HC Deb 21 June 1993 vol 227 cc146-52

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

11 59 pm

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman commences, I understand from a note that was left for me that he proposes to give way to three other hon. Members. It is a tradition that 'an Adjournment debate is, on the whole, for a single Member. Occasionally, a colleague or somebody who has a specific interest is allowed to intervene. It is not a general debate and therefore, on the whole, the Chair does not welcome the hon. Member giving way to more than one colleague.

Mr. Marshall

I hope that we can conduct this debate in a fruitful way. The subject is the future of hostages in the middle east and the peace process. One could talk about a large number of specific cases. The first one that I refer to the House is that of Zakaria Baumel, whose fate has been shrouded in mystery since 1982.

I speak with some feeling about this case, because his parents first came to see me in 1985, at which time they did not know what had happened to their son—and they still do not. They know that he was captured on 11 June 1982 and that the next day he was paraded around Damascus and displayed to locals. Since then, there has been a complete news blackout—no letter, no photograph, nothing. His father has gone to the United Nations, to Tunis, to London, but is still no wiser about the fate of his son, who disappeared more than 11 years ago. If he is alive, he should be reunited with his family, and if he is dead his body should be returned for a decent burial. At the very least, his parents have a right to know what has happened to their son.

The second case is that of Joseph Fink whose parents come from Manchester, and whom I met in the House. He again was captured in 1986, after which things were shrouded in a veil of mystery and silence. His parents never heard anything from him—not a letter, not a photograph. Until 1991, no one knew what had happened, and then irrefutable evidence was given through the good offices of the United Nations that young Joseph Fink had died in captivity. Eighteen months later, he is still denied a proper burial, and for the past seven years his parents have experienced a living hell. For years, their lives alternated between feelings of hope and despair. Now, they know that they will never see their son again, but surely they have the right to give him a decent burial.

The third case is that of Ron Arad, which has troubled many hon. Members. The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir T. Arnold) are both abroad on Select Committee business, otherwise they would have been here and would have tried to speak briefly in the debate. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), who is sitting on the Government Front Bench, has been active in private, although in public he has been subject to the Trappist vows of the Whips Office. I should like to thank him for the concern that he has expressed about the case. I know that all my colleagues in Barnet have received many letters and have responded sympathetically to them. I hope that the united voice of a number of colleagues in the House may help to renuite Ron Arad with his loving and anxious family.

Certain facts are beyond dispute. The first is that Ron Arad was captured in October 1986, nearly seven years ago. The second is that he has been alive in captivity because his family received photographs of him alive in 1987. Since then, he has been covered in a veil of silence. Nothing official has been heard for six years, although it is believed that he is still alive.

One must ask his captors some questions. Why have they broken the Geneva convention'? Ron Arad is a prisoner of war. He should be treated accordingly and given the rights of a prisoner of war. Why have his captors held him incommunicado? Why have they prevented visits from the Red Cross? Why have they not allowed him to write to his relatives or to receive letters from them? They are clearly a group of very heartless men. His mother, Batya, is a widow. Why, in the evening of her life, do they deprive her of the company of her eldest son? Instead of enjoying his companionship, she has scoured the world seeking to mobilise international public opinion to secure his release.

Ron Arad's daughter was one year old when he was captured. Yesterday it was father's day in the United Kingdom. For Yuval Arad, "father" is the name of an absentee parent. It means someone of whom others talk but whom she does not know. For seven of her eight years, father has been somewhere in the middle east. What sort of people deprive a young child of the companionship and love of her father?

Life is extremely difficult for Ron Arad's wife. For most of her married life, he has been in captivity. She has heard nothing since 1987; not a letter, not a card, not a photograph, not a word. She has had to bring up her daughter on her own, not knowing whether her husband is dead or alive, not knowing where he might be held, not knowing who might be holding him. All that she knows is that, if he is alive, he is being held in pretty insalubrious conditions.

Why do Ron Arad's captors refuse the Red Cross access to him? Is it because they are ashamed of the conditions in which they are holding him? Why do they deprive his loved ones of news about his fate? Why do they deprive his elderly mother of her son? Why do they deprive an eight-year-old girl of the love, companionship and friendship of her father? Why do they deprive Tami of her husband's presence? Ron Arad has been a prisoner for longer than anyone in the second world war. Why should he be treated worse than the prisoners of war in Korea?

