HL Deb 05 December 2001 vol 629 cc889-99

6.30 p.m.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer which was given to a Private Notice Question about the Middle East in another place earlier this afternoon by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"I am sure I speak for the whole House in expressing once again the shock and anger which I felt when I heard the news on Saturday night and on Sunday morning of the series of terrorist atrocities in Jerusalem and in Haifa, in north Israel. These atrocities killed at least 25 and injured over 180 people. They came on top of a series of other such terrorist attacks which have caused many deaths and in turn have put the people of Israel in fear of going about their normal lives.

"On Sunday I spoke by telephone to Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, and then to President Arafat of the Palestinian Authority. To Mr Peres, I expressed my sincere condolences and those of Her Majesty's Government. To President Arafat, I stressed the imperative that the Palestinian Authority now properly detains terrorist suspects of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups and the need for him to take other action to remove this continuing threat which terrorists pose to the stability of the whole region.

"Israel is entitled to take steps to ensure its security. Our approach to the peace process has been well set out by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and myself, including in my address to the United Nations General Assembly on 11th November. We have fully backed the initiative set out by United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, on 19th November and his appointment of General Zinni and Ambassador Burns as United States envoys to the region.

"Although the situation is now very grave—indeed, recisely because it is so grave—the case for peace remains as strong as ever. We in the United Kingdom and Her Majesty's Government stand ready to do all we can to help the parties resume substantive dialogue and to bring about the swift and full implementation of the Tenet and Mitchell committee recommendations. Distant and difficult though this aspiration may appear, we work towards a day when two states, Israel and Palestine, live peacefully together within secure and recognised borders, as called for by Security Council resolutions."

My Lords, that completes the Statement.

6.32 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. We on this side totally share the horror and concern that she and the Foreign Secretary on our behalf have expressed about the hideous slaughter in the latest round of suicide bombings of utterly innocent young people, children and others in Israel.

I am sure that the noble Baroness will agree that no state can continue to exist in modern times unless it has the full co-operation and support of its neighbours and other countries. That applies just as much to the future Palestine as to vulnerable little Israel and, indeed, to the Kingdom of Jordan which is next door. I know that there are many different opinions, but whatever one thinks about the heaviness of the Israeli responses to these atrocities and foul deeds, is it not now essential that Yasser Arafat takes command and ceases to harbour terrorists and to preside over a society which teaches terrorism to young children? From the very earliest age it teaches them to kill and to hate their Jewish neighbours in Israel.

"Terrorists" means not just those involved in violence and inevitable reprisals, but those who set out cold-bloodedly and deliberately to kill innocent civilians as part of their campaign. Therefore, is it not time that he quickly rounds up the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad people who openly claim responsibility for these murders before the slide to total war in the region gains momentum? If he cannot do that, is it not time for the democracies to support a search for someone who can effectively lead Palestinians forward to better times?

As we look on this horrific scene and use our good offices as best we can, my question is: have we done everything to ensure that the funds and links and organisations connected to Hamas and Islamic Jihad are completely closed down? We have done a great deal in response to the earlier measures and the terrorism of September 11th. But are we quite sure that we have closed down every loophole and cut off every oxygen tube that we can to the hideous Hamas who are so openly claiming delight and responsibility for slaughtering innocent civilians and children in the streets of Jerusalem?

6.35 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I also thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to a PNQ put down in another place.

Over the weekend we have had the terrible suicide bombings in Haifa and in Jerusalem. As the Minister said, they resulted in 25 innocents being killed. The retaliation to that attack resulted in another number of innocents being killed. When we look at the blood-stained and fearful faces of children staring out of our newspapers, in a way it matters no more whether they are Palestinian or Israeli. They are alike the victims of a terrible retaliation, a dreadful battle of tit for tat. From these Benches, we feel that unless the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth system of revenge ceases in the Middle East we shall inevitably slowly slide over the brink into an open war.

I support what the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said in terms of there being two certainties—I hope. One is the absolute necessity to protect and underpin the state of Israel. I trust that no one disagrees with that. All of us have an obligation to protect it. The other is that we recognise that there is a Palestinian authority that is on its way to becoming, hopefully, a state. There is no other internationally recognised way out of the crisis. In that crisis up to now, President Arafat, for all his weaknesses and flaws, is the one recognised figure with whom the state of Israel can negotiate.

