Saddam Hussein is accepted as a spokesman or champion for the Arab world does not stand up to examination.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that we are asking the people of Israel to exercise self-restraint on a scale that no other democracy in the world would be willing to exercise? Will my right hon. Friend guarantee that he will show understanding for the people of Israel in whatever decision they take, because they have been attacked for no good reason? The fact that there was no loss of life was due to the intervention of the Almighty and not to the deeds of Saddam Hussein. Those missiles were sent to kill rather than simply to maim and injure.

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend is right on the last point. In what 1 have said to the House and in what I have said in private, I have tried to show the understanding that he seeks.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the successful prosecution of a just war requires conduct so far as possible that is conducive to obtaining a just peace? Since the preamble to the United Nations charter allows the use of force only when peace and security have been broken, is not it therefore wise to remember that the peace in that whole area was uneasy and that security was tenuous for many? Because of that, will he charge all his colleagues and everyone concerned in this unfortunate affair that the successful prosecution of the war is as important as the successful prosecution by the United Nations in a new era of those underlying causes and incidents of which we are all aware?

Mr. Hurd

Certainly the area has become much more unstable since the aggression on 2 August. Our aim is to reverse that aggression as the United Nations has authorised and required. We must then go on—in that the hon. Gentleman is right—to try to work again for answers to the different problems in the middle east on the basis that the hon. Gentleman describes.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

While I agree with the Foreign Secretary's statement and the opinion expressed in the House calling on Israel to exercise restraint, would not it be well for the Secretary of State to assure the House and to assure Israel publicly that the allied forces will do everything in their power to seek out those missile sites and deal with them, so that such an incident will not recur?

Mr. Hurd

I have already answered that question indirectly. The allied nations engaged in the military action against Iraq are well aware of that particular problem and are anxious to deal with it.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the media and the world at large should contrast the difference between the precision bombing against military targets by the international force and the indiscriminate attack on civilian targets by Saddam Hussein? While I welcome the statement, and as I come from a Province in which we know what it takes to try to exercise restraint in the face of terrorism, we urge Israel to depend on the international forces at this time to defeat Saddam.

Mr. Hurd

If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman has both points exactly right.

Mr. Matthew Carrington (Fulham)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital for the prosecution of the war and for the negotiations for peace that Israel shows great restraint in retaliation on this matter? Does he also agree that it is important that, in the face of future provocations that may well occur from the Iraqis, Israel should remember that it is important that any retaliation to which it may resort is in proportion to the attack from Iraq?

Mr. Hurd

Both my hon. Friend's points are well taken.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the unfortunate reports in today's Daily Mail and Sun of thousands of Muslims praying in mosques for Saddam Hussein's victory, and about friction on certain factory shop floors yesterday? In view of that, will he ask the Prime Minister to arrange an urgent meeting with the president of the Council of Mosques, and perhaps one or two newspaper editors, before a potentially difficult racial situation arises?

Mr. Hurd

We certainly are anxious to show everyone in this country and Muslims across the world that this is not a question of the west against Muslims or the west against Arabs. I have seen much evidence to make me believe that many Arabs and a great majority of Muslims repudiate the idea that Saddam Hussein is in some way their champion. However, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) has a good point. We must pay particular attention to making that point effectively to our fellow citizens.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, several years ago, Israel destroyed Iraq's nuclear-weapon-making potential? That action was condemned at the time by many countries, including this one. In view of what happened last night, would my right hon. Friend care to reflect on what might have happened had Israel not taken that action?

Mr. Hurd

I do not want to go back on that, because the present situation is different. Israel is not alone in facing the present circumstances. A very powerful military action is under way, which has begun favourably, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has reported. There can be no doubt in the minds of the Israelis about the determination with which the allies, including the more important Arab states, are conducting that operation.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

In spite of the undoubted outrage that the Israeli Government and the Israeli people feel about that unprovoked aggression, the Government of Israel know that that is part of Saddam Hussein's political strategy to involve them in the war and therefore—as he believes—to strengthen his particular cause and gain support. They know that, but is not the major concern in the minds of the Israeli Government likely to be whether last night's attack is likely to be repeated and whether, next time, it might comprise a chemical weapons attack?

Mr. Hurd

Indeed, they will have that thought in their minds. I sympathise for once with what the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) said about that. It is much easier for us to make such points, and I made the same point as the right hon. Gentleman about the attack being a reckless ploy to widen the conflict. That is what it obviously was. However, it is easier for us to make such points in the Chamber than it is for the Israeli Cabinet to reach a decision.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

My right hon. Friend referred a moment ago to the interception of another missile. Is not that a tribute to the skill and professionalism of the international forces, which were able to intercept that missile and thereby prevent further escalation last night?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, indeed. That episode has now been confirmed. A Scud missile was destroyed over Saudi Arabia by a Patriot counter-missile. That was a notable and significant feat.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Does not this attack demonstrate more clearly than anything that has happened so far why we could not allow Iraq to continue to develop its nuclear capability? Is not the launching of a missile of known inaccuracy against urban targets a terror attack in the pure tradition of the V1 and V2?

