HC Deb 23 January 1991 vol 184 cc321-6 3.31 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

(by private notice):To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, if he will make a statement on the latest Iraqi missile attack on Israel.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

Last night, and once again, Tel Aviv came under missile attack from Iraq. Latest statements by the Isreali Government indicate that, because of this attack, three people are dead and 98 are injured.

The House will endorse last night's statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He said that he was appalled by this further savage attack on civilians. He expressed this country's deepest sympathy to the bereaved, to those who are hurt and to their families, and this House agrees.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister repeated our hope that, even now, the Government of Israel would show the forbearance that they have so far demonstrated and not give Saddam Hussein the satisfaction of drawing Israel into the conflict. This message was passed to the Government of Israel last night.

Israel is, of course, entitled to defend herself: that is not at issue. The question is whether it is in her interest to retaliate. We believe that it is not. To do so would be to play Saddam Hussein's game without in our view adding to Israel's security. I therefore hope that Israel, her Government and her people will continue to show the same patient and courageous restraint that they have already displayed in the face of outrageous provocation.

Mr. Kaufman

We on this side condemn this latest attack as a sign of the wickedness and desperation of Saddam Hussein. It is an act of wickedness to fire missiles armed with explosives at a country that is not involved in the war now taking place and is not involved in the dispute which led to the war. It is especially wicked to aim missiles at heavily populated centres where civilian casualties are inevitable. No doubt Saddam Hussein is proud that he has claimed the lives of three elderly, innocent women. We extend our sympathy to the bereaved families and to all the people of Israel in their ordeal and in their continuing anxiety.

It is an act of desperation to fire the missiles because no one with confidence in his war prospects would continue this cynical attempt to distort the issues in the war by trying to drag Israel into it. In any case, the Syrian and Egyptian Governments have shown that they do not intend to be taken in by those bloodthirsty manoeuvrings.

The Israeli Government deserve respect and admiration for refusing to fall into Saddam Hussein's trap. I trust that they will continue to maintain their self-restraint, without any bargain struck to win that self-restraint and difficult though it must be not to yield to the understandable impulse to hit back.

Saddam Hussein will lose the war, and the attacks will end. Peace will come to the middle east, and Israel must be part of that peace.

Mr. Hogg

I entirely agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm that there can be nothing worse for Jewish people than to be facing the prospect in a Jewish state of gas attacks and that such a thing is almost beyond belief after the Nazi holocaust? In expressing his concern and support for the state of Israel, as he did so well, will my hon. and learned Friend confirm that the Americans will do everything possible, with Patriot missiles and other means, to help the Israelis to defend their air space?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The people of Israel can feel certain that the countries of the coalition will do all in their power to defend the people of Israel against this kind of attack.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

On behalf of my colleagues, I join in extending sympathy to the people of Israel in their present suffering. Will the Minister accept that not least of that suffering, apart from the deaths and injuries that have occurred, is the knowledge that they live from day to day and from hour to hour under threat of the most horrific and random terror from Iraq? Will he convey to the Israeli Government the admiration of some of us who have criticised their policies in the past of the fact that they will not fall for the ploy of Saddam Hussein's intended retaliation?

Mr. Hogg

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. As the Government of Israel will know, there have been differences between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of Israel on previous occasions, but on this matter the House, the Government, feel nothing but respect and admiration for the forbearance that has been shown by the Government and people of Israel.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the Israelis have already gained much by staying out of the conflict? They have gained sympathy across the world, they have the Patriot defence system in place, and they have gained considerable understanding in Arab nations, which must be to their advantage in the long term.

Mr. Hogg

The people of Israel indeed have the respect of the British people; and I imagine that the people of Israel will also admire the fortitude that has been shown by the Arab members of the coalition, who have made it plain that, notwithstanding the brutal attack on a civilian target, they will stand firm against Saddam Hussein.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Does the Minister accept that in a democratic country people will expect to be defended by their Government on whom there will be great pressures? Will he pay tribute to the way in which the Israeli Government have resisted deliberate political attempts to link their future with a war that was not of their making and is not of their prosecution?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Lady is right. The war was not of the making of the people or the Government of Israel. They have been subjected to unprovoked attacks against civilian targets. A sovereign state, the state of Israel, has the right to defend herself. The question is whether it is in her interests to retaliate, and we do not believe that it is.

Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

Is it not right to point out that every day our young and brave pilots are trying to minimise Iraqi civilian casualties while the Iraqi regime rain down upon innocent men, women and children death and destruction? Let us as a House salute the bravery, fortitude and restraint of the people and Government of Israel.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend has drawn a very important point to the attention of the House. The allied forces—in particular, the pilots—have taken enormous care to avoid causing unnecessary civilian casualties. Indeed, the latest estimate from the Iraqis bears this out. Such cannot be said of Saddam Hussein, who has launched Scud attacks against cities. By their nature, Scud attacks are undirected and indiscriminate. This is terror bombing of civilian targets.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Does the Minister accept that it is for Israel's Government to decide, after listening to all advice, and on the basis of all intelligence, what to do to protect their own people? Does he accept also that it is totally unrealistic to expect the Israeli Government to allow their people to be submitted to a series of barbarous and monstrous attacks without taking retaliatory action?

Mr. Hogg

I accept that the state of Israel has a right to strike if it believes that it is necessary to do so. There is no question about that. What is at stake is whether it would be in the interests of the people of Israel to strike back. Of course, that is a matter for the Government of Israel. However, we can advise—indeed, we do advise—and we hope that the Government of Israel will respond to our advice.

Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)

Will my hon. Friend convey to the people of Israel the sense of outrage of the people of this nation, whose civilian population have suffered the horrors of indiscriminate aerial bombardment? Will he convey our feelings of solidarity with the people of Israel at this time? Will he make it clear that we are determined not just to liberate the nation of Kuwait but also to smash the Iraqi war machine, which poses such a threat to the civilian populations of both Israel and Saudi Arabia?

Mr. Hogg

This country and its people suffered the consequences of indiscriminate bombing 50 years ago. We know what it means and, therefore, our hearts go out to the people of Israel.

Mr. Jim Sillars (Glasgow, Govan)

I associate my colleagues and myself with the condemnation of the vicious and malicious attack that resulted in the deaths of people in Tel Aviv. May I ask the Minister, however, to reconsider his agreement in total with the statement made by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman)? Is he not aware that this was not an act of desperation by Saddam Hussein but, rather, a key part of a very important political strategy? However despicable we in the west may find yesterday's attack, the harsh fact of life is that it deepens and widens Saddam's support at popular level in the Arab world. Does not that demonstrate clearly the west's political weakness in failing to recognise that until we take early action to convene a middle east peace conference we shall be liable to lose the political battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab people?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point when he says that broader issues have to be tackled. They are urgent matters, and they will be tackled. It is very important indeed that the problems with regard to Palestine and the related issue of how Israel's security is to be assured be settled. The western countries will address these matters very urgently. However, they are not linked to this conflict; they are separate and distinct. We must stand on principle, and the requirement here is to remove Iraq from Kuwait absolutely.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Do not the destructive events in Tel Aviv last night provide a glaring contrast between the moral and military approach in the middle east of on the one hand the allied policy of confining action against military and strategic targets and not the civilian population—a policy that the Iraqis admit has caused only 41 fatalities to date—and on the other hand the Iraqi policy of indiscriminately hitting centres of civilian population not only in Israel but also in Saudi Arabia?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is right. The use of Scud missiles is the use of a terror weapon.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

I entirely support the statement by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). The Minister was right to say that those missiles, by their very nature, are undirected and indiscriminate. That demonstrates Saddam Hussein's lack of concern for the Israeli-Arab population in Israel. Given that Saddam Hussein still retains the ability to lauch indiscriminate attacks on Israel and the west bank and Gaza, will the Minister discuss with the Israeli ambassador in London how those prisoners who are held in the Negev desert and living in tents can be protected from indiscriminate attacks? If the Government have any spare gas masks that might fit young people under the age of 15, could they be supplied to the Israeli Government because they are having difficulty in providing masks to young Palestinians under the age of 15?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman's latter point is important and I shall reflect on it. In response to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I can say, yes indeed. We must bear in mind another interesting point. Saddam Hussein says that he is a great respecter of Muslim holy places, but we must remember that Scud missiles are perfectly capable of destroying mosques and other holy places. What credit do we give to such a man?

