On July 2, the British government added the armed branch of Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations. Officially, the British accuse Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia movement, of supporting terrorist groups in the region and in particular in Iraq.
But many, including Hezbollah itself, question the move and accuse the UK of stepping up pressure on the movement just as it shows itself ready for negotiations with Israel.
“The armed branch of Hezbollah lends an active support to militants in Iraq responsible for attacks against both coalition forces and Iraqi civilians,” Home Office Secretary of State Tom McNulty said in a statement.
The UK based the decision on US officials’ accusations that Hezbollah members have been training Iraqi insurgents in Iran. Secretary of State McNulty also stressed that Hezbollah had a history of backing Palestinian terrorist groups such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Hassan Nasrallah, the Shia movement leader, questioned the UK’s official version. “The timing of the announcement is suspicious because it happens right at the time of the prisoners’ exchange” between Hezbollah and Israel, he said.
A few hours later, Nasrallah made the official announcement that his movement had accepted the conditions of the prisoners’ exchange with Israel.
The agreement plans for the restitution by Lebanon of the corpses of two Israeli soldiers captured during the July 2006 crisis, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Israel committed to releasing five Lebanese prisoners and to hand to Hezbollah the remains of close to 200 Lebanese, Palestinian and Arab fighters.
Stepping up pressure on Hezbollah
The timing of this announcement is not fortuitous, says Anne Giudicelli, an expert on terrorism and head of Terrorisc, a consulting firm. “This is a way to continue to put pressure on Hezbollah even as it opens the door,” she said.
The British sanction could have important consequences for Lebanon and the whole region. According to Nadim Shehadi, a Mideast expert at the London-based Chatham House, this decision could pave the way for a similar decision at the EU level. “This declaration could lead to a change in European policy, which could weigh on negotiations with Iran,” Shehadi said. “Hezbollah’s finances would suffer from it.”
It is very significant that this announcement was made shortly before the EU summit on a Union for the Mediterranean, which is set to take place in Paris on July 13th. “It could also affect the agenda for negotiations which are currently resuming between France and Syria,” Shehadi added.
A simple question of timing?
In an interview to the Daily Star, Frances Mary Guy, the British Ambassador to Lebanon, ruled out any connection between the negotiations and London’s decision. “This decision has been studied for a long time and it became necessary to announce it quickly due to the legislative process of the United Kingdom,” she told the Lebanese newspaper. The Home Office had to present its request to the British Parliament so that it could be researched before the Parliament adjourned for the summer on July 22nd.
Israel, the Netherlands, Canada and the US have placed all of Hezbollah – the political organization as well as its armed branch - on their lists of terrorist organizations. This qualification enables the freezing and confiscating of the organizations’ assets. But the EU has so far been resisting calls from Israel and the US to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Hezbollah’s “External Security Organization” has been on the UK’s list of banned terrorist organizations since 2000.