Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Crisis in South Lebanon.

Ray Burke

Question:

1 Mr. R. Burke asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the plans or proposals, if any, he has in his capacity as a member of the EU Troika, both at EU and UN level, to alleviate the escalating crisis in the Middle East. [8284/96]

Desmond J. O'Malley

Question:

3 Mr. O'Malley asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs if the Government will withdraw Irish UN peacekeeping troops from southern Lebanon in view of the danger posed to them arising from indiscriminate Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon and in view of the inability of UN peacekeeping troops to exercise any control over the situation. [8396/96]

Trevor Sargent

Question:

7 Mr. Sargent asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the measures, if any, he has taken to express the outrage of people in Ireland regarding the use of violence against civilians in Lebanon from Israeli forces; and the action, if any, he proposes to take to restore peace in the area. [8344/96]

Eric J. Byrne

Question:

25 Mr. E. Byrne asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the role played by the EU Troika in attempting to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8354/96]

Máirín Quill

Question:

31 Miss Quill asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs if the Government will make the most vigorous protest to the Israeli Government regarding the appalling attacks on southern Lebanon by Israeli forces resulting in widespread death and destruction. [8397/96]

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

55 Mr. Broughan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the steps, if any, he has taken, in conjunction with his EU partners, to end the war in South Lebanon and to protect the large Irish UNIFIL contingent in Lebanon. [8426/96]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1, 3, 7, 25, 31 and 55 together.

The Government is gravely concerned at the recent developments in Lebanon. Ireland has been intensively involved in efforts to end the current violence in Lebanon and northern Israel and to ensure the safety of the Irish UNIFIL battalion. This involvement stems, on the one hand, from our participation in the EU Troika and, on the other from our role as a UNIFIL troop contributor. Ireland has also been involved in discussions on the situation at the UN. The Irish permanent representative addressed the Security Council on 18 April, expressing the Government's strong condemnation of the attack on the UNIFIL post at Qana and our deep concern at the deterioration in the situation in the Middle East, with the consequent strains on the peace process. In these discussions we have sought to ensure that priority will be given to the safety of civilians and the UNIFIL contingent.

The attack on the UNIFIL position at Qana, south Lebanon, was strongly condemned by the Taoiseach and in a statement issued by the Tánaiste on Thursday, 18 April. An EU statement expressed shock and consternation at the attack and called for the violence to cease.

Ireland has been centrally engaged in EU efforts to end the crisis. In the past ten days a senior official in the Department of Foreign Affairs responsible for the Middle East has participated in a series of urgent Troika missions in Beirut, Damascus, Amman, Cairo and Tel Aviv. Following the Qana attack, a reinforced EU Troika mission, headed by Italian Foreign Minister Agnelli, met with a number of key parties to the conflict last weekend, including Israeli Prime Minister Peres and Foreign Minister Barak, Lebanese President Haroui and Prime Minister Hariri, and President Assad of Syria. The Troika also visited wounded Lebanese civilians in two hospitals to express the EU's sympathy.

The Government has also been involved at the bilateral level. The Israeli ambassador was summoned to the Department of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday, 16 April so that the Government's concerns could be conveyed to his authorities. He was made aware of our views regarding the disproportionate response by Israel to Hizbullah attacks. In particular, concerns were expressed for the safety of Lebanese civilians and UNIFIL personnel, and about attacks on Lebanese infrastructure.

The Israeli ambassador was called in again on Friday, 19 April to be informed of the Government's condemnation of the Qana attack and to reiterate our very grave concerns about attacks on Lebanese civilians and infrastructure, as well as the great importance we attach to the safety of UNIFIL. The ambassador was told of the Government's clear view that the military activities should stop immediately.

EU Foreign Ministers considered the crisis at their meeting in Luxembourg on 22 April. Ireland's position on the need to condemn the attacks on civilians and, in particular, attacks on UNIFIL bases as occurred at Qana was strongly expressed and reflected in the declaration which was adopted. This declaration deplores the attack on Qana, and confirms the Union's willingness to contribute actively to the search for an immediate halt to hostilities, with the aim of elaborating a lasting agreement between the parties which would not prejudice a global agreement between Israel and Lebanon in the context of the peace process. It supports the efforts of UNIFIL in trying, in highly adverse circumstances, to alleviate the effects of violence and ensure the safety of the civilian population.

UNIFIL's mandate is based on UN Security Council Resolution 425 of 1978 affirming Lebanon's territorial integrity and sovereignty and requiring Israel to withdraw its forces. Ireland remains committed to the UNIFIL mandate and believes successive Irish UNIFIL contingents have made a valuable contribution to security in south Lebanon and have thereby played a role in maintaining peace and stability in the Middle East region generally. UNIFIL has also made an important contribution to the humanitarian needs of the local population. The request of the UN Secretary General and the Government of Lebanon to maintain UNIFIL was endorsed unanimously by the Security Council on 29 January last. On 18 April the Security Council called upon all concerned, in a resolution, to allow UNIFIL to fulfil its mandate without any obstacle or interference. I do not believe that this general agreement on the important role of UNIFIL has been undermined as a result of the current crisis.