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Although I condemn the disgraceful attack which was borne so courageously by the Israeli people, does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is very important not to get the power of the Scud missile out of all proportion? It can be countered. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree with an article in The Times today which pointed out that the Scud missile, rather like the Stuka dive bomber in the second world war, is as much a psychological as a military weapon? Is it not important to state that the users of Scud missiles will as assuredly be defeated as were the users of the Stuka dive bombers in the last war?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is right. The Scud missille can indeed be countered and, for the most part, has been countered, largely by Patriot missiles. I also agree that it is largely a psychological weapon. However, last night it killed three civilians, and Scud missiles have injured a large number of innocent civilians. That tells us a great deal about Saddam Hussein.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Does the Minister accept that, as I represent the people of Belfast who have suffered indiscriminately from terror, and the birthplace of the president of Israel, our sympathy goes out to the president and to the people of Israel at this time? Does he also accept that it is a foolish person who does what his enemy wants him to do in a conflict, and we commend the Israelis' restraint?

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman who, more than most people, understands the impact of indiscriminate bombing. The people of Israel will be grateful for what has been said.

On the second part of the hon. Gentleman's comments, I very much hope that the Government of Israel will not play Saddam Hussein's game.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. This is a private notice question. I will allow two more questions from each side of the House and then we must make progress.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

We welcome yesterday's announcement of the setting up of the Gulf trust for the families of the service men and women who are defending freedom. Will my hon. and learned Friend today underscore our deep distress and our support for Israel during her latest trauma by offering aid to her children, perhaps through Children and Youth Aliyah, which is the children's arm of the Zionist organisation helping children in Israel? Will my hon. and learned Friend subsequently assist hon. Members like me who I know will want to go further and form some kind of a trust for the children of the people who will be our former enemies—the Iraqi children—because in the immortal lines of Bernard Shaw, "I have no enemies under seven"?

Mr. Hogg

Not only that, but we have no quarrel with the Iraqi people. Our quarrel is with Saddam Hussein and those who stand behind him. The first part of my hon. Friend's question involves detailed proposals, and I shall be very happy to discuss them with her.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Minister aware that there have been and will be many more wholly innocent victims of the escalating conflict in the middle east and that the House will wish to express its sympathy to those in that area, including those in Tel Aviv? Is he aware also that the great danger now is an escalation and extension of the conflict in which Israel and Jordan and perhaps other countries may be involved? As that represents a distinct threat to international peace and security, will he refer the latest incident to the Security Council so that it can meet to consider the full implications of what is now happening in the middle east conflict?

Mr. Hogg

That there has been an extension of the conflict is true, but the extension takes the form of Saddam Hussein attacking Israel, which country is not party to that dispute.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that the indiscriminate bombing of civilians is the most baseless and deplorable action in war? Will he reaffirm that, in pursuing victory in this war, in no circumstances will the allies target civilian targets?

Mr. Hogg

Very careful instructions have been given to the commanders in the field to take great care to avoid unnecessary civilian targets and also to avoid cultural and religious sites of significance. Indeed, it is quite plain that coalition pilots have either not attacked because they thought that they might threaten such targets or have actually risked their lives to reduce the risk to those targets.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I endorse everything that has been said about the cynical and indiscriminate attacks on Israel. However, I urge the Minister and the House not to lose sight of the fact that fully 800 people have been killed by the Israelis in their oppression of territories occupied in flagrant contravention of United Nations resolutions for 23 years. In view of that, whatever happens in the aftermath of these incidents —I hope that the coalition will hang together—can our Arab allies in the coalition depend on the United Kingdom Government to press for urgent action following the resolution of the conflict to satisfy the just demands of the Palestinian people?

Mr. Hogg

We are very conscious that wider issues must be tackled. They include how one best provides for self-determination for the Palestinian people. They also include, of course, how one assures a safe and secure future for the state of Israel. They are vital matters, and we shall consider them as soon as we can.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am on my feet.