HL Deb 13 June 1967 vol 283 cc829-38

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by by right honourable friend the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs on the latest situation in the Middle East. The Statement is as follows:

"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. To-day 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 UNTSO 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 it will become a key factor of all the border arrangements. As an immediate step towards making UNTSO as effective as possible during the present critical period, I hope that General Bull will be able to return to the UNTSO Headquarters in Jerusalem.

"I now turn to some specific points on which the House would like to have 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 over land 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 evacuation 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 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 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) provide a breathing space during which it is hoped the tensions which led to the supply interruptions will ease and more normal conditions 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 foundation. 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 numbers 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 looking to see 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 is clearly going to 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 will do its utmost to contribute to achieving that outcome."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating this Statement. It begins by stating that a United Nations presence on both sides of the border will be an essential factor in any settlement; and, of course, nobody could disagree with that. But I am sure that the Government will bear in mind that the last United Nations presence evaporated, was taken away, at the moment that trouble began, and that, in spite of the efforts of the British Government and their friends to get a resolution for a cease-fire as soon as the fighting began, the United Nations would not agree to any cease-fire resolution until it was evident that the Egyptians were being defeated and the Israelis were winning. If we are to be realistic about this, I think that we must recognise that very much more concrete and effective guarantees must be given than have been given in the past before confidence can be restored in the ability, and indeed in the will, of the United Nations to give any effectual protection to the victims of aggression.

We regret deeply, of course, the reasons which have made necessary the evacuation of British subjects. This, together with the oil embargo, appears to be part of a deliberately thought-out, long-term campaign of anti-West hate which is now being built up by many elements in the Arab world, based on sheer mendacity and supported, it appears, by the Communist countries. I do not think it would be useful at the present moment to question the Government about this aspect.

The only question I should like to ask them is about the refugees. This is an urgent and terrible problem, and one that has been exacerbated by the events of last week. Would it not be possible for us now, without waiting for a peace settlement—which might mean waiting for a very long time—with our friends and allies in NATO, to get together to ask Israel and any Arab countries that are willing to co-operate whether we could start immediately on a large-scale scheme, not only for relief but, if possible, for the resettlement of these wretched people, both the new ones and those who have been there for so long.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for making that long and, I think, on the whole, satisfactory Statement—at all events, as satisfactory as it can be in the present difficult circumstances. There are just one or two questions on detail that I should like to ask the noble Lord. First, would he confirm that the Israeli forces sustained considerable casualties in taking the old City of Jerusalem; that because of their desire not to damage the City and the Holy places, they went in without bomb, artillery or mortar support? If this is so, should not we be very grateful to the Israelis for the way in which they handled this matter?

Secondly, as to the refugees, may I support what the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, has proposed—in fact I was going to propose it myself; namely, that we should get together, with our allies in NATO, who are much concerned in this area, to see whether something can be done urgently for the refugees.

As we all know, to depend upon the United Nations Organisation addressing itself urgently to any matter which means action is really depending upon a broken reed at the moment, and it is no good trying to bluff ourselves otherwise. I believe that NATO could operate very quickly with immense resources if we asked them to do so. In fact, the Secretary-General this morning has indicated something on those lines. Thirdly, and lastly, may I ask the noble Lord whether he has heard anything of the Dead Sea Scrolls which, I gather, were abandoned in the old City of Jerusalem by the Jordanians, which are of immense value to us all, and to the world, and which we should not like to see damaged in any way? Has there been any news of them?

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, in reply to the questions of the noble Earl, I think he will find when he studies the OFFICIAL REPORT that my comment about the United Nations Forces was not exactly as he quoted it. I do not want to make too much of that point, but I should like to say that the remark in the Statement about the United Nations presence referred specifically to United Nations presence on both sides of the disputed line. The noble Earl will well know that the United Nations presence to which he referred, and which was withdrawn at the beginning of recent events, was a presence on one side of the disputed line only, and perhaps it was in this fact that a good deal of the difficulty lay.

So far as the future of the United Nations action in the whole of this case is concerned, I believe that whatever may have been the difficulties, and perhaps even the mistakes, of the United Nations in the past, it is now up to us to support it in whatever efforts it is making to bring about a lasting settlement in the area. I regret and deplore any suggestion that the United Nations is an empty organisation or that it is incapable of action. It will become incapable of action only if the great Powers of the world, including ourselves, cease to support it. Her Majesty's Government will continue to support it in all its efforts to bring about a lasting peace in the Middle East.

My Lords, anti-Western hate and bitterness in the Middle East is, of course, a part of a legacy of bitterness and intransigence which is bound to eat very deeply into the hearts of everybody in the Middle East after the terrible events of the last few days. I think it would be wrong and unwise of us to engage in any recriminations about this. It is our task now to remove that bitterness as quickly as we can and to normalise our relationships, and to improve and bring back our good relations with all countries throughout the Middle East without apportioning blame and adding to the bitterness that already exists.

So far as the refugees are concerned, we are, my Lords, very much seized of the urgency of this matter. I shall take note of what the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, have said about this. I would point out to the noble Lord that the United Nations has not been entirely ineffective in respect of refugees in the past. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, has done extremely good work with refugees throughout the world, and I think that we should not be too pessimistic about the potential of the United Nations in this field.

Regarding the damage to the Holy places, I think it is confirmed that there was surprisingly little damage done to the Holy places in the fighting in Jerusalem. Whether this was due to good fortune or some other intervention, or whether it was due to the restraint of the Israeli forces, it is difficult to say entirely. However, we are thankful that little damage was done, and to the extent that it was due to the restraint in the action of the Israeli forces we are, of course, grateful.

My Lords, we have no news of the present situation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It seems evident from the reports that they were indeed abandoned when the custodians of them left their headquarters, but we have no firm information yet about what has happened to them. We shall, of course, keep a careful eye on developments about the Scrolls.


My Lords, while welcoming the Statement which the Minister has just made about the prospects and hopes of the United Nations playing an active and effective part in bringing peace to the Middle East, is it not to be regretted that the Communist members of the United Nations have "ganged up" against Israel and broken off diplomatic relations?


My Lords, there has been a good deal of breaking off of diplomatic relations over the past few days in many directions. While I have every sympathy with what is behind my noble friend's question, I feel that now, at this particular moment of all moments in this crisis, we should not engage in recriminations even of that sort, but should see now what we can do from all sides to bring international relations back on to a normal, sane and intelligent basis. I sympathise with the noble Lord's question, but I feel that we have a great deal to do in the future and that we should look forward and not backwards.


My Lords, while approving the Government's desire to help the United Nations to help us, and all of us, is it not manifest that they are ineffectual and that the most likely enduring settlement, if there is to be one, would be between the nations concerned; namely, the Israel nation and the Arabs? Would not it be better to use Her Majesty's Government's influence to get these two together, rather than to bother with New York too much?


My Lords, I know that your Lordships will not expect me to agree that it is manifest that the United Nations is ineffectual. It is not an ineffectual force; it has a great potential for peace, and it is in fact the only international organisation we have that could be said to have a real potential for peace-keeping and for the maintenance of stability throughout the world. In this particular crisis it has been difficult for anybody to enjoin sanity and responsible behaviour on those taking part. There has been, as I said, great bitterness and a great sense of conflict and crisis. Of course, it would be a welcome development if the Israelis and the Arabs could get together and settle their affairs together, but my own feeling is that this will be done eventually only in the context of the United Nations, in the context of a properly constituted international body. After all, my Lords, we must not forget that the cease-fire which brought this fighting to an end was a cease-fire enjoined and demanded by the Security Council of the United Nations.