Israel's recent attacks on Lebanon have undermined UNIFIL's capacity to conduct normal operations. However, I remain confident this is a temporary setback and UNIFIL will be able to fully resume its role in south Lebanon after the present crisis has been resolved.

The Government currently has no plans to withdraw Ireland's UNIFIL contingent. The Army authorities are satisfied that the danger currently posed to Irish personnel is not such as to necessitate our withdrawal from UNIFIL. The first phase of the six monthly rotation of the Irish UNIFIL battalion is now under way. The safety of Irish UNIFIL soldiers remains a paramount concern. The Government will continue to monitor their situation closely and, as the Tánaiste has already indicated, will take whatever measures may be necessary to help ensure their safety.

In the light of the Government's concern about the growing humanitarian crisis, the Department of Foreign Affairs has allocated £200,000 emergency aid for Lebanon. This will be distributed through a number of channels including the International Committee of the Red Cross, UN agencies and our UNIFIL battalion.

Ireland, as a member of the EU Troika and in our capacity as UNIFIL troop contributor, will continue to pursue diplomatic efforts in the Middle East region, aimed at promoting a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. I send good wishes to the Tánaiste. I hope he has a speedy recovery and will be ready to join us in battle as soon as possible. With regard to the massacre at Qana, I join in the condemnation expressed by the Minister of the killing of 100 refugees in the headquarters of the Fijian UN battalion.

Condemnation is not sufficient, whether of the Hizbullah for firing Katyusha rockets into northern Israel or the Israelis for their over the top response in bombing and laying waste southern and other parts of Lebanon, including Beirut.

To move the process forward, surely this is a case, if there ever was one, for political action by the Troika and for its presence in the Middle East, not just the Italian Foreign Minister to whom the Minister of State referred, but each of the foreign ministers who make up the Troika, including Ireland's. It is not sufficient to leave it to the Americans, despite their influence on Israel; it is a matter for the Troika and the EU with the various interests involved and historical connections in the area, whether in Syria, Lebanon or elsewhere. Why has there been no political participation by the Tánaiste in this issue?

This matter was considered and discussed at a meeting of the foreign ministers in the General Affairs Council in Luxembourg on Monday last at which I deputised for the Tánaiste. I also visited the Middle East as part of the Troika about a month ago, again deputising for the Tánaiste. One of the points considered by the Council was that there were too many foreign ministers in the Middle East. As one of them put it, there were "wall to wall" foreign ministers in the area, including the Troika, the Russian and French Foreign Ministers and the US Secretary of State. The presence of foreign ministers in itself may not necessarily contribute to a solution to the problem — too many cooks might well spoil the broth. The matter is being kept under active consideration and we will take whatever steps we consider necessary. It is possible that the Troika may pay a further visit to the area in the near future. My colleague, the Minister for Defence, is due to leave on Sunday to visit the UNIFIL troops.

For the Minister of State to use the phrase "to spoil the broth" when southern Lebanon is being laid waste in an artillery bombardment by the Israelis whose response to the Hizbullah attacks has been over the top, is unfortunate. Does he agree that, given its strength, the EU acting in union through its three representatives in the formal Troika could prove both effective and beneficial in bringing about a settlement in the area and putting pressure on all sides, Iran in particular given its support for the Hizbullah?

When I used the term that the Deputy thought was inappropriate, I was quoting from the content of the discussion that took place in Luxembourg. Let me put it in terms he, probably, would not find offensive. If there are too many foreign ministers in the Middle East, it can add to the problem rather than the solution in that different sides may play off one against another. The Russian and French Foreign Ministers, the US Secretary of State and the Troika were all in the area at the same time. There was agreement at the General Affairs Council that this could contribute to the problem rather than the solution. I take the Deputy's point, however, and would not rule out a visit to the area by the Troika at ministerial level if this was merited and it was felt, based on our own judgment having received up-to-date information, that it would contribute to a solution. I will ensure that the matter is kept under consideration. If it would prove beneficial, it is a course we would consider taking.

This is an important issue given that we have our own troops in the area with UNIFIL. I welcome the fact that the replacement operation has commenced. One group has arrived home with two more to come. We should acknowledge the role our troops have played with UNIFIL and the role played by their medical team, following the recent massacre in Qana, in trying to save lives. As a nation, we are proud of the work they have been doing under the most trying circumstances over many years in southern Lebanon. I wish the new contingent every success. I appeal to all sides, the Israelis in particular, for the greatest co-operation, and an acknowledgement of and respect for the flag of the UN, the only organisation which offers hope for mankind as we near the end of the millennium.

I could not agree more with the Deputy in relation to the work of UNIFIL and the UN. This is the line I took at the meeting of the foreign ministers on Monday when, at our insistence, a strong reference to the work of the UN and the attack on the Fijian soldiers was included in the statement issued. I join the Deputy in paying tribute to our troops for the great work they have done in our name and that of peace-keeping.