European Union foreign ministers agreed on Monday to blacklist Lebanese militant group Hezbollah’s armed wing, holding it responsible for terror attacks in Europe including a bus bombing in Bulgaria in which five Israelis were killed.
The European Union put the military arm of Hezbollah on its terrorist list on Monday, in a major change to its policy on the region, fuelled by concerns over the Lebanese militant group’s activities in Europe.
The decision was reached unanimously at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday after some member countries, which were resistant to the blacklisting, were persuaded by an EU distinction between the political and military arms of the group.
The 28-member bloc had been resisting pressure from the US and Israel to add Hezbollah to the EU list of terror groups amid concerns that the EU might lose leverage over the powerful Lebanese group.
But in recent months, momentum for Hezbollah’s blacklisting had been building within the bloc after the Islamist group was implicated in the deadly July 18, 2012 suicide bombing of a bus filled with Israeli tourists in the Black Sea resort city of Burgas.
A Cyprus court decision in March that found a Hezbollah member guilty of helping to plan attacks on Israelis on the Mediterranean island also helped galvanise EU moves to blacklist the group.
Hezbollah has denied involvement in the attacks – including the Bulgarian bus bombing, which killed five Israeli tourists, their bus driver and the bomber.
The EU decision came as the Iran-backed Shiite group has increased its involvement in the Syrian conflict, with Hezbollah fighters supporting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad forces in their assault of rebel-held areas.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 shortly after the decision, Edward McMillan-Scott, a British member of the European Parliament, noted that while it’s clear the Lebanese militant group was playing a role in the Syrian conflict, it was “not the immediate cause of the sanction – it is apparently the terrorist attack on a bus in Bulgaria. This was held to be the responsibility of Hezbollah’s military wing,” said McMillan-Scott.
The request to add Hezbollah’s military wing to its terror list was put forward by Britain, which already classifies Hezbollah as a terror group. The Netherlands, the only other EU member to consider Hezbollah a terrorist organisation prior to Monday’s EU-wide decision, had been pressing for the blacklisting since 2004.
Responding to the decision Monday, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans called it a critical move for the 28-member bloc.
“It is good that the EU has decided to call Hezbollah what it is: a terrorist organization,'' said Timmermans. “I'm satisfied that we took this important step today, by dealing with the military wing of Hezbollah, freezing its assets, hindering its fundraising and thereby limiting its capacity to act.”
Limited scope and implementation hurdles
The blacklisting entails visa bans on individuals and asset freezes on organizations associated with the group. The new designation makes it illegal for European diplomats to meet with Hezbollah’s militant staff and for Hezbollah supporters in Europe to send money to the group’s armed wing.
But the implementation will be complicated, since EU officials have to unravel the links between the different wings within Hezbollah's organizational network. The powerful Lebanese Shiite group has always maintained that there are no divisions between its military and political wings, which include Lebanese members of parliament.
“The military wing and the political wing of Hezbollah and its various charitable organisations are very hard to separate,” explained FRANCE 24’s Lucy Fielder, reporting from the Lebanese capital of Beirut.
Although the asset freeze is a critical aspect of the blacklisting, Fielder noted that its impact on Hezbollah would be limited. “There’s very little evidence to suggest that Hezbollah keeps its money in the EU, or its members keep their money in the EU. The group certainly does not receive major funding from Europe. Their funding comes from Iran,” noted Fielder.
McMillan-Scott also questioned the effects of the new ruling on the ground. “I’ve always taken the view that terrorist lists are gesture politics,” he said. “While I’m not going to criticise the fact that Hezbollah has been identified as a terrorist organisation, I only point out that it will have very little effect on the group itself.”
Hezbollah says it will not be intimidated
In the run-up to Monday’s agreement, Lebanon officially asked Brussels not to blacklist Hezbollah last week, noting that the Shiite militant group was an "essential component of Lebanese society”.
Senior Hezbollah leaders have maintained that the group will not be intimidated by European threats and cannot be isolated.
“The Lebanese government’s position has been that this move should not take place,” noted Fielder.
“But Lebanon is a divided country – especially since the Syrian crisis just across the border. We can expect to see very strident reactions from Hezbollah and its allies, which is a very powerful bloc within Lebanon’s political structure. But we can also expect a lot of praise, a lot of support from its [Hezbollah’s] critics in Lebanon who support the Syrian uprising and the Syrian opposition.”
But that has sparked fears that the EU’s blacklisting could “feed into the divisions in Lebanon and add to the tensions that are already sky high here,” Fielder added.
Amid concerns that blacklisting Hezbollah could destabilise Lebanon, European foreign ministers have stressed that the EU will maintain its political and economic links with Lebanon.
Addressing some of these fears ahead of Monday’s meeting, Britain’s Foreign Minister William Hague said the blacklisting would not “destabilise Lebanon or have serious adverse consequences” on the EU’s dealings in the region. “It is important for us to show that we are united and strong in facing terrorism,'' said Hague.
Date created : 2013-07-22