Concern is not limited to hon. Members. When Ron Arad's brothers visited London recently, Baroness Thatcher met them both and expressed her grave concern about the way he has been treated. The European Parliament has also passed a resolution condemning the treatment of Ron Arad. Amnesty International has also shown a deep interest in this case, and officers of the United Nations have expressed concern. Interest in the case is purely humanitarian.

The exact location of Ron Arad's captivity is not known, but it is known that the Iranian people have a substantial influence over his captors. That is why I welcome the meeting that took place between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Iranian chargé d'affaires. The captors of Ron Arad have the opportunity to right a grievous wrong, but also to put in train the peace process in the middle east.

Hopes of peace in the middle east are greater than at any time since Camp David. The Israeli Government are committed to peace and compromise. The American Government have offered to underwrite a settlement over Golan by placing United States troops there.

Peace in the middle east will come in the form of a series of building blocks which generate mutual trust.

The Israelis have shown that they are willing to compromise and to concede territory. It is not unreasonable for them to ask others to make a similar compromise. Each individual concession may be small in itself but together they create the climate of opinion in which there can be mutual trust instead of mutual suspicion—and without that trust, we will never get peace in the middle east.

Having been re-elected by the Iranian people, President Rafsanjani has an unparalleled opportunity to help peace in the middle east by using his substantial influence over the captors of Ron Arad, and to end his living nightmare. The Iranians have a chance to reunite him with his family and, in doing so, to help to secure peace in the middle east.

When we ask ourselves why John McCarthy and Terry Waite are living in freedom today, one of the answers that we must give is that Israel helped to unravel the log jam in the middle east by releasing 100 prisoners in 1991, through the mediation of Jacques Picco, who was then assistant United Nations Secretary-General. The release of the prisoners at the start of that exchange led to the freedom of John McCarthy and Terry Waite.

There was clearly an unwritten understanding that, if Israel released prisoners, she would receive some of her hostages back. What did she receive? Merely the remains of one Druze soldier. She was told that two of her hostages were dead, but their parents were denied the right to receive their bodies back. No word was given of the fate of Baumel, Feldman and Katz. Most galling of all, Ron Arad, who is certainly alive, was maintained in captivity. The west rejoiced at the freedom of Terry Waite and John McCarthy. We in the west should recognise that we have a debt of honour to the people of Israel and should campaign to ensure that Ron Arad enjoys his freedom.

Israel showed remarkable self-restraint when the Scud missiles were thundering down on her towns in 1991. She showed remarkable trust when she released prisoners in 1991. She should surely be rewarded in 1993.

This debate is about hostages in the middle east, and it would be negligent of the House not to refer to the plight of Michael Wainwright, Paul Ride and Simon Dunn, who are all imprisoned in Iraq. They all strayed into Iraq unwittingly. The border between Iraq and Kuwait is not exactly the clearest border on the international map. All of them were innocents abroad, and I ask the regime in Iraq to think of the hardship that is being imposed on their families by their continued incarceration in that country.

If Iraq is concerned about her reputation in the world, she will speedily ensure that those innocent men, who did not deliberately set out to go into Iraq illegally, are freed and allowed to rejoin their families. If Iraq wants to return to the international family, she should release those prisoners immediately.

12.13 am
Sir John Wheeler (Westminster, North)

You have already advised the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it is not normally the custom for further speeches to be made in an Adjournment debate. I therefore rise at the bidding of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), because of the circumstances of the debate, and perhaps to enable me to say a word on behalf of the other hon. Members present this evening in support of what my hon. Friend has said.

My hon. Friend has addressed the House in a way that illustrates his love of humanity and concern for people who are unjustly held in custody in appalling circumstances—whether as a result of military action or as a result of seizure because they have strayed across the border between Kuwait and Iraq.

