Government of United Kingdom: Statement on developments in the Middle East

Mr Speaker, in these are very difficult times for the Middle East, I welcome this chance to update the House on British activity and policy.

The UK is gravely concerned by the escalating crisis in Lebanon. Not only does it pose a serious threat to the relationship between the Israeli’s and Lebanese governments but it also threatens the wider security of the region, and it is also causing huge harm to the civilian populations with casualties mounting on both sides.

We offer our condolences to the Governments of Lebanon and Israel for the losses they have suffered and to the families of all those affected.

The UK is committed to helping resolve this crisis. The Prime Minister has spoken to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the Foreign Secretary has spoken to the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni. We appreciate the pressures which both Governments are under at this very difficult time. But both have a responsibility to help end this crisis.

Our priority must be to create conditions to allow a cease-fire and to explore quickly how the international community might facilitate a peaceful, diplomatic resolution guaranteed perhaps by the deployment of an international force into the area.

Ultimately, the only way to achieve a sustainable solution to the situation in both Gaza and Lebanon is to address the root causes. That means getting back to a state where negotiations can resume on the basis of the Quartet Roadmap. With that objective in mind, the Prime Minister is discussing the crisis with his G8 counter-parts at the G8 summit in St Petersburg.

The EU High Representative Javier Solana and a UN team representing Secretary-General Kofi Annan are in the region as we speak. We fully support their efforts to broker an end to this conflict and we are also offering both teams logistical assistance on the ground. We are urging all involved parties to do all they can to address this crisis and to prevent the situation from worsening.

We reiterate our call for the urgent release of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers, and for an end to attacks on Israeli towns and cities.* We urge all those countries with influence over Hizballah to play their part.

We are very concerned about the role of Syria and Iran. Through their support for Hizbullah they are encouraging extremism, threatening the stability of the region, and putting peace in the Middle East further out of reach.

Israel has every right to act in self-defence. But we and the International Community have urged them to act in proportionate and measured ways; conform to international law; avoid civilian death and suffering; and refrain from acts which destabilise the Lebanese Government. Disproportionate action only escalates an already dangerous situation.

This crisis also underscores the need for the full and sustainable implementation of Security Council Resolution 1559, including the importance of the Government of Lebanon exercising its full authority throughout Lebanese territory. That means being able to control the area between Beirut and the Israeli boarder - an area cursed by militias like Hizbollah whose political masters reside in Damascus and Tehran.

Our most pressing concern in this crisis is the welfare and safety of the thousands of British nationals in Lebanon. We are working day and night with our EU and other international partners towards a properly organised - and above all safe - arrangement to help British Nationals and others for whom we have consular responsibility and who want to leave Lebanon.

With the Ministry of Defence we are working closely on how to help those British Nationals who want to leave to do so safely. The House should not underestimate the scale of this task or the numbers involved. Royal Navy destroyers - the York and the Gloucester - are now offshore and others, including HMS Illustrious and HMS Bulwark, are heading towards the Eastern Mediterranean.

A Rapid Deployment Team from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, has arrived in Beirut to assist British Nationals together with a military reconnaissance team that will carry out detailed planning for a possible evacuation.

We judge that departure by sea is the safest and most practical option for British nationals wishing to leave. We are already using British helicopters to transport some of the more vulnerable British nationals to Cyprus.

We were able to make use this morning, for example, of UK helicopters, which brought in the Rapid Deployment Team and EU High Representative Solana, to help about 40 of the most vulnerable British nationals to leave.

For the moment we are advising British Nationals in Lebanon to stay put, exercise caution, keep in touch with the Embassy and heed local advice. British Nationals in Lebanon have been informed that they should listen to the BBC and other English language broadcasts. Our Embassy in Beirut is advising British Nationals in Lebanon who want to leave to get ready for departure at short notice, including by having travel documents in order.

Mr Speaker, we have deep concerns also about the situation in Gaza. The escalation in violence since the 25 June attack at the Kerem Shalom crossing has caused great suffering on both sides and mounting casualties.

We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of Corporal Shalit. We also condemn the continued rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli towns. We have called on the Palestinian Authority to prevent all terrorist attacks, including these rocket attacks, and to work for the release of Corporal Shalit. We welcome the work President Abbas is doing to achieve this.

And let me repeat that while we recognise Israel’s right to defend itself and to secure the release of Corporal Shalit, we insist that its actions should be proportionate and in accordance with international law as we, the G8, and the EU have made clear.

We continue to have serious concerns regarding the current humanitarian situation in Gaza. Israeli military actions have targeted key roads and bridges and damaged the Palestinian civilian infrastructure.

We continue to urge Israel to take action to allow the full provision of basic services to the Palestinian people.

We welcome the agreement to open the Rafah crossing on 18 July and hope that all those currently stuck on the Egyptian side of the crossing will be able to enter Gaza. Cases such as these should be resolved as quickly as possible through negotiations.

The EU mission at Rafah has played a key role in bringing the sides together and continue to perform an important function under difficult circumstances. We have also made some humanitarian support available to those that have been stuck at the border.

We continue to have concerns about the detention of members of the Palestinian Government and Legislature on 29 June. Those detained should be accorded their full legal rights and either be charged or released.

We fully support Egyptian efforts to mediate between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the militants currently holding Corporal Shalit and we have offered our assistance. Egypt plays a key role in the peace process and we will continue to work with them. We have also pressed Syria to use its influence on Hamas. I can assure the House the UK will continue to work to resolve this crisis.

Mr Speaker, we need an urgent end to the current crisis, although we know of course, that real peace can only come through a lasting settlement. As the Prime Minister has made clear in St Petersburg, our priority must be to create the conditions for an early resumption of negotiations. The events we have witnessed around Israel’s boarders over the past few days have reaffirmed the great urgency of constructing a lasting settlement and the perils of assuming that, somehow, there is a military solution to this historic conflict. Negotiation is the only viable way to move the peace process forward.

Our goal remains a negotiated two state solution achieved through the Roadmap. We must all find a way to work through the current crises to get back on that track.

*Editor’s Note: The dictionary definition of the word “kidnap” necessitates that the abduction of a person is illegal. As the Israeli soldier was part of an occupying force, captured during a military raid against a military target, in international law he is considered to be a “prisoner of war”, not a kidnap victim. The rules governing the treatment of prisoners of war are spelled out in the third Geneva Convention of 1949, article 13 of which requires that POWs “must at all times be treated humanely”.

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