HL Deb 11 October 2000 vol 617 cc334-7

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice; namely, whether Her Majesty's Government are aware of any representations which have been made to the Government of Israel regarding attacks by armed settlers on Arab inhabitants of East Nazareth and on Palestinian villages and what information they have on the lack of police protection and the use of live ammunition against unarmed civilians.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the Government have been appalled at the level of violence and casualties in Israel and in Palestinian areas over recent days. The Foreign Secretary spoke to Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Israeli Foreign Minister, on Saturday 7th October, to express his concern at the situation and to urge de-escalation.

At the Prime Minister's request, the Foreign Secretary is now visiting the region to support efforts to stop the violence and to bring both sides back to negotiations. He is meeting the Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Ben-Ami this afternoon. This evening, he will meet Palestinian leaders, including President Arafat, and he plans to travel on to Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, perhaps I may thank the Minister for that reply and make one observation. With due humility, those of us who wish the state of Israel every possible success are very much aware, from our own experience of Northern Ireland, of the escalation that follows the use of armed force against unarmed civilians.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister the following question. I understand that Mr Barak says that he would accept a tribunal of inquiry into the disturbances provided it was led by the United States. To that end, we all recognise the contribution that President Clinton is attempting to make. I further understand that the Palestinian authorities wish to add to that committee of inquiry. Can the Minister say whether she thinks that there might be a possibility of that inquiry now moving ahead, possibly with an additional representative from one of the Arab states and, if I may so suggest, a representative from one of the EU states, given that the EU now pays for the great majority of the expenditure of the civil authority in the Palestinian areas of the region?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I must say straightaway that I am not in a position to give the noble Baroness an answer to that question. I am sure she will understand that at the moment we are sailing in extremely dangerous waters. Matters are being handled with the greatest sensitivity. Indeed, it is for that reason that our Foreign Secretary is today visiting the region to try to talk to all the relevant parties.

Clearly, it is essential that we achieve some kind of rapprochement between the parties. To echo what the noble Baroness has indicated, there are one or two encouraging signs. I am sure that I shall be able to report to the House more clearly once we know a little more about the current situation.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I support all that has been said by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. The point she has raised is absolutely correct. A degree of even-handedness is the most desperately needed quality in this tragic situation.

It is certainly true that the Israeli actions have been extremely provocative, and in some cases—as we have now been able to read—hideous atrocities have been committed by one side against the other; namely, by the Jews against the Arabs. However, atrocities have also happened on the other side. The activities of the Palestinian groups have clearly been calculated and orchestrated in many cases—an organised rage.

Is it not absolutely vital now—I am sure the Minister's right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will pursue this point—that Mr Arafat issues the call for calm that he could perhaps have issued a few days ago? It might have saved a few lives. Can the Minister assure us that during his time in the Middle East the Foreign Secretary will bring to bear all of his authority and that of the British Government to ensure that that call for calm comes from the Arab side at a time when the extreme violence used by some of the Israeli authorities and military groups is rightly challenged and questioned?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can say without qualification that it is of the utmost importance that calm and moderation should be adopted by all sides in this very dangerous situation. Her Majesty's Government and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will be doing all they can to ensure that both sides understand the acute anxiety of the international community about what is happening in the region.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that any responsible leader of a country—especially an elected leader of a democratic country—faced with mob violence on the streets must take firm action to deal with it? Will she join with people like myself, who have been in some way involved with the peace process and who had great hopes for its success such a short time ago, in appealing to the Palestinian leaders to have the courage to quell the violence and to return to the negotiating table—not least because I doubt they will ever again have a braver negotiating partner than Prime Minister Barak?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the priority is for both sides to move forward. We were at a stage where we had great hopes of peace in the region. It is important now for us perhaps not to look back but to exhort both parties to go forward in the most beneficial and peaceful way; to return to the negotiating table, which is the best place to be; and to turn away from violence on the streets.

Lord Judd

My Lords, in view of the wider international ramifications of this crisis and the need to maximise the co-ordination of the international response, can my noble friend say what the Government see as the role of the Security Council in this situation?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the House will know that a Security Council resolution was passed earlier this month. That is an important indicator to both players in the region of the international community's views in relation to what is happening there. We hope that both sides will take proper cognisance of that resolution and use it as a way forward. We also know that Mr Solana and Kofi Annan are taking an active role. We welcome their involvement. We wish God's speed to all parties which seek peaceful negotiation.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, I must declare an interest. I am president of the United Kingdom friends of an organisation called Sabeel, which is a group of Palestinian Christians seeking peace with justice rooted in Jerusalem. I am aware through them and through the Anglican bishop in Jerusalem of the long-standing difficulties that Palestinian Christians have experienced owing to the restrictions placed upon them attending their places of worship. Can the Minister comment on the suggestions we have heard from religious leaders in Jerusalem that Mr Sharon's walk on a sacred site was hardly an innocent Sunday afternoon stroll but an act of serious provocation, backed by a large number of Israeli troops positioned not too far in the background?

Will the Government press upon the authorities in Israel that the violence and the scenes of which we are aware will not be ultimately resolved until the demands for justice among the dispossessed in this land are properly addressed? I am immensely grateful for the tone of the Minister's answers, but until these matters of justice are addressed I fear a tinder box situation will continue.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand fully the sentiments expressed by the right reverend Prelate. I know full well that Palestinian Christians have been very active in this area and that, regrettably, there has been much suffering among all parties throughout these difficulties.

The House will know that Britain stands by Security Council Resolution 1322 and we were represented on the team of negotiators that worked on the resolution. We must of course take cognisance of how the issues unfolded. As the right reverend Prelate said, justice is most important—but justice for all parties; not justice for one side at the expense of the other. One of the tragedies of the situation is that the "honours" are shared in relation to poor behaviour.

We need to concentrate on the future; we need to concentrate on doing whatever is possible to bring the parties back to peaceful negotiations as opposed to violence on the streets.