Mark calling for the release of Israeli Soldiers and discussing the the situation in the Middle East

June 27, 2007 10:00 AM
By Mark Hunter

I thank the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for calling this important debate, which is particularly important in the context of recent events in the Gaza strip. I welcome the opportunity to discuss efforts to secure the release of the captured Israeli soldiers and the aftermath of events surrounding those captures. I wish to put it on the record that, as have other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the courage of Alan Johnston, the captured BBC journalist, and that the bravery of our correspondents abroad should never be forgotten by the House. I am sure that the Minister will want to bring us up to speed on efforts to secure his release.

Hon. Members will understand, however, why I want to concentrate on the subject of debate, which is the abduction of the soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser by Hezbollah, and of Corporal Gilad Shalit by the Popular Resistance Committee, which includes members of Fatah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Of course, that is totally unacceptable and in breach of international law. The seizure of those men, of course, is condemned by all parties in this House and by other national Governments and international organisations. We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of those men and call on all parties to abide by UN Security Council resolution 1701.

I was struck by the comments of hon. and right hon. Members so far that it is impossible for Members of this House to place themselves in that situation and to imagine the mental and physical strain of being held in captivity without any indication from the captors of when one might be released. I am sure that it goes without saying that we hope that the captives are being well treated and respected by their kidnappers, and of course our hearts go out to them and their families as international efforts to secure their release continue.

We must remember, however, that those Israeli soldiers are not the only individuals being held captive as part of continuing hostilities. It has to be said that Israel itself continues to detain a number of elected representatives of the Palestinian people. As democratically elected individuals, whatever we might think of their politics, they have a role in the efforts to find peace. I would therefore support pressure being put on Israel to set in motion negotiations for their release.

I think that other Members have accepted already that activities have been undertaken by both sides of this complex conflict that, quite frankly, have done neither of them any credit. In what I hope is a sensible and constructive debate, it would be wrong not to allude to the fact that some people feel equally passionately on the other side of the argument.

Of course I do. The debate is specifically about the three Israeli soldiers, as the Order Paper shows clearly. Although I think that it is right, as I said, to refer to the situation affecting the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, I am certainly not planning in the short time that I have available to concentrate more on that than on the subject raised by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire-that of the Israeli soldiers. However, of course I accept that difference, and I think that I have explained the context in which I made my earlier point.

I want to mention the Egyptians. The Egyptian Government have been working to negotiate the release of Corporal Shalit and in late October of last year the Popular Resistance Committee announced that an agreement for prisoner exchange had been reached, under which Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, including women and children, will be released in stages, and Israeli soldiers handed over to the Egyptians. In fact, in December, Egypt's President Mubarak declared that a deal was in its final stages. Reports now state that the names of specific prisoners to be swapped are yet to be finalised. I should be grateful if the Minister would inform the Chamber on how those Egyptian-led negotiations are progressing and perhaps on what the UK Government are doing to facilitate those negotiations.

Not surprisingly, there is considerable debate about the current situation in the Gaza strip and the resulting increased levels of tension, which make the ongoing negotiations for prisoner exchange even more difficult than they might have been. I ask also that the Minister

gives us his Department's up-to-date assessment of how the current situation in the Gaza strip affects the chances of Corporal Shalit being released in the near future.

In answer to a parliamentary question from Lord Turnberg in March of this year, Lord Triesman mentioned an unnamed facilitator working with all parties to secure the release of the two Israeli soldiers being held by Hezbollah. That facilitator was mentioned also in the UN Secretary-General's report on the implementation of Security Council resolution 1701 in March 2007. I should be grateful if the Minister would advise the Chamber on what, if any, progress the facilitator has made and on what the UK Government are doing to help.

The report on Security Council resolution 1701 stated also that Hezbollah were not only stalling the release of prisoners but placing

"prohibitive demands for proof that the two Israeli soldiers were still alive".

In December 2006, The Independent reported that at least one of the Israeli soldiers had been injured during the cross-border attack on 12 July, but Hezbollah have refused to allow access to the International Committee of the Red Cross or to the UN facilitator. It seems to me that the refusal of that basic humanitarian act by Hezbollah stands in marked contrast to the stance of Israel, which has allowed the Red Cross access to Lebanese citizens captured by the Israeli defence force and authorised that prisoners be allowed to write to their families. As other hon. Members have said, that makes a significant difference to the treatment of the respective captives. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell the Chamber whether any negotiations are taking place to encourage Hezbollah to allow the UN facilitator and the Red Cross access to the imprisoned Israeli soldiers, and whether he can report on any progress in those negotiations.

In addition to calling for the release of the captive soldiers, Security Council resolution 1701 calls for the disarming of militant groups such as Hezbollah. I understand that the stand-off in the refugee camp of Nahr El Bared between the Lebanese Government and the Fatah rebels continues. Although we respect the work of the Lebanese Government and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon to disarm militias, we of course join international aid agencies in calling for a temporary ceasefire so that civilians and those who are wounded can be evacuated from the camp.

With regard to the disarming of militias, the UN Secretary-General, in the report on resolution 1701, stated that he is still waiting for the Lebanese Government to define a political process by which Hezbollah and other militias should be disarmed. Perhaps the Minister would inform us whether, during recent discussions with the Lebanese Government, that issue was raised, and whether they are close to creating such a political process. Will he also give us his assessment of how the disarming of militias in Lebanon is progressing?

The Minister for Trade, the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), in answer to a question on 5 July last year, stated:

"Israel has the right to take steps to secure the release of Corporal Shalit. Any military steps taken should avoid civilian casualties, abide by international law and observe the principle of proportionality."-[Official Report, 5 July 2006; Vol. 448,c. 1152W.]

However, for many Members on both sides of the House, it is a matter of great regret that, during the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last summer, the Government refused to join other European countries in calling for a ceasefire. In the light of the tragic loss of life and property that ensued, does the Minister still believe that military action was an appropriate step to take last summer? Does he agree that any attempts to free Israeli soldiers now should be made through wholly diplomatic and peaceful means, not through the use of force?

I sincerely hope that all three Israeli soldiers return safely in the near future and that the militant groups that abducted them are disbanded. The Government need to ensure that, through the UN and the EU, we play an active role in encouraging engagement between Israel and Palestine, because unless they continue talking, a peace settlement will be impossible. I look forward to the Minister's reassurance that the Government will continue to do all that they can to secure the release of those prisoners and to work for a lasting peace in the middle east.

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