My Lords, the Statement refers to evacuation from Amman of a number of British. Can the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, tell me whether they went voluntarily or whether the Government advised them to leave? I ask this question because I have a particular interest in the work of the Anglican Church in Jordan, as I am vice-chairman of the organisation that supports it. We have a British Archbishop in Jerusalem, and a number of Anglicans running hospitals and churches in Jordan. I should be most sorry to see them leave if it is possible for them to remain there in safety.


My Lords, the cases in the different Arab countries were different. In some it was thought prudent to evacuate people before they were asked to leave; in others they were asked to leave and given only a short time in which to leave. So far as the second part of the noble Lord's question is concerned, I do not have the information that will satisfy him at the moment, but I will find out and let him know.


My Lords, referring to what the noble Lord has said about the United Nations, may I make an appeal to him not to allow his enthusiasm for that Organisation to outweigh his sense of realism? Does he recollect that in answering questions last week he referred to the ceasefire as being a great triumph for the United Nations? I should have to refer to what my noble friend Lord Dundee said to show that that is far removed from the truth. It would be a pity—


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but could the noble Lord make his remarks in the form of a question?


My Lords, I am asking whether the noble Lord would refrain from allowing his enthusiasm for the United Nations to run away from what must be a realistic view of what is going to settle the position in the Middle East.


My Lords, I will undertake to control my enthusiasm if the noble Lord will control his prejudice. Whether we give the United Nations the full credit for what happened last week or not, I still maintain that to bring about a cease-fire between the Arabs and the Israelis in the circumstances obtaining at the time was a very great triumph indeed.


My Lords, if the noble Lord believes that, he will believe anything.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the fact that one permanent member of the Security Council has definitely ranged itself on one side of this dispute? Can he give to the House an absolute assurance that there is no danger whatever of the United Nations becoming an instrument of Soviet policy?


My Lords, I think that it would be quite inappropriate for me to give any such assurance. That, I am sure, will be given adequately by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Of course, the Security Council is subject to a veto of any one of its members. It is subject to the veto of the Soviet Union and it is equally subject to the veto of the United States or of Great Britain. I think we can be certain that the United Nations will not become the tool of the policies of any single member of its Security Council or the Assembly.


My Lords, could the noble Lord say what is the policy of Her Majesty's Government towards the request of the Arab States in this conflict to France to act as a mediator? Does the noble Lord not feel that rather than rely entirely on the United Nations Her Majesty's Government should endeavour to exercise some influence upon Israel to support such a proposal?


I am not suggesting, in my unbridled enthusiasm for the United Nations, that they are the only organisation that can be useful in this case. Of course we shall welcome and are grateful for offers from any other sources that will help in settling affairs in the Middle East. We are particularly grateful for the ideas put forward by France and shall examine every possible way of helping to bring about a fair and lasting settlement in the area.


My Lords, will my noble friend not agree that it would have been very difficult for the United Nations to organise a cease-fire if Israel had not won?


My Lords, I cannot pretend that the dramatic events in the Middle East have made it any more difficult to organise a cease-fire, but I think we must accept that even after the events of three days of fighting, it was still a considerable feat to persuade ever-body concerned in this fight—and this was not just a two-sided affair, but was Israel fighting against virtually all the Arab countries, some of them with different aims, different ideas and different political objectives from the others—to cease firing.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware how much we welcome his statement that the British Government have decided to grant immediately some emergency financial relief to assist these refugees? Is he able to indicate that in any permanent settlement that ultimately takes place in this troubled part of the world we, on our side, will try to ensure, in dealing with the great refugee problem of the future, that the financial assistance from our country and also from the United Nations will be linked up with a genuine rehabilitation of refugees, instead of allowing them to become a festering sore of political propaganda, as they have been during many decades in the past?


My Lords, I am grateful for the comment contained in the first part of my noble friend's question. As to the second part, of course we must realise that whatever we do in the short-term to help these wretched people—and I hope we shall be able to do a great deal—none of it will be really effective unless we can bring about some long-term and lasting settlement of their Problem, which we will certainly do our best to achieve.