What matters to the House tonight is that hon. Members should demonstrate their concern about those injustices and show their sympathy to people in Israel and elsewhere, including the United Kingdom, for the well-being of those unfortunate people. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will shortly reply. I hope that he can take the voice and view of the House tonight as part of his case to the United Nations when he urges the Secretary-General's office to redouble its splendid effort to help to recover these hostages and prisoners.

We know that the United Nations has a considerable track record in this regard and I know that the House hopes that Mr. Picco's successor, Mr. Sevan, will continue to use all his best endeavours to obtain the release of Ron Arad and of the others to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South has referred so well in this debate. We owe my hon. Friend a great debt of gratitude for obtaining the debate and for bringing the plight of these unfortunate people to the attention of the House and of my hon. Friend the Minister.

12.15 am
Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) and to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make a brief intervention to support his eloquent plea on behalf of the family of Joseph Spink, who comes from Manchester, and on behalf of the campaign for the freedom of the Israeli, Ron Arad. I had the great privilege of meeting Ron Arad's family when they visited the House a few weeks ago. I and other hon. Members assured the family then that we would do all in our power to prevail on our Government to persuade his captors to release him. This debate is part fulfilment of that promise.

I speak tonight not only on behalf of Ron Arad, but on behalf of many of my constituents who are actively involved in the campaign to secure his freedom. That campaign is strongly supported by the Manchester Jewish Press, which is based in my constituency and which has been tireless in its efforts to remind us of Ron Arad's plight. I pay tribute to all those dedicated campaigners.

A few years ago, when many of us were battling away for the release from the former Soviet Union of those who wished to make a new life in the west and in Israel, we used to refer to the would-be emigrants as prisoners of conscience. Today, Ron Arad is a prisoner of conscience. He believes, arid we believe, that he should have been freed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South said, when the other western hostages, Terry Waite, John McCarthy and all the rest of them, came home. He was part of that deal. The fact that he remains in prison is a matter for the conscience of the west.

The time has come for Ron Arad to return home, and the time has come, too, for western Governments, including our own, to fight for his release. The time has come for the world to observe in the case of Ron Arad the biblical injunction to undo the heavy burden and to let the oppressed go free.

12.18 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

I am glad to add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall), who has raised the subject of the future of the hostages in the middle east and the peace process. He, our right hon. Friend the Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler) and our hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) are all familiar with the problems of the middle east and they have always successfully articulated the hopes and frustrations of their constituents about that troubled area.

I am also pleased to see in the Chamber this evening my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Kirkhope), for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) and for Wimbledon (Dr. Goodson-Wickes). All my hon. Friends, including those who have not spoken tonight, have throughout their parliamentary careers been constant in their endeavours by letters, by questions, by debate where possible and by representations to Ministers to bring understanding to the problems that we are debating tonight.

I want to make a few preliminary remarks about the peace process generally. The parties returned last week to Washington for what is likely to be a crucial round of negotiations. While it is true that the last round produced no major breakthrough, we should not dismiss the importance of the fact that the parties are continuing their discussions.

There has been real progress in the discussions between Israel and Jordan and in those between Israel and the Lebanon. The differences between the negotiating positions of Israel and Syria have narrowed to one central issue of definition of the terms of the Israeli withdrawal from the Golan and the terms of the peace which Israel could then expect. Much waits on progress' in the Israeli-Palestinian track.

There have been some public exchanges on the extent of the difficulties, but the positive point is this: for the first time, the two sides are engaged in detailed discussion of substance, for example on the transfer of powers to Palestinian authorities during the interim period. This in itself is very helpful. Indeed, there are signs that the differences are narrowing.

If sometimes the progress in the Washington talks looks slow, we should remember how much has been achieved in this respect since Madrid. The whole process since then has undoubtedly broken down some of the barriers of misunderstanding.

The new round in Washington is crucial because speed is essential. There is, I believe, a window of opportunity at present, but it may not remain open for very much longer. There are those in the region who oppose the process and are out to damage it. The longer the process fails to produce concrete progress for all to see, the greater is the potential for disillusion, and the greater the opportunities for mischief.

There is already some disillusion about the situation in the occupied territories. Much as we welcome the evident will of the Israeli Government to pursue the negotiating process, there is too little evidence of a matching determination to lighten the burdens of occupation.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is on record as having criticised some of the excesses of the Israeli defence forces in the occupied territories. The economic situation there is dire, and is deteriorating further in the wake of the restrictions placed on movements across the green line.

