Statement on the Middle East by Minister Dermot Ahern T.D., at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs
I spent yesterday in intensive discussions at the meeting of the Council in Brussels on the increasingly dangerous situation in the Middle East. I was also in touch throughout the day with our people on the ground in the region. I know that the Committee will join with me in expressing our thanks to all those involved in the successful operation to evacuate our citizens from Beirut, through Syria.
The escalating violence in Lebanon, and in Northern Israel, and the desperate situation in Gaza, are of the utmost concern to the Government, and to our EU partners. The large-scale civilian casualties in recent days and weeks, and the increasing danger of a serious humanitarian crisis, are, quite simply, unacceptable. It is now essential that all parties, including the EU and the wider international community, devote every possible effort to overcoming the logic of war. There will be no military solution to the immediate crisis, or to its underlying causes. The only way forward for the people of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and their neighbours is an end to the violence and a return to political negotiations.
There are inevitably some differences of emphasis among the 25 EU Member States. However, we are strongly united in our basic message to the parties to the escalating conflict. All must now cooperate in the concerted diplomatic efforts being undertaken to end the immediate crises without further death and suffering. The action of Hezbollah in launching attacks across the border with Israel last week was cynically calculated to widen and deepen the conflict. It has brought tragedy and destruction upon the Lebanese people, again. It has also diverted the focus of attention from the continuing suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza.
The Government has remained in direct contact with Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Governments in the region to encourage a diplomatic solution. We are supporting fully the active engagement of the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, and the efforts of the EU High Representative, Javier Solana, to exercise the EU's influence in favour of an urgent return to politics and diplomacy. The UN Security Council will consider the situation in Lebanon in the coming days, based on the report of the Secretary General's mission to the region. They will consider, among other options, the possibility of a new international force for Southern Lebanon. This could be a fruitful possibility but the difficulties are also apparent.
The Government's message is very clear. All violence in and from Lebanon, Israel and the Occupied Territories must end. We should not have to wait for further tragedies, be they intended or unintended. All parties have unambiguous and immediate responsibilities and they must act on them.
Hezbollah must stop its rocket attacks on Israel, which have taken the lives of innocent Israeli citizens. It must release the two captured Israeli soldiers. Syria and Iran have influence on Hezbollah, and they must use it now, in the interests of regional stability. I welcome the clear condemnation of Hezbollah by states such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The UN Security Council has in its resolutions provided the framework for peace and prosperity in Lebanon. It includes the disbanding and disarming of militias and the extension of the control of the Government of Lebanon over all its territory. The international community will have to address how these goals can be reasserted with credibility in the current dangerous circumstances.
The immediate crisis in Gaza was precipitated by the attack on an Israeli military position within Israeli territory. The kidnapped soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, must be released unconditionally. Rocket attacks from Gaza must also stop. However, the crisis in Gaza is not a new one. The political, security and humanitarian situation in the Occupied Territories, always difficult, has been deteriorating for some time.
The root cause is the absence of a political process for a negotiated two-State solution, which is the only way in which a lasting and just peace can be achieved for the Israeli and the Palestinian people. The Government is determined to maintain our active engagement, both directly and within the EU, in favour of a negotiated settlement, based on the terms of the Quartet Roadmap. We have supported the firm call on the democratically-elected Hamas Government to commit to the peace process under which it achieved power. We have been encouraged by the efforts of President Mahmoud Abbas to achieve a National Agreement among all the Palestinian parties based on commitment to a two-State solution. Those efforts have inevitably stalled, but we will support him in his determination to conclude the process, which – if followed through – could provide an opening for a return to meaningful political negotiations. We are also increasing our humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people.
I would like to turn now to the responsibilities on the Israeli Government, with whose Ambassador here we are in daily contact. There is no doubt that Israelis feel extremely threatened by recent events. Israel has an absolute right to peace and security. But Israel is a strong military power. We share the belief within the EU that its military response in Gaza and in Lebanon has been harsh and disproportionate. Israel has a legitimate right to defend its citizens, but this must not be at the expense of the lives and welfare of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians. All military operations must be carried out in strict accordance with international law. And all parties must act on their responsibility to protect civilian lives. It has to be said that Israel is clearly failing to do so.
I have condemned and I condemn again today the rising toll of death and destruction, the blockade of Lebanon, the desperate conditions under which 1.5 million Palestinians are living under effective siege in Gaza. I have spoken out strongly, not only because of the suffering, but because the current crisis serves the interests of nobody – including the Israeli people. This is a time of great fear on all sides. There are no simple solutions, and this is not a time for gestures. It is above all a time for acts of political courage and imagination, especially in the region. It is those most directly concerned who ultimately have to take responsibility. The objectives must be to stabilise the situation in Lebanon and revive the hopes of its people for independence, sovereignty, peace and prosperity. And to move away from the arid temptation to unilateralism on both sides in the Israeli – Palestinian relationship.
The Government, together with our EU partners, have a role to play in close cooperation with our international partners. We have a clear interest in a peaceful Middle East. We are determined to exert our influence to end the violence and the military action, and to maintain our engagement so that the cessation of violence becomes the basis for a credible new international effort for a comprehensive peace in the region.
18 July 2006