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The definition of "war crimes" must be re-examined in light of the conflict in south Lebanon, Britain's minister for the Middle East has told a parliamentary committee.
"Hizbullah took the old terrorist tactic of hiding behind the skirts of women and children to new depths," Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells told a special session of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee last week. "They had their rockets located inside the rooms of apartment blocks. They had caches of arms that were in schools and mosques."
"If an organization like Hizbullah is ruthless enough to exploit these tactics, one wonders how it can ever be possible to win with justice on your side against such an enemy," Howells said.
He also argued that the tactics used by the IDF against Hizbullah had been counterproductive.
"Every time the Israelis responded and smashed the building down, every picture of a burnt child and every picture of a building that housed people and had now 'pancaked' to the ground was propaganda for Hizbullah," he said.
In the short term, Hizbullah "emerged the stronger for it politically." However he doubted the terrorist organization would reap significant long-term benefits from the conflict as "Hizbullah, with their allies the Iranians and Syrians, are going to have a very big job to try to regain in any permanent sense the reputation they held as the resistance movement against Israel," gained during the height of the conflict.
Factions within the Lebanese government were "very bitter about Hizbullah" and were "very well informed about the way in which this self-appointed theocrat [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah was prepared to issue these commands and to have a kind of foreign policy of their own and jeopardize a sovereign state." Some Lebanese leaders told him they were "hoping the Israelis would do the job for them" and destroy Hizbullah, "because sooner or later they would have to tackle" it, he said.
Israel made the "wrong decision" politically in not using ground troops. "They assumed that an airborne assault would probably draw down upon them less international criticism than if they tried to reoccupy that territory." He denied Britain had made a misjudgment in not calling for an immediate ceasefire, but conceded mistakes had been made by the Blair government. "We didn't do enough to try to explain" ourselves, he said.
It was a "difficult statement to make and a difficult position to defend," he said, noting that in the "Arab street we generated a lot of hostility." However, "in the long run we have been proved right" in seeking a UN brokered ceasefire, Howells said.
"There had to be some real teeth behind any ceasefire that would occur" he said, otherwise Israel would refit while the "Syrians and Iranians could have got more weapons back to Hizbullah."
However in his comments to Parliament, Howells said Israel used the "wrong tactics not because of some notion of 'disproportionality' but because I think it was not effective in reducing the ability of Hizbullah to go on fighting and survive."
Iran's Ambassador to London Rasul Movahedian on Tuesday stated his country provided only "moral support and political support to Hizbullah," Howells reported. Queried as to whether he accepted these assurances, the foreign minister told Parliament that he did not "believe for one moment that the missiles, the gun, the finances which are available to Hizbullah have not come from Iran via Syria." Howells said he was "pessimistic" that attempts to persuade Iran to withdraw support from its proxies in Lebanon would succeed, given the political utility they provided President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranians "trade their support for Hizbullah and Hamas in response to the way in which we plague them to give up their nuclear weapons program," he said.
Iran had "played a masterly delaying game" over the summer, using the Hizbullah conflict to deflect attention from its nuclear arms program.
Britain's goal was to engage the Iranians and persuade them "that there is a better way to move forward." He added that he could not "see a military way through this. I am not sure even that there is an easy way for the UN to impose sanctions." Questioned as to Syria's part in the conflict, Howells said it had played a "negative role" and was "sabotaging peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians." Howells told the committee there had been unconfirmed reports Syria was seeking to use humanitarian relief efforts to rearm Hizbullah.
"Convoys containing aid that probably came from elsewhere in the Middle East, humanitarian aid, were stopped at the Syrian border, because the Syrians themselves had inserted other vehicles into those convoys which were carrying arms." He said, he did not "know if that is true," but said the UN was investigating.
Britain was "in so many ways historically responsible for the configuration that now exists in that area," he said, "We have tried I think with the best will in the world to try to make an almost impossible situation work," and would continue to seek a lasting peace for the region.
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