The social and economic effects of cutting off the west bank from Jerusalem are particularly serious. On the other side, the continued acts of violence against Israelis, both in the occupied territories and in Israel, have served only to damage the prospects for peace. Some at least of those acts are perpetrated by those who are actively trying to destroy the process.

It is essential that Palestinians recognise that Israel has legitimate security requirements, which must be met and which are increasingly acknowledged and accepted across the world. The Israeli people will accept the need for comprises only if they are convinced that these will maintain or enhance their security. In that context, I understand why my hon. Friends have raised their questions in this debate.

I want now to refer to the hostages in the middle east. Throughout the hostage saga, the United Kingdom Government have maintained that all those held outside the due process of law should be released. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South has reminded us, Israel released 100 detainees during the negotiations and that led to the release of the western hostages. It is very much to be regretted that that has not been reciprocated.

The practice of hostage-taking cannot be condoned under any circumstances. Our views on that have been made clear to all concerned. The United Nations Secretary-General remains committed to pursuing those cases that remain unresolved, and Her Majesty's Government will provide any assistance that they can.

The case of Ron Arad continues to cause the gravest concern. We have great sympathy for his family and the families of all those detained. We have raised the matter with the Iranian authorities, but our ability to achieve results by that route is limited.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South mentioned the United Nations Secretary-General. The best hope for a solution lies with the efforts of his representative, Benon Sevan; whose predecessor was instrumental in securing the release of British hostages held in the Lebanon. He has shown what can be achieved through quiet but firm diplomacy. In that context, the Israeli Government have said that they will release Sheikh Obeid and others if Ron Arad is released. We would like to see all those men freed.

Mention has been made of Private Yossi Fink, who was captured with a colleague while on patrol in southern Lebanon in 1986. In September 1991, the Israelis received information confirming his death. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State has written to his parents a letter of sympathy. Israeli efforts to recover his body continue. There has been no news about Sergeant Zakaria Baumel, who was a member of a tank crew of three reported missing after a battle with Syrian forces during the Israeli invasion of the Lebanon in 1982.

My hon. Friend mentioned three other innocents—Mr. Simon Dunn, Mr. Michael Wainwright and Mr. Paul Ride—on whose behalf I am personally deeply concerned as the Minister responsible. We have raised our concern at the highest possible level and in the strongest possible terms about those three cases, including with the Secretary-General of the United Nations and through a number of Governments with links to the Baghdad regime. European Community Foreign Ministers have issued a statement condemning the continued detention of those men and publicly calling for their release.

In the peace process, as I said earlier, there is a need for speed. I confess to being anxious that further disintegration of the situation on the ground or some outrage could do serious damage to the process. We all look to both sides now to engage in discussion of the details of the transfer of powers in the occupied territories to the Palestinians during the interim period.

There will need to be compromises at the interim stage, and there cannot be agreements which fully meet the hopes and aspirations of both sides, but to an outsider there seems no reason at all why agreements at this stage should involve either side prejudicing basic principles. No one is being asked to do that.

The problem, of course, for both sides is that it is difficult to agree a timetable without any guarantees of the eventual outcome of the negotiations on the final settlement—whether the Palestinians will achieve self-determination, whether the Israelis will achieve full peace and security. There is no risk-free course for either side, but there are enormous risks if the process fails. It is very clear indeed that a breakdown of the process would risk destabilising the entire region. It would be seen as the failure of moderation. It would create opportunities for extremists. It would be likely to perpetuate the burden of occupation, the suffering of the Palestinians, and the pressures on Israeli society.

I do not pretend that the British Government have a central role in the peace process—they are not in the lead—but we welcomed the American initiative under President Bush. We are in no doubt at all that the Clinton Administration are very serious in their determination to see the process through. Along with our European partners, we will continue to help as best we can. Difficult decisions will have to be taken by all sides, and the parties will need all the support and encouragement that they can get to help them to take those decisions. We stand ready to do whatever we can in that process.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Twelve midnight.