In that context, it is vital that Mr Arafat identifies those in Hamas and Israeli Jihad and other groups who have been involved in terrorist activities. I ask the Minister whether she regards it as sensible to treat President Arafat himself as a terrorist. To associate him with Osama bin Laden is to make a huge mistake. President Arafat is an internationally recognised figure; he is the head of a state, albeit in the making; and he is not a terrorist in the sense that Mr bin Laden clearly is. It is dangerous to elide the two.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister the following questions. What representations have Her Majesty's Government made to Mr Arafat about identifying those terrorists in the ranks of Hamas and Islamic Jihad? What representations have been made with regard to Israel's continuing building of illegal settlements which does nothing to bring about a better context for peace? What representations have been made about military interventions in the West Bank and in Gaza which go far beyond normal legitimate police activities when they include the bombing by F16 bombers of peaceful communities?

Does the Minister see any new chance to bring back the only hope that there is, which is to resume negotiations as soon as is conceivably possible? Within that context, is the breaking off of negotiations at every point when some crazed or absurd young person throws himself or herself into a suicide bombing a sensible way to continue? I finally ask whether it is altogether sensible that, while we strongly support the US initiative, it alone should be the one international arbiter at a time when, regretfully, it is regarded to some extent as partisan in that discussion in a way that the moderate Arab powers and the European Union are not.

6.40 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for their comments on the Statement. I am sure that the whole House is united in the horror that both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness expressed about the weekend's events.

There are probably two guiding principles in our consideration of what has happened and what is happening. First, there should be peace with security for Israel and, secondly, there should be justice and a viable homeland for the Palestinians. I believe that those are the two tenets around which our policies are focused.

I shall deal with what the noble Baroness asked. To equate President Arafat with Osama bin Laden is not something that Her Majesty's Government would do. My right honourable friend, in answering questions this afternoon, made it clear that not only was that a term that we would not use, but it is a term that we will not be using.

Clearly, whatever the violence has been—and we are in a terrible vortex of violence where tit-for-tat reprisals seem the horrible and ghastly inevitability when one hears about one violent action and then a violent reaction—the fact is that dialogue is necessary in order to return to the peace process. For that to occur, a ceasefire is absolutely necessary. Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord are right. Although the Palestinian Authority has condemned violence, and, for example, the assassination of Minister Ze'evi on the day it happened—in stark contrast to a real terrorist organisation, to return to the point made by the noble Baroness—the fact is that the Palestinian Authority has not done enough to apprehend the men of violence. Good intentions here are not enough. There has to be a greater effort to do that.

It is essential, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, that President Arafat does not harbour the terrorists and that he makes efforts to cease to teach hatred in schools and to young people who are, sadly, and all too often, the victims of violence. It is not just a question of apprehending those responsible for violence; it is a question of keeping them under lock arid key once they have been apprehended. All too often it seems that those who are apprehended for dreadful crimes find themselves back in their homes and on the streets very quickly.

As regards the point which the noble Lord raised about the future of President Arafat, let us be clear on one matter. He is the elected leader of the Palestinian Authority. It is essential that we treat him as that; that we treat him as the person with whom we negotiate. It is up to the Palestinians if they choose to change their leader, but while they wish President Arafat to speak for them and to lead them, we must deal with him.

I agree with the noble Lord as regards Hamas funding. We will consider any information which we receive on that organisation and any other terrorist group, and act accordingly in relation to any suggestion about the freezing of assets or other issues concerning the funding of such organisations.

These are very difficult times. I am sure that we all await the next ghastly, bloodstained announcements that follow one reprisal after another. The noble Baroness is quite right: we have to continue to make representations. She asked what representations had been made. I hope that the Statement from my right honourable friend made it clear that he made very strong representations to President Arafat on these points this last Sunday.

As regards illegal settlements, we raised the subject bilaterally. The noble Baroness will know that we raised it through out contacts with the EU and sometimes through a joint démarche.

We are always clear that any military intervention must be proportionate. In saying that, one has to remember that Israel has the right to live securely within its own borders. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made these points and, as luck would have it, I saw the Israeli Ambassador in London this morning. That was a pre-arranged meeting. We hope to resume negotiations.

