UN must see through the spin and do what is right


Before Parliament rose for the summer, a Labour colleague and I were sitting on the Commons benches listening to a Minister trying to explain why the Government did not feel it was appropriate to call on Israel to cease its bombing of South Lebanon immediately. We were told not to forget that it was Hezbollah, not Israel, that had kicked off hostilities “Isn’t it amazing?” observed my colleague. “When I come across my two children having a spat, if they start pointing at each other and saying ‘Well, he started it…’ I send both of them straight to bed.”

She had a point. With the death toll amongst Lebanese now over 1000, with that for Palestinians in Gaza moving towards 200 and the death toll amongst Israelis nearing 100, the Minister’s response looks less and less relevant as each day passes.

Whoever fired the first shot in June, July, May or however far we want to go back, there is no excuse for Hezbollah rocket attacks that are today hitting civilian towns in Israel. There is no excuse for the wholesale destruction of civilian areas of Lebanon or Gaza by the Israeli military. Both sides have obligations under international law. Both sides are breaching those obligations. It is time our Government was prepared to say so about Israel just as they have said so about Hezbollah.

But narratives that become the conventional wisdom about the current conflict are important. They frame our perspectives about what the UN should be doing to achieve a cessation of hostilities now, and how we identify the longer term causes of the present conflict.

Condoleeza Rice was clear enough last weekend when she was resisting pressure for the UN to require an immediate withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon. She said we cannot go back to the “status quo ante”. The theme was taken up by the Sunday Times’ August 6th editorial.  “Whatever the rights and wrongs of Israel’s military engagement in Lebanon and Gaza, for instance, nobody can deny that it began with the near daily bombardment which Northern Israel has suffered from Hezbollah terrorists in the past few years,”

Really? It is nearly a month since I tabled a question in Parliament asking the Foreign Secretary what information she has of deaths or injuries to Israelis caused by rocket or other attacks over the border from Lebanon in the year before the current war broke out in July. I am still waiting for a reply. I also asked the House of Commons Library to see what they could find out from published sources such as the Janes World Insurgency and Terrorism journal (JTIC) and the UN Secretary General’s last report on activity along the Lebanese /Israeli border. As far as I can tell, in August last year there was one mortar attack on a Northern Israeli town. It caused no injuries and it is thought that Hezbollah may not have been responsible. There also appeared to have been two artillery or rocket attacks from Lebanon on Israeli military positions in the Sheba’a farms area. There is disagreement about whether this territory is Lebanese or Syrian but it is not part of Israel. It has, however, been under Israeli military occupation for decades. There were also a couple of Hezbollah attacks with small arms on Israeli military positions. In all this there were two Israeli military fatalities and no civilian ones. The death of anybody from armed conflict is tragic – soldier or civilian. However, none of this bears out the picture painted by Rice of the “status quo ante”.

Indeed, a different picture emerges. Whilst Hezbollah attacks before July 2006 appear to have been rare, the UN Secretary General’s report of activity along the Israeli/Lebanese border between July 2005 and January 2006 observed:

“The Israeli Air Force violated Lebanese airspace on many occasions during the reporting period, disturbing the relative calm along the Blue Line. During the time of heightened tension in November, overflights by jets, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles or drones were numerous and particularly intrusive and provocative.”

None of this background justifies the appalling attacks that both Hezbollah and Israel have undertaken in the last month, and none of it alters the fact that both Syria and Iran are using the current crisis to gain regional advantage.

However, it does show why the UK is ill-advised to wed itself to the US position, and it offers some pointers to why the UN should require the withdrawal of Israeli forces to accompany a ceasefire rather than follow it at a time of Israel’s own choosing. And whilst it is true that the Lebanese army will require assistance to extend its authority into the south, nobody should assume that this will be completely new territory for them. For example, the JTIC 2005/06 reported that in December last year, Lebanese troops prevented an attack that could actually have taken place, by finding and diffusing two Katyusha rockets primed for launch into Israel from Lebanon.

This also all shows how important it is for the UN to address the Sheba’a Farms issue early, rather than leave it for later. The area may be small and strategically insignificant, but symbolically it is the pretext by which Hezbollah has retained its arms – claiming that part of Lebanon has remained under Israeli occupation after 2000.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Siniora has been telling us this for ages and asking for international pressure on Israel to withdraw from Sheba’a Farms. He emphasised it again during his visit to the UK just three months ago. If we had acted on his advice then, the story of the last month may have been different. Syria has indicated it is prepared to accept Lebanese sovereignty over the area. Under international law Israel has never had any right to maintain its occupation there. The area should be immediately placed under UN control and a permanent solution put in place as soon as possible.

The USA and Israel say this would reward terrorism. It would actually help prevent terrorism and it would reward common sense.

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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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