European Union in a Major Shift Agrees to Blacklist Hezbollah's 'Military Wing'

By Patrick Goodenough | July 22, 2013 | 5:01 AM EDT

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah appears at a rally in the Hezbollah stronghold of south Beirut, Lebanon, on Dec. 6, 2011. (AP File Photo)

(Update: The E.U.’s 28 member states agreed unanimously Monday to place Hezbollah’s “military wing” on its list of terrorist organizations. The U.S. welcomed the move, which Secretary of State John Kerry said sent a strong message that the Lebanese group “cannot operate with impunity, and that there are consequences for its actions.” The U.S. designates Hezbollah as a terror group as a single entity – it does not differentiate between a “military wing” and other parts of the organization.)

( – European Union member states are poised to make a decision, possibly as soon as Monday, that could affect the future of one of the world’s most effective terrorist groups, and impact both its country of origin and the broader region.

The 28 E.U. states look closer than ever before to setting aside years of differences and designating Hezbollah as a terrorist group, a step which the United States and Israel have long been urging.

Two factors have shifted the balance in favor of the move – evidence of Hezbollah involvement in terror plots in Europe including a deadly bombing in Bulgaria one year ago, and the group’s active involvement on the side of the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.

The verdict could yet go either way, however – E.U. rules call for a unanimous decision and on Sunday its smallest member, the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, became the latest to voice reservations.

Monday’s deliberations in Brussels involve the Foreign Affairs Council, a monthly gathering of the E.U.’s foreign and defense ministers. The meeting will be chaired by E.U. foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton, and a debate on Lebanon has been scheduled for lunchtime.

Washington has for years been encouraging the E.U. to blacklist the group, thereby cutting off crucial funding sources in Europe, to no avail. The Netherlands alone in Europe has outlawed Hezbollah in its entirety, while Britain in 2008 designated its “military wing.” (Beyond Europe, Canada and Australia have both outlawed Hezbollah in its entirety.)

Since Hezbollah is deeply entrenched in the Lebanese political system, many E.U. members have argued that acting against it would destabilize the small country wedged between Syria and Israel.

Malta’s foreign minister George Vella told a Maltese newspaper Sunday the country was “concerned that the listing would have implications for the political stability of Lebanon, and by extension contribute further to the destabilization” of an already volatile region.

Critics say that E.U. governments making the “destabilization” argument are effectively colluding in the violation of several U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Hezbollah be disarmed and disbanded.

Hezbollah, a Shi’ite group with close ties to the regimes in Iran and Syria, claims its fighters and weapons constitute Lebanon’s crucial “resistance” against its number one enemy, Israel. The country’s other political forces are either allies of the movement or are too weak to offer meaningful opposition.

Late last week Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour sent letters to all 28 E.U. members on behalf of President Michel Sleiman, asking them not to designate Hezbollah as a terror group.

Mansour – a member of the Amal Movement, a Shi’ite party allied to Hezbollah – told state television on Sunday that blacklisting Hezbollah would “leave its mark” on relations between Lebanon and the E.U.

“It is not acceptable for this resistance party, which honored Lebanon and the Arab nation and liberated our lands from the Israelis, to be treated in this way,” he said.

Blacklisting Hezbollah “would have grave repercussions for Lebanon, because the party is an integral part of the political system and it is represented in parliament and in the cabinet,” Mansour said. “Hezbollah’s political and military wings can’t be separated.”

Ironically, the U.S. agrees with Hezbollah and its allies on that latter point – contrary to the stance taken by those like the British government that say a distinction should be made between the group’s political and social activities and its armed actions.

“We don’t distinguish as the United States government between the political and military or terrorist wings of Hezbollah,” State Department spokeswoman Patrick Ventrell reiterated earlier this year.

“And that’s based on our careful review of all the information that indicates that Hezbollah’s numerous branches and subsidiaries share a common funding, common personnel and leadership, which all support the group’s violent activity.”

If the E.U. does take a decision to designate Hezbollah, it will likely follow the British model – outlawing only the “military wing” – rather than the Dutch (and U.S., Canadian and Australian) approach.

Long popular in the Arab world for its unremitting opposition to Israel, Hezbollah has seen its status severely eroded because of its participation in Syria’s civil war in support of President Bashar Assad.

Its demise or serious debilitation would deprive Assad of one of his few remaining allies, and the Iranian regime of an organization it helped to establish and has used as a proxy against Israel, the U.S., and the West.

U.S. security officials have frequently pointed out that before al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other terrorist group in history. The U.S. has listed it as a “foreign terrorist organization” ever since FTO designation was first established under legislation passed in 1996.

Major acts of terrorism blamed on the group, acting in conjunction with Iran, include 1983 suicide bombings in Beirut on targets including the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks that killed more than 300; and the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, in which 114 people were killed.

In Europe, Hezbollah has been linked to a series of deadly bombings in Paris in 1986; an unsuccessful attempt to carry out attacks in Cyprus in 1988; a foiled plot to carry out attacks against Jewish targets in Europe in 1989; an unsuccessful attempt to detonate a car bomb in Romania in 1992; and a foiled attack on an Israeli institution in Paris in 1996.

Last July’s bombing in Bulgaria killed five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow