Concern over the PM’s speech at the WAC


Richard Burden writes to Tony Blair expressing concern over the Prime Minister’s speech at the World Affairs Council

Labour backbencher and member of the International Development Select Committee, Richard Burden MP, has today written to Tony Blair to express his concern at the Prime Minister’s speech at the World Affairs Council yesterday. In particular, Mr Burden questions Mr Blair’s contention that an “arc of extremism” lies at the roots of the crisis in the Middle East. He calls for urgent action in practise from Britain and the USA over the situations in Lebanon and Israel/Palestine.

Mr Burden has travelled to the Middle East regularly over the last decade and has met with representatives of widely different strands of opinion in Lebanon Israel and Palestine. He chairs the Britain-Palestine All Party Group in Parliament. He was a member of the British Inter Parliamentary Union delegation to Lebanon in 2004 and the first British Parliamentarian to enter Gaza after the Israeli disengagement last September. He was also an International Observer at the Palestinian Presidential and Parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2006.

The text of Mr Burden’s letter is below.

Rt Hon Tony Blair MP
Prime Minister
10 Downing Street

2 August 2006

I am writing to express my concern about your speech at the World Affairs Council this week, which expanded on similar comments you made in your press conference with President Bush last Friday.

On both occasions you were right to draw attention to the provocative nature of Hizbollah’s incursion over the border on 12th July, to condemn their rocket attacks on civilian targets and to understand the genuine fear that Israelis experience. However, Israel’s military strikes on civilian areas in both Lebanon and Gaza are also unacceptable and they are illegal under international law. I know I am not alone in being profoundly disappointed that so far you have not felt able to acknowledge this.

I agree with you that if we are to resolve the current crisis for the long term, we must both identify and tackle its causes. I am pleased that you recognise the centrality of the Israel/Palestine question to that. However, you claim that the root problem arises from an “arc of extremism” in the Middle East. Everything I know about that part of the world tells me that this analysis is both selective and flawed.

I have never met the current President of the United States. But I have met elected MPs from Hizbollah and other parties in Lebanon and some of the ordinary Lebanese who vote for them. I have argued face to face with Hamas representatives in Gaza about why suicide bombings are both morally repugnant and why they advance the Palestinian cause not one inch. I have also talked to Palestinians in Gaza, East Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank who are not extremists by any stretch of the imagination – but who have still lost homes and livelihoods to make way for ever expanding Israeli settlements.

And, yes, in Israel I have met Government ministers and others from both Left and Right. I have met settlers’ leaders. I have met human rights activists who dare to question what their government is doing. Perhaps most importantly of all, I have met Israelis who have lost loved ones in suicide bombings just as I have met Palestinians who have lost equally loved ones to Israeli military strikes. I have been to Israel’s dignified holocaust museum at Yad Vashem, a reminder that none of us must ever allow ourselves to forget the horrors that are etched on the collective memory of every Jewish person whether in Europe or Israel. And I have experienced the eerie atmosphere of Israeli shopping malls where both shoppers and traders live their daily lives in fear of terrorist attack.

So I hope am not one of the people who you castigated in your speech for simply not understanding what Israelis are going through.

However, none of this alters the fact that Hamas is not the same as Hizbollah and neither of them are the same as Al Qaeda. All have been responsible for some appalling actions over the years. But they have different objectives, different outlooks and they have grown up in different circumstances. You don’t have to have sympathy with any of them to understand the importance of this. Just listen to what secular Lebanese democrats say about why Hizbollah retains so much popular support. Listen to what Palestinians themselves say about why they voted Hamas into office in a democratic election – yes a democratic election – only a few months ago. Ask Palestinians who voted for Fatah rather than Hamas what they think about the fact that when Palestinian President Abbas persuaded Hamas a few weeks ago to take the first tentative steps towards negotiating a two-state settlement with Israel, Israel responded with intensified military action.

The theory that there is some kind of undifferentiated worldwide Islamic terrorist conspiracy is simply wrong and it plays into the hands of the likes of Osama Bin Laden who really does want to ferment worldwide conflict between Islam and the West, and to get his own revolting brand of militant Islam into the driving seat along the way.

It is fine for us to proclaim the universality of our values of democracy and tolerance but unless we also listen to what people Middle East are telling us about their grievances, we will remain accused of double standards. And if people see us in that light, we will have undermined our own message and leverage in the Middle East – however many multinational forces or buffer zones we suggest.

In Lebanon we could start by listening to what Prime Minister Siniora – no puppet of Syria or Iran – was telling the British Government when he visited the UK two months before the outbreak of the current hostilities. He said you cannot destroy Hizbollah militarily. However, he also said you can remove popular support for its military base by building Lebanon’s democracy and economy. Unfortunately, Israel’s military action has threatened the former and destroyed the latter. Prime Minister Siniora also urged us to encourage the process of disarmament politically by removing the grievance of the Sheba’a farms – an area which is internationally recognized as Syrian but where Syria itself seems prepared to recognize Lebanese sovereignty. The problem is that for the last thirty nine years it has been illegally occupied by neither of them but by Israel. The international community – and particularly the USA – could still do something about that if it choose to.

As you said in your speech though, the key to so many other things is a resolution of the Israel/Palestine question. I welcome your commitment to restarting the peace process. All I would say is that this can no longer mean promoting the theoretical desirability of an independent Palestinian State alongside a secure Israel when facts continue to be established on the ground that close off the possibility of such a state ever coming into existence.

The residency rights of more and more Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are being revoked in practice. Settlement blocks and the separation barrier built on occupied land (both illegal under international law) continue to dissect the West Bank and monopolise water resources, leaving the Palestinians the prospect of a future “state” based on a series of Bantustans. You praised Israel’s withdrawal of settlers from Gaza last year. Fair enough, but they moved more settlers into the West Bank last year than they withdrew from Gaza.

These things are not theoretical dangers. They are happening now. We can all find numerous examples of the British Government expressing disapproval of them. The point is what are we doing to help stop them in practice? And what, in practice, are we asking the USA to do to secure Israeli compliance with UN Resolutions on Israel/Palestine with the same seriousness that it demands compliance by other states with UN resolutions affecting them?

In Gaza itself, the genuine need to prevent the homemade rocket attacks that injured fifteen Israelis in June also does not excuse Israeli military strikes that have killed 36 and injured 110 Palestinians during the same period; that have hit water and electricity supplies to over fifty per cent of the population of one of the poorest places on earth; and it does not excuse Israel’s continued blockade of the area from land sea and air. The additional humanitarian aid announced by Hilary Benn last week is welcome but the international agencies are still warning that Gaza still faces a catastrophe unless Israel fundamentally changes its policies there.

What are we or the USA doing there in practice to make those changes happen as urgently as we call for action to confront “arcs of extremism?”

Best wishes

Yours sincerely


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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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