Should not the Israeli Cabinet, which I believe is meeting at the moment, realise that it can do nothing to add to the military impact of a United Nations strike against Iraq, and that nothing it can do will deter Iraq—indeed, that quite the opposite would be the case? A strike by Israel would be the only good news Saddam has had since this tragic disaster unfolded.

Mr. Hurd

I do not want to add to what I have said about the nature of the decision that the Israelis have to take, but I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman's first point. Looking at the television pictures this morning, some of us were reminded of the pictures of London in 1944 and 1945 and a house suddenly being destroyed by a V1 or a V2 rocket.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington)

Is not it clear that the latest act of cynical aggression by the Iraqi leader demonstrates that we are dealing with a man who, as long as he has a capability, whatever that capability may be, is tempted—indeed, likely—to use it? Should not the relevant Governments of the United Nations coalition take that point fully into account in the coming days and weeks?

Mr. Hurd

Yes, I think that we are dealing now with someone whose recklessness has overcome any rational form of calculation. That is particularly dangerous.

Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the outrageous attack upon Israel, which everyone should condemn, demonstrates that we are engaged in a political struggle with Saddam Hussein as well as a military conflict? Is not it important that, bearing in mind the fact that he has asked the Israelis to impose restraint upon themselves, we are able to use that source of strength to take crucial political initiatives at crucial moments? Would not it undercut Saddam Hussein's present political strategy if the Security Council, in a fresh session, made a fresh, unequivocal commitment to convene an early middle east peace conference?

Mr. Hurd

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's last suggestion. An attempt to call an international conference on the Palestinian question in the context of the aggression against Kuwait would be bound to fail. Israel would not come to such a conference, and at least three of the major Arab countries have made it clear to us that they wholly reject the idea that Saddam Hussein or his aggression against Kuwait should be treated as putting him in a special position as regards the dispute. It would not work.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Does not this evil act of aggression against Israel emphasise even more strongly the need to maintain the intensity, precision and discrimination of the allied aerial bombardment of Iraq? One must remember that our aircrews are seeking not only to destroy military targets but to spare civilian populations and centres of religious and cultural activity. Will my right hon. Friend consult the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that adequate air reserves are available to the Royal Air Force to maintain the momentum and to sustain the intensity of required air operations?

Mr. Hurd

I am sure that that second point is already established. My hon. Friend is on to an important point with his first question. Certainly, particular steps are being taken by the allies to avoid damage to places of particular religious or cultural significance.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is not the Secretary of State aware that those who call upon the Israelis to exercise what is in effect almost superhuman self-control also have a duty to make sure that Israel is secure within her proper boundaries and that those who speak for muddled political reasons about what will happen after the war do nothing either to retain the confidence of the Israelis or to encourage the Israeli people to respond in the way that we require?

Mr. Hurd

I hope that we in this House have always made it clear that the safety of Israel behind secure borders, to use the phrase in resolution 242, is an essential part—not the only essential part—of any eventual settlement.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

May I refer again to the Scud missile over Saudi Arabia, which we understand was brought down by counter-missile technology? Although nobody here wants Israel to attack, the British people would like to feel that Israel could defend itself, particularly as the targets appear to have been civilian. We would not wish to see that country leaving its own population completely helpless. If, therefore, the state of Israel would wish to obtain some of the latest counter-missile technology, could we be assured that this country at least would not stand in her way?

Mr. Hurd

That is a different question. Equally, no one who knows the situation believes that Israel is defenceless in these matters.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Although I totally agree with the wise advice that is being given by the allies to the Israeli Government on what happened yesterday, is not it important for the allies and certainly for our Government not to come to the conclusion that military victory will necessarily be decisive and quick? Obviously, we all hope that it will be. Should we prepare our people for the fact that the war may go on longer than we would like, and that we are dealing with a bunch of criminals in Baghdad who are determined, as was shown last night, to do everything that they possibly can to widen the war?

Mr. Hurd

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence yesterday repeatedly emphasised the hon. Gentleman's point that we are at the beginning of a difficult operation.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Iraq's inaccurate Scud missiles are weapons not of military precision but of civilian terror and that, for that reason, all over the world there will be enormous sympathy for Israel's terrorised domestic population at this hour? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that the restraint of which he spoke could take two forms—either no retaliation at all, or retaliation of a measured and limited and proportionate nature? Is it my right hon. Friend's view that either form of retaliation would not be likely to break up the Arab coalition?