I take issue with the noble Baroness on some of the points she made about the United States being too parti pris, if I may put it that way. Let us not forget that the United States was behind the Mitchell recommendations and the Tenet recommendations. It has again put forward two ambassadors to the region in the person of General Zinni and Ambassador Burns. There are opportunities for a ceasefire if only the men of violence can be got under control. We have to look to President Arafat to do that.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that atrocities and assassinations are thoroughly bad, whoever commits them and that the level of hate, particularly among young Arabs, is to be deplored? Will Her Majesty's Government, therefore, advise that this is probably the last opportunity for the warring parties to get round the table and discuss the prospects of a lasting peace including that of the settlements?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we constantly ask both sides in this terrible conflict to consider the difficulties of turning back from a cycle of continuing violence. We constantly put before them the absolute necessity of a ceasefire if there are to be discussions about the future. The United Kingdom is possibly in a particular position in this respect because of our own very sad recent history with our experiences in Northern Ireland. Perhaps that gives us the experience to say that, whatever the cycle of violence, nobody should use it as an excuse for not bending every effort possible to work for a ceasefire and to persuade the people of good will, who undoubtedly exist on both sides of the conflict, to work for peace and to do what the noble Lord made clear—that is, to stop teaching hatred to children. That is one of the basic starting points in putting right what has gone so very wrong.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, Mr Sharon wishes the Palestinian Authority to lock up terrorists and he bombs the police posts and security headquarters which will deal with the terrorists. Can the noble Baroness agree with the position of Shimon Peres, which is that the Palestinian Authority must be supported? After all, we in the EU have maintained the authority's institutions. The port was bombed and completely destroyed. I saw that place only a few weeks ago. That is another institution. Are we going to see destroyed all the institutions that we helped to sustain or are we going to accept that there is one party to the settlement which is ready to come to terms and another which is insisting on its own form of state terrorism?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, on both sides of this terrible conflict we have to look to those who want a long-term settlement to help work towards peace. We should not be concentrating on apportioning the tally of blame at the moment. We need to concentrate on trying to stop the cycle of violence. The more we talk about the tally of blame, the more there is a body count, if I may put it that way, of what has gone wrong, and the more one feeds the hatred that has grown up on both sides.

Part of what we have learned is that there has to come a time when we are able to say to the people of good will on both sides that those perpetrating the dreadful crimes must be put beyond the ability to do that and that Israel has the right to live in peace within its own borders. But we also hope that Israel will return to the negotiating table (on the basis of the Mitchell recommendations and the Tenet recommendations which led to them in terms of trying to establish peace) because there is really no alternative to finding a way through this, other than more and more bloodshed.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, the tone of these exchanges shows that no one in your Lordships' House is unaware of the extraordinary gravity of the situation. We may be on the edge of an abyss and it is difficult to know whether there can be a pulling back when the hatred is so deep.

Obviously the situation has serious implications for the coalition and neighbouring territories, not merely Jordan, which must be at considerable risk in the present tensions and challenges. One has a sense of shock and horror and feels the greatest sympathy for the casualties and the human suffering in Israel last weekend.

At the same time, another casualty for Israel may be the impact of public opinion. Some of your Lordships may have had the chance to listen to the exchanges in the other place and will have heard the lack of sympathy expressed for the Israeli position at a time when maximum sympathy would be expected.

The Minister's right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary responded with great vigour to a question about Iraq and demanded that Iraq observes United Nations Security Council resolutions in respect of weapons inspection in its programme of weapons of mass destruction. I strongly endorse that, but the observation of UN Security Council resolutions does not extend merely to Iraq. For them to be observed by Israel would be a major step forward.

It is difficult to know what resources the Palestinian Authority has, but President Arafat must be seen to be seeking to address the challenge presented by terrorists. That must be accompanied by a positive sign from Israel, perhaps in the area of settlements, to give Palestinians and Arabs the confidence that there will be a response to a demonstration from them of their determination to tackle terrorism.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, sadly, I agree that we are on the edge of an abyss, as the noble Lord said. The situation is extremely serious and has terrible implications not only for those living in the area of the Palestinian Authority in Israel but for surrounding countries, such as Jordan. I agree with the noble Lord that the possibility of the spiral of violence going beyond its current borders is very worrying.

There were times in the recent past when the violence appeared to he lessening, such as before the assassination of Minister Ze'evi. It appeared to be lessening when the United States suggested that General Zinni and Ambassador Burns would go there. On both occasions there were terrible acts of violence by suicide bombers. Recently, my right honourable friend visited Shimon Peres who spoke of his concerns and deep gloom that every time one thinks there is a window of opportunity for negotiation, suicide bombings intervene.

Of course the noble Lord, Lord King, is right about United Nations Security Council resolutions. I am sure that he listened carefully to my right honourable friend's Statement in which those important resolutions were mentioned. My right honourable friend will be seeing Secretary of State Powell tomorrow and he will talk to Minister Védrine of France and Minister Schröder of Germany this evening. I am sure that all our allies will be working together to see what they can do. The noble Lord is right about settlements, which is why we attached so much importance to the Mitchell recommendations, which stress the crucial importance of freezing the settlements, including what is called the natural growth of such settlements.

It is not a question of not knowing what to do but of knowing exactly how to do it.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, will the Government make it clear to our friends in the United States that while we offer our full support in their campaign against terrorism, we shall not support them if they appear to be giving unqualified support to the actions of President Sharon? Some of the Government's statements seem to suggest that they are going back on the dual policy of supporting both security for Israel and justice for Palestine.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government will proceed, as always, on the basis of international law. We shall also proceed on the basis of evidence of terrorist activity and the links to such activity in any part of the world. Our sovereign foreign policy is conducted on that basis, not on the diktat of any other country. It is important to keep those points clearly in mind. They will inform Her Majesty's Government's decisions in the future as they have done in the past.

Lord Richard

My Lords, of course, my noble friend is right when she says that Israel is entitled to protect her own security. No one would argue with that. The question is whether what it is doing is reasonable and if not, what effect does that have.

I am bound to say that it is extraordinary behaviour to demand that President Arafat should deal with terrorists at precisely the moment when he is being deliberately weakened and humiliated in the eyes of the world. That includes his own people on whom he has to rely if he is to deal with terrorists within the Palestinian entity.

I should like my noble friend to confirm two things. First, will she say that we do not follow the United States in condemning Mr Arafat as a terrorist and condemning the Palestinian entity as one of the hardest terrorists? Terrorists may be there, but the intent of the Palestinian Government is the important point. Secondly, will my noble friend reiterate in clear terms that President Arafat remains the elected leader of the Palestinian people and is therefore the natural interlocutor in any discussions that take place in the Middle East to try to settle this dreadful dispute?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I had hoped that I had made those points clear, but I shall do so again. We do not believe that it is right to equate Chairman Arafat with terrorist organisations. He is not responsible for suicide bombing. He has condemned terrorism and, as I reminded your Lordships, he quickly condemned the murder of Minister Ze'evi on the day that it happened. He is the elected head of the Palestinian Authority and the representative of the only organisation currently in a position to negotiate anything on behalf of the Palestinian people.

My noble friend is right that Israel is entitled to take steps to ensure its security and to safeguard itself against terrorist attack. My noble friend is also right when he says that those responses should be proportionate and restrained. Civilian casualties should be avoided and international law should be upheld. Having said that, it is also our view that Chairman Arafat must do more to apprehend the men of violence and make sure that they stay apprehended so that they are unable to carry out those terrible crimes that completely undermine any sort of peace process in the Middle East.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, I declare an interest as I keep a watching brief on a joint Palestinian-UK project involving BG in the eastern Mediterranean. I also recognise the Prime Minister's determination for a viable Palestinian state. Is the Minister aware that Britain can assist in a substantive way by giving positive consideration to the possibility of ECGD support for two major projects—an area for which the Minister is responsible—to enable Palestine to achieve much-needed economic self-generation? The lack of such economic generation is arguably a cause of today's difficulties.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Viscount is right that I am responsible for the Export Credits Guarantee Department. If he would like to come and see me about the two issues that he has in mind, I should be happy to listen to his representations.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, the running sore at the core of this business is the illegal occupation of territory on the West Bank of the Jordan by the Israeli Government. My noble friend referred to the freezing of the settlements. Will she go a little further? Does she agree that it is impossible for the Palestinians to settle with the Israelis while those settlements exist?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is Her Majesty's Government's view that the settlements are illegal under international law and that they are an obstacle to peace. As a first step towards trying to solve the problem of the settlements, the recommendation of the Mitchell committee is that Israel should cease all settlement activity, including what has been termed the natural growth of existing settlements. We support that as a first step. We then want negotiation about the occupied territories and the settlements as part of the process. The noble Lord is right that we believe that what has happened in the settlement areas is illegal under international law.

