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Hezbollah (Syrian and Iranian Support)

3. Mr. Fabricant: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what assessment his Department has made of the support given by the Governments of Syria and Iran for Hezbollah; and if he will make a statement. [27194]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Jeremy Hanley): Despite the fact that Hezbollah denies control by Iran or Syria, we believe that Iran provides military and financial assistance to Hezbollah, and that Syria facilitates supplies and gives political support.

Mr. Fabricant: I thank my right hon. Friend for his frank and honest answer. Are not the tragic events that have taken place in south Lebanon the culmination of over a year's raining down of Katyusha rockets by Hezbollah on Kiryat Shimonem and other settlements in northern Israel? Will my right hon. Friend and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State exert more pressure on Syria and Iran to stop the provision of money, arms and support for Hezbollah in its terrorist activities against Israel?

Mr. Hanley: My hon. Friend is right about the influences on Hezbollah. Syria has sufficient troops--purportedly some 35,000 to 40,000 in Lebanon--to hamper Hezbollah activities in the areas where its forces are deployed. There is little doubt that Syrian support has enabled Hezbollah to maintain its armed resistance against Israel. Furthermore, as recently as 19 April, Iran's spiritual leader reportedly called on Hezbollah to step up its operations against Israel. We call on all those with the ability to influence Hezbollah to restrain it from the use of violence. As my right hon. and learned Friend has said, we have given full support to international efforts to exert pressure on Iran and Syria to control Hezbollah and to lead us towards a resumption of the peace process. Our ambassador in Beirut, Maeve Fort, has lobbied the Lebanese to ensure that they do what they can to reduce Hezbollah's military activity. Now, we must give the ceasefire a chance.

Mr. Faulds: Would it not be more advisable if the Government, and the House of Commons come to that, were a little less hypocritical and a little more honest about this situation? Is it not a fact that Israel is in occupation of southern Lebanon, against the United Nations resolution? Is it not a fact that any young men in a country under occupation, whether it is Scotland in my historic days, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman's historic days--[Interruption.] Perhaps the Foreign Secretary does not remember Scottish history--I do. Is it not a fact that, in such historic circumstances--this applies to southern Lebanon--any young men with any principle would form a band to oppose the occupying

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armies? Is that not exactly what Hezbollah is doing? Instead of criticising Syria and Iran, we should be adopting, perhaps, their more sensitive and responsible attitude to Hezbollah's operations against an occupying army.

Mr. Hanley: My right hon. and learned Friend--[Interruption.] I regret this element of levity in our discussion of a desperately serious subject. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary has clearly stated the United Kingdom's view--which is shared by the international community--on securing United Nations Security Council resolution 425, which states that Israel's occupation is illegal. It is fairly plain that Hezbollah will continue its opposition until such time as Israel withdraws, but I believe that the best chance of that will be provided by a resumption of the peace process. We welcome the fact that the ceasefire agreement calls for a resumption of talks between Syria and Israel, and between Israel and Lebanon. That is the best way in which to reach a point at which peace will reign in southern Lebanon.

Mr. Batiste: Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Israeli Government have made it clear that they have no wish to remain in southern Lebanon once the security of Israel's northern villages can be confirmed? Does that not mean that it is Syria that holds the key to peace, and that, if it were prepared to control Hezbollah, the peace process--both in Lebanon and in relation to the Golan heights--could continue? That is the only real way in which lasting peace can be brought to all the people in the area.

Mr. Hanley: I believe that Israel will withdraw if it feels secure enough to do so. Under UN Security Council resolution 425, that is its duty. It is, perhaps, easy to understand that a nation should be allowed to defend itself and its own citizens; therefore there must be restraint on both sides, and I hope that, over a period, restraint will lead to what the international community demands.

Middle East Peace Process

4. Mrs. Roche: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what recent representations he has received concerning the middle east peace process. [27195]

7. Mr. Canavan: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the situation in the middle east. [27198]

Mr. Rifkind: We welcome the commencement of final-status talks between Israel and the Palestinians at Taba on 5 May. We look forward to the resumption of talks between Syria and Israel, and a lasting and comprehensive peace in the middle east.

Mrs. Roche: Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, as some of his hon. Friends have pointed out, one of the keys to progress in peace talks in the middle east is a change in Syria's attitude? Syria refused to attend the talks on preventing a spread of terrorism in the middle east. When the Foreign Secretary was asked by his own side what positive contribution the British Government could make,

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he and his colleagues could give no assurances or undertakings. Coupled with the British Government's failure to play a significant part in brokering the ceasefire, does that not show that the Government are not really interested in advancing the peace process in any meaningful way?

Mr. Rifkind: I am afraid that that was a very silly question. The hon. Lady seems to measure a country's degree of involvement by the travels of its Foreign Minister, but I do not necessarily see a direct link. There are many occasions on which a Minister visiting a particular location can make an important contribution, and other occasions on which such a visit can make a difficult situation even more complex.

The fact is that the international community had a single interest in a ceasefire and an end to the conflict in Lebanon. It was always evident that the United States would carry the greatest weight and influence in a matter of this kind. Our interests, and those of other European countries, were the same as those of the United States: we were interested in an early ceasefire and an end to the conflict. The best contribution that we could all make was a co-ordinated international effort, and that is what eventually produced the ceasefire that we have all welcomed.

Mr. Canavan: For how long will Israel be allowed to treat international law and the United Nations with contempt by flouting resolution 425 and mounting vicious attacks such as the one on the UN peacekeeping base at Qana, which killed 102 innocent civilians? Will the Foreign Secretary tell us clearly whether he did, in fact, convey to the Israeli Government a strong message condemning such an atrocity? Will he also consult our UN partners about what action can be taken to make Israel comply with resolution 425?

Mr. Rifkind: I can say quite plainly that I made it clear directly to the Israeli Foreign Minister that we deeply deplored the shelling of the UN base and the loss of life. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Israelis maintained, and continue to maintain, that the shelling was by accident and not by design. The extent to which one condemns such incidents depends on whether one concludes that it was deliberate or by accident. That is why I have said that the UN report, which is disturbing, needs to be properly addressed and examined.

Sir Mark Lennox-Boyd: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the continuing restrictions on the movement of Palestinians out of Gaza and the west bank to their work is causing them most dire economic hardship? As any peace process must involve winning the hearts and minds of people who are not violent and want to go about their business, everyone should make the strongest representations to the Israeli Government to allow the free movement of people.

Mr. Rifkind: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. When the Israeli deputy Foreign Minister was in London recently, we made representations to him exactly to that effect. We have been pleased that there has been some progress in reopening the borders of Gaza and the west bank. We believe that maximum progress of that kind would be valuable because great economic hardship is

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being caused to the Palestinians by the closing of the borders. It is therefore important that that should be taken into account when the Israelis consider their security interests.

Mr. Jacques Arnold: Was not the disaster in Qana a tragedy waiting to happen, given Hezbollah's practice of siting for firing its Katyusha rockets next to mosques, hospitals and other civil installations?

Mr. Rifkind: The fact that such incidents occur close to UN bases is certainly a disturbing feature. That is part of the wider picture and emphasises the need for an urgent and comprehensive way in which to resolve the region's complex problems.

Mr. Ernie Ross: Have there not been recent hopeful moves in the middle east such as, in the recent Palestine National Council meeting, the dropping of articles in the Palestinian charter that call for the destruction of Israel and the decision of the Israeli Labour Government to remove opposition to a Palestinian state? Does the Secretary of State welcome the statement by Prime Minister Peres that the Israelis will consider paying compensation for the damage caused in Lebanon? What action will the right hon. and learned Gentleman take to ensure that the Israelis are encouraged along that line of compensation? I agree with him that the only way forward is a comprehensive peace plan based on international law in Security Council resolutions 242, 338 and 425.

Mr. Rifkind: The hon. Gentleman has raised some important points. The decisions of the PLO to amend its covenant and of the Israeli Government to drop from their party platform opposition to a Palestinian state are truly historic. Even in the midst of the rather depressing and disturbing events of the past few weeks, two decisions were announced by Palestinians and Israelis that mark a dramatic change from the entrenched positions that both have held for the past 40 years. It opens up a prospect of real and fundamental peace, and emphasises the ability of Palestinians and Israelis to work together to remove some of the deep-seated prejudices that have so dogged progress in that area for so long.

Mr. John Marshall: Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that Israeli Arabs are the only Arabs entitled to vote in a democratic election, as they will later this month? Does he accept that, when their citizens are under attack, as citizens were from Katyusha rockets and kamikaze guerrillas in northern Israel, any democratic Government has to react, as the Israeli Government did, and that that action was aggravated by Syria and Iran's failure to attend the recent summit to combat terrorism?

Mr. Rifkind: A depressing feature of the middle east for so long has been the cycle of violence, with one violent incident being used to justify others. I do not believe that one is required to choose between them. In each case, a problem arises out of the overall failure to achieve a peace process in the region. That emphasises the need to turn away from that historical confrontation. As has been said, it is encouraging that some fundamental progress has been made and continues to be made towards a comprehensive peace in the region as a whole.

Sir David Steel: Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the cornerstone of the Government's policy in the

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middle east remains the resolutions of the UN Security Council, especially in view of the exposed position of the UN peacekeeping force in the Lebanon? While I welcome the superb efforts of Secretary of State Christopher, will the Foreign Secretary also make it clear that, in the wider politics of the middle east, it is the authority of the UN that counts rather than the authority of the US?

Mr. Rifkind: Of course the legitimate authority has to be that of the United Nations. The UN itself has been grateful to the United States and to all others who have contributed towards the achievement of a peace settlement in the region.

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