Mr. Hurd

I have deliberately not been specific about the kind of restraint that the Israeli Government might exercise.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

May I join the Secretary of State in condemning the unprovoked attack on Israel? Is not it absolutely tragic that it has taken deadly Scud missiles to demonstrate the linkage that many blinkered western politicians refused to recognise at an earlier stage when a diplomatic solution was still a possibility? [Interruption.] I am looking ahead. Does the Secretary of State agree that, once the hostilities are eventually over, the post-war peace conference will have to tackle all the disputes throughout the middle east, and the sooner that is recognised the better?

Mr. Hurd

Of course, as I have said often, and many others have said, once the aggression is reversed we will have to return to the agenda of problems in the middle east, and I hope with renewed vigour. I have already dealt with linkage. I simply do not believe that that would have helped either the Kuwait crisis or any other problem in the middle east.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the absolute security of Israel is a fundamental requirement of the House for emotional, humanitarian and intellectual and rational reasons and always has been, and that, equally, his call for restraint by them, which has already been remarkable so far, will be echoed around the world—a restraint which will enormously enhance Israel's status for the post-Saddam Hussein stabilisation of the region, which will become more and more essential as the weeks go by? Does he agree that, because Israel precisely possesses among the best armed forces in the middle east and arguably the best air force in the middle east, it is showing commendable restraint at the moment for an act which is evil, and is condemned universally?

Mr. Hurd

I agree with my hon. Friend that Israel, however well defended she is, is bound all the time to be anxious about her own security. That is a continuing factor, a continuing part of the middle east situation, which we have to respect. Equally, we believe and hope that, after the crisis is over, Israel herself will make a positive and constructive response, which will go beyond simply an assertion of existing positions.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Will the Foreign Secretary share my pleasure that apparently no one was killed in the attack, just as I am pleased if western bombs fail to kill Iraqis in this futile war? Will the Foreign Secretary comment on the likelihood that NATO is about to get involved from Turkey—offensive action from Turkey—outside its area and its charter?

Mr. Hurd

Of course that last point is not correct. The first point has already been made from Opposition Benches. There is a visible and complete difference between the kind of precision bombing, which has now been well documented at the receiving end, and the kind of holes in houses and frightened and injured civilians in Israel which we saw on television this morning.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is the third unprovoked attack by Iraq on a fellow middle east country, following the attacks on Iran and Kuwait? Building on the point made by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), does my right hon. Friend accept that what the majority of Arab nations understand and what the minority in this country and the House do not yet understand is that granting a monopoly of violence from Saddam Hussein is a recipe for disaster in the middle east and the rest of the world rather than for justice and peace?

Mr. Hurd

There comes a point when violence, once we have tried to check and reverse it by all possible means, has to be met by force—and we have come to that point this week.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, North)

Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that everybody will hope that Israel accepts the message not to retaliate against such an aggressive act, because it would widen this unnecessary war and engulf the Gulf in an even bloodier conflict? Do not the current developments confirm the view taken by some of us that it would have been preferable to maintain sanctions rather than to embark upon a war that has such potentially perilous consequences?

Mr. Hurd

We have argued that point during the last few days—[Interruption.] We have not converted the hon. Gentleman, but the Leader of the Opposition and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) carried with them the great majority of Opposition Members.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

While understanding all the difficulties and provocations with which Israel is now faced, would not it be better for the successful prosecution of the war and the cohesion of the allies, as well as for a successful peace settlement afterwards, if Israel were to stay out of the war?

Mr. Hurd

Our way is the way of restraint. As my hon. Friends have said, the options before the Israelis are not confined to just two; there are different ways in which they can handle the matter. Whatever course they choose, we hope that it will be restrained, in the sense that it does not signal the entry of Israel as a participant in the military action.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Is not it likely that an entirely unintended consequence of that murderous attack upon Israel will be a diminution in the near-euphoria displayed by so many so-called experts and journalists during the early days of the war? Should not such TV journalists be reminded that their enthusiastic use of toy soldiers, toy aircraft and toy tanks may cause considerable distress to the families of men serving in the Gulf? I do not ask for censorship, merely for restraint in the enthusiastic use of such graphics.

Mr. Hurd

Personally, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that what he has said will be noted.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

As the most dramatic events imaginable could occur in the middle east this weekend, should not the House be in session? We could meet for a short period on Saturday and another short period on Sunday, so that statements such as this, referring to the latest position, could be made. That would help us to fulfil our role as representatives, and it would also help us to monitor the position.

Is not the restraint of the Israelis to be considerably commended? Is not it a pity that such restraint was not shown by the American and British Governments, so that the bombings in Iraq would not have taken place, with the disaster that will be associated with that? We hear nothing about areas such as Basra, where there has been heavy bombing.

Mr. Hurd

I do not think that many Israelis would agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point. On his first point, the Government have been forward in coming to the House to make statements, provide information and arrange debates. Indeed, another debate has been arranged for next Monday. The House has had many opportunities, and will have further opportunities, to discuss and pronounce on the matter.