We also have to remember that both parties must refrain from unilateral acts that have the effect of prejudicing the permanent state of negotiation. It is important to get the parties round the table to discuss that in the first place.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the outrages committed against Israel are also aimed at President Arafat and that paradoxically, and however difficult it may be, in a sense the outrages ought to bring the leadership of Israel and President Arafat closer together in facing an enemy common to them both.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that is an entirely accurate statement. We know that President Arafat would like to get round a negotiating table if at all possible. As I said earlier, there have undoubtedly been windows of opportunity in the past few weeks, but it has been when those windows of opportunity have opened, albeit slightly, that such terrible outrages have been perpetrated. That has been exactly counter to President Arafat's stated intention of trying to negotiate a peaceful way through this appalling difficulty. He must now try to get the suicide bombings under control, as he has said he will.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, everyone in your Lordships' House shares a horror of terrorism and of innocent suffering. I have three questions for the Minister. The first follows on immediately from what she has just said and from the points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Richard. Granted that the Israelis have destroyed the police infrastructure with which they are asking President Arafat to put right the problems and arrest the terrorists, is there any practical or token gesture of help that the United Nations or the European Union can offer to help to rebuild and support the Palestinian police force, its infrastructure, its buildings and its equipment so that it is in a better position to carry out the task that the Israelis have reasonably asked to be done?

Secondly, is there any way in which the security of Israel can be guaranteed by other powers and not left to Israel? As long as it is left to Israel, it will continue with its consistent policy of excessive retaliation. That may be understandable, but it is terribly destructive.

Thirdly, does the Minister genuinely believe that there is still the possibility of a viable Palestinian state? I listened to a lecture recently by a brilliant Jewish academic who passionately wants and believes in such a state, but who believes that even the Barak offer did not go far enough, was riddled with injustice and did not provide for a truly viable Palestinian state. We are now in a much worse plight than we were then. I wonder whether it is realistic for politicians still to talk hopefully about a viable Palestinian state, short of some dramatic change in circumstances that few people can currently foresee.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is still realistic for us to talk in those terms. If we do not, there is very little incentive for those currently living under the Palestinian Authority to seek a peaceful settlement. That is their ambition and, together with the security of Israel, it is one of the cardinal principles of the policy adopted not only by the United Kingdom, but by the European Union, the United States and other nations of good will who wish to help both countries find a peaceful solution to their difficulties.

There is a great deal of speculation about the detail of the negotiations that resulted from Mr Barak's offer. The right reverend Prelate has said that the offer fell way short of proposing a viable state. It is clear that both sides felt that, in the end, the negotiations had fallen short of achieving the permanent status settlement that they wanted, but both parties declared after the negotiations that they had never been closer to reaching a permanent status deal. It is enormously to be regretted that those negotiations were not successful. They came close, but that closeness is just as tragic as having missed by a long way.

Of course the international community must engage itself. I hope that it will be possible to guarantee Israel's security in the future, but we have to keep in mind all the time the balance between the security of Israel and the viability of a Palestinian state. That is enshrined in the United Nations Security Council resolution.

The right reverend Prelate also asked what we could do to support the Palestinian police force in effecting arrests. The Palestinian police force is still able to effect arrests and has done so, even since the weekend. The problem is not just effecting the arrests, but, as I keep saying, keeping people under arrest once they have been taken in. The right reverend Prelate said that the whole police force infrastructure had been destroyed. That is not correct, otherwise it would not be able to effect arrests. However, once those arrests are made, it is essential to keep those people out of the way of the innocent population, who otherwise